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Cultivating moments of insight
Neuroscience is helping to enhance the effectiveness of executive coaching. Can it also provide lessons for the way in which technical consultants interact with refiners? Sally Martin, Vice President of Commercial Services, Shell Global Solutions, talks to Impact about her thoughts.
Recent advances in neuroscience have illuminated what occurs in the human brain as business professionals sort, prioritise and act on large quantities of information; respond to challenges; and develop strategies in pressurised situations.
Increasingly, executives are leveraging this science to perform better in their roles.1
For instance, Sheena Porter, Director and Executive Coach of the Oxford Group2, acknowledges that much of the executive coaching that her company delivers is informed by neuroscience.
“We do not claim to be experts in neuroscience: we are business coaches.
But because we are interested in getting the best possible results for our clients, some of the recent key findings affect what we do,” she says.
“Over the last few years, technologies such as magnetic resonance imaging have been able to show us what goes on in the brain.
We can actually see bursts of brain activity just before a moment of insight – all the lights come on.
This is when the physical connections, or synapses, are created that enhance our mental processes.
So what we have been doing in the coaching arena is asking how we can most effectively help our clients to create their own moments of insight,” says Porter.
Executive coaching is typically a one-to-one partnership between the coach and the client.
It is very much driven by a client’s needs and is often targeted to overcome the specific barriers and challenges the client is encountering.
Porter describes one way in which neuroscience has shaped the way she delivers her coaching.
“Research has shown that the mental act of focusing attention stabilises the brain circuits,” she explains.
“It keeps the brain circuitry open and alive, and creates a good foundation for new circuitry to develop.
The act of focusing creates a chemical change in the brain and a physical one by building foundations for new connections or reinforcing and strengthening existing ones.”
Porter’s coaches use a variety of means to create focus, in particular, by helping coachees to create personalised scorecards with clearly defined priority areas.
Additionally, other research suggests that talent develops from choosing what you want to be good at and then repeatedly practicing it.3
“A key way in which the brain changes is through repetition, and positive feedback from others can help to sustain deliberate good practice and improvements.
So we are building on these principles and creating situations that are designed to help enhance and embed our coachees’ learning,” she adds.
Sally Martin, Vice President of Commercial Services, Shell Global Solutions, says there are compelling parallels between the one-to-one coaching that an individual executive might receive and the technical consultancy that Shell Global Solutions delivers.
“The advantage of someone coming in from the outside, whether they are a coach or a consultant, is that they see things differently to someone who is actually in the situation.”
Unlocking a better understanding of what is
really happening within that business is the first
step to making it more effective.
She continues, “When we engage with a refinery management team as they evaluate their options for,
for example, processing a wider range of crude oils or enhancing their yield of high-value products,
the information we have about how other refiners have successfully responded to similar challenges provides us with a knowledge base of best practices that the management team might not have.”
Martin, in fact, has a special perspective on this, as she has been a recipient of executive coaching and is a manager who coaches her team and a keen proponent of talent development.
“When I was receiving executive coaching with the Oxford Group,
the coach did not get mired down with the intricate and complex details of the challenges that I was grappling with,” she recalls.
“Instead, she asked very shrewd, objective questions and, in doing so, helped me to realise what I needed to do differently to become more effective.
She did not tell me what I needed to do; she helped me to create my own moments of insight.
“That is similar to what we do at Shell Global Solutions during the scouting and front-end-development phases of a refinery project,” she continues.
“We will work with the refinery management team to identify and clarify the challenge.
We believe that it is crucial that we do this before beginning to develop technical solutions.
This often leads to ‘light-bulb’ moments whereby a refinery leadership team recognises the steps that they can take to achieve their business objectives more effectively.
“We cannot make decisions for our customers, but what we can do is shine a light on the things that could be considered,” she affirms.
“My coach led me towards insights that I just did not see because I was so deep in the situation that I lost perspective and objectivity.
So, there are clear parallels between executive coaching and the work that we do with our customers.”
Porter’s objective is to embed learning effectively in a one-to-one situation, and she is always looking out for new ways in which she can help coachees to develop new connections in the brain.
Martin’s objective is actually very similar.
She is searching for ways to improve the learning that happens when Shell Global Solutions engages with a refinery management team.
The neuroscience hypotheses that Porter talks about can, to a certain extent, be scaled up to the enterprise level, Martin believes.
Neuroscience is revealing how the brain works, which, in turn, is helping individuals to understand themselves better and to realise what they need to do to change their behaviour or their approach.
Similarly, when Shell Global Solutions works with refiners, its subject matter experts and consultants also seek a deeper level of understanding about the refinery: how it is performing, what its long-term objectives are, how the external environment is shaping its decisions and performance, etc.
“Sometimes a refinery management team knows that it could perform better, but does not know exactly how to achieve it,” says Martin.
“Unlocking a better understanding of what is really happening within that business is the first step to making it more effective.”
For instance, Shell Global Solutions recently engaged with a European refiner that was planning to build a mild hydrocracker complex to process a mix of medium and heavy vacuum gas oil, and also to hydrotreat the gas oil from a crude distiller.
Like many other facilities, the refiner planned to achieve this through two separate standard designs.
Shell Global Solutions could have responded to this request.
However, by asking the right questions and assessing the refiner’s emphasis, Shell Global Solutions identified that capital was a major issue.
Moreover, further probing revealed that the management team was open to unconventional solutions.
As a result, a combined team of the client’s senior personnel and staff from Shell Global Solutions devised an innovative solution: an integrated reactor section that would squeeze down the capital cost.
The hydrodesulphurisation reactor and the hydrocracking reactor were combined with a common separation, compression and fractionation section.
Because the customer only needed one unit instead of two, the capital cost was significantly lower.
Martin reflects that, in the same way that it is difficult to see what is happening inside the brain, it can also be difficult for a third party to truly understand the refiner’s business situation, pressures and objectives.
Nevertheless, this is crucial for the relationship to deliver value.
“Experience shows that when Shell Global Solutions can achieve a deeper understanding of what is going on within the refinery from the point of view of performance and also its aims and objectives, this can be as useful to the project as neuroscience can be to an executive coach,” Martin concludes.
1- “SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others”, Rock, D., 2008 (www.scarf360.com/files/scarf-neuroleadershiparticle.pdf)
3- The Cambridge handbook of expertise and expert performance, K. A. Ericsson, N. Charness, R. R. Hoffman and P. J. Feltovich (eds), Cambridge University Press (2006)
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