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Roderik Colen, Strategy and Portfolio Manager

"At Shell your background is not as important as your attitude and way of thinking."

When introducing new ideas in any major organisation, timing is of the utmost importance, something Roderik Colen, Strategy and Portfolio Manager for Projects and Technology, is all too aware of. His work at Shell is devoted to developing a unified approach to large projects and technology. “The art is in choosing the right moment to start a discussion of this type,” he says.

The way that children explore their environment, constantly wanting to know how things work is something that inspires Roderik Colen. “As I see it, it is only natural that you should continue to take courses throughout your professional life, even if you are very experienced at what you do,” he says. “You need to be willing to continue to learn and develop as a person, and as an employee.”

It’s a view that he adheres to in his role as Strategy and Portfolio Manager at Shell Projects and Technology Rijswijk (SPTR). He encourages people to take a fresh look at the work they do and the decisions they take. Together with his department, he wants to develop a new overall plan for all major projects and technologies in Shell: a sort of company-wide ‘guide to success’.

“Over the last three years, we in P&T – an organisation of more than 12,000 people – have been responsible for a wide variety of activities,” Roderik explains. “These range from the technology we use for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico to the composition of lubrication oil in Germany, to the construction of a floating LNG ship in Asia and everything else in between.

” Until 2009, various departments were responsible for these activities, which meant that the approach was highly varied. “Now, we are developing one coherent plan for all these parts of the business, however dissimilar they may be.”

The big picture

But, that is no easy task, something Roderik is well aware of. In his role he has to look beyond the day-to-day concerns, deal with every department of the organisation, and speak to people from different disciplines and at different levels, from directors to engineers to financial staff. “It is true to say that people are not waiting for me to drop by,” he admits.

“People are, of course, first and foremost preoccupied with their own work. Timing is therefore extremely important in what I do. You cannot ask someone who has just joined the central finance team ‘what are you going to do to help other departments develop their strategy?’ Someone who has recently joined has to first get settled in their own area of the organisation. But a few months later, they may be able to provide general input.”

Varied career

Roderik studied chemistry in Leiden and has led a varied career at Shell so far. He joined the company in 1998, first working in the technology department in Thornton, near Chester, but soon after began a role as an internal Business Development Consultant, which involved worldwide travel. Before taking over his present role, he was Supply Manager in Europe and Africa. “Although I hold a doctorate in chemistry, I wasn’t really cut out to spend all my time studying test tubes,” he explains. “Working with people is something I have always wanted to do.”

“When I decided to study chemistry, I deliberately did not apply to Delft University of Technology because most of the courses there are intended for engineers,” he says. “I thought it would be more interesting to meet students from completely different disciplines; languages and the humanities, for example. That’s why I applied to Leiden University.” A career at Shell was the logical next step.

“Shell employs people who have studied the classics, for example, and who, at first sight, would appear to have no affinity with oil. At Shell your background is not as important as your attitude and way of thinking. I think this is one of the strengths of the company.”

Open to ideas

In his job Roderik encounters many different points of view and ideas. That doesn’t put him off. “I’m not someone who always tries to get their own way,” he says. “On the contrary, I ask a lot of questions and don’t pretend to have all the answers.

” To keep track of each point of view, he regularly organises working groups and brainstorming sessions with senior managers, in which the questions raised are extremely varied: “When is Shell most successful as a company? In what percentage of projects and wells should we be performing in the top quartile? And, how should we deal with costs: how can we be efficient without making concessions to quality?”

In each instance however, he emphasises that consultation and flexibility are imperative. “If the director were to say, for example, ‘I think that all the walls in the Shell building should be yellow’, then I sit down with the people who would rather have a blue wall to find out why. And then it is quite likely that in the end we will all decide on green instead.”

Open to other points of view

He admits that this means change can sometimes take time in Shell, but in his view, this is not a disadvantage. “As a company we don’t concern ourselves with passing fads, and we don’t need to.” As an example, he points to the recent focus on recovering gas. “That was a highly strategic decision which fits with the times and gradually came about through consultation. It is extremely important to keep listening to one another,” he says.

Being open to other points of view is something Roderik learnt while living in other countries such as China, where he worked in Shell’s Beijing office; one of a number of worldwide locations he’s worked in. “If you don’t understand one another in terms of either language or culture, then you naturally start to pay more attention to what the other person means. I have learnt a lot from that,” he says, although admits. “Some people might still see me as a rather blunt Dutchman.”

To conclude, Roderik discusses Shell’s future: “Ultimately we need to have a clear picture of where we want to be as a company in the future, and how we intend to get from A to B. But because the dynamics are constantly changing, the journey essentially never ends”.

 ‘It is only natural that you should continue to take courses throughout your professional life.’

‘At Shell your background is not as important as your attitude and way of thinking.’

‘I want to work with people to create a road map for success.’

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