Article: Shell's Michelle Yong on change and change management

Strategic HR

Shell's Michelle Yong on change and change management

There's planned change, and there's disruptive change. In both cases, leadership makes the most difference. Talent scout and HR strategist Michelle Yong from Shell Malaysia goes into detail on how and why.
Shell's Michelle Yong on change and change management

The year is coming to an end, and it's time to look ahead and prepare 2023 plans. But most plans involve some degree of change, especially in disrupted times like these. What can we do to better manage and direct upcoming changes for organisations and people?

People Matters asked talent acquisition expert Michelle Yong, Head of Resourcing at Shell, to share some thoughts and tips on change management. Here's her advice in advance of 2023.

For some context, what kinds of change might leaders find themselves facing?

To broadly categorise the types of changes an organisation might go through: firstly, there are planned changes, such as changing the business model, or mergers and acquisitions, or implementing new technology. What triggers the change may be disruptive, but the organisation ultimately controls the decision to change and how to plan and implement it.

The other type of change is disruptive change. That might be political, like the war in Ukraine, or COVID-19. It might even be an indirect impact, such as China's zero-COVID policy impacting the supply chain and creating a shortage in items like semiconductors that are central to a business model.

When it comes to disruptive or unplanned change, is there a point where leaders need to step in and actively manage the change, rather than letting it resolve itself?

There are three points to consider. One, if it affects the well-being and the performance of our employees. If employees' well-being is not taken care of, they will not perform well, they may disengage, there may be a high attrition rate.

Two, if it influences or has an impact on the organisation's business sustainability. That includes ESG, which I believe is an area that requires intensive attention, or reputation, because if your reputation is affected, your customer base changes.

Three, if it affects the bottom line. Any change that affects the business bottom line definitely needs attention. And this actually encompasses the other two points, because at the end of the day, anything and everything affects the bottom line.

Does change management call for a particular strategy or framework?

We do tend to over-engineer change if it is major, but that is because it's important to have a structured approach to manage change, whether planned or unplanned. Such a structured approach allows an organisation to be a little bit more agile and adaptive – to be more ready to face and handle change. It could be a simple framework like a business continuity plan or something more extensive.

In the same way, having some form of change expertise in an organisation is important. That might involve hard skills for the technical implementation, or soft skills for the people management.

Either way, the question we need to answer is: do we have the right skills in place or the right framework in place for when change happens?

Can we ensure that critical operations remain sustainable at a certain capacity? For example, if a flood happens, we will activate a business continuity plan. How do we mobilise or operationalise that from today's operating model – do we move our operating centre to another location, do we temporarily outsource it to a third party, or is there yet another approach? These are very simple examples, but they show how business continuity plans and risk management cadences involve change management.

Ultimately I think the core most important thing about change management is how to make sure the people who are impacted by the change are also motivated to embrace it. It's not just about being ready, it's also about being sufficiently inspired and motivated to not just adapt to change, but also bring change.

The motivation aspect sounds particularly tricky. Any tips on driving motivation for those who need it?

The first step is to understand the kind of culture we want to establish in an organisation. It's not just being resilient to change, but also being in the forefront of change, creating change. I am personally a strong advocate of a psychology concept called adaptive performance. Put into practice, this concept means that 50-60% of your strategy or approach is planned, and the rest can be adjusted on the go to meet the needs that emerge along the way.

In the workplace context, adaptive performance is about creating rules in your work, where you allow employees to train their muscles for creating things, resolving things, troubleshooting, executing processes – but without becoming so rigid with those rules that you restrict their ability to perform. In innovation-focused companies like Google or startups, ideation or creativity becomes a core value and those are a form of adaptive performance.

In terms of culture, this is about creating an environment where anyone can give suggestions or make changes, as long as it means an improvement for the organisation. The moment you create a way for people to share their ideas and opinions more frequently, that is when they will begin to adjust to change. This environment does have its weaknesses – it can be exhausting, and dealing with it can require training – but creating it can be very simple, involving behavioural conditioning to make people respond in a more open-minded manner to positive change.

Leadership capability seems to play a very large role here – how can leaders be prepared for taking up such a responsibility?

We first want to understand the role of leadership. It's about being able to provide a balanced expression of ability and authenticity, admitting that we do not know exactly how to achieve our endgame and some trial and error may be required – saying that “I do not know what I do not know”. That gives confidence to others to say the same thing.

Another aspect is commitment and conviction, and being able to say “I believe that we'll be able to learn what it takes to move towards that direction”. That's powerful.

And then there is the need to unlearn the things that may not help us today. As the saying goes, what gets me here today won't get me there tomorrow.

A lot of leadership capability is less of knowing fixed information, and more of having a vision and then experimenting with the team to get the solution.

And today, there is a lot of emphasis on purpose. If you want to inspire, you first start off with purpose. The pandemic has also accelerated the need for us to really care for our people, to demonstrate empathy, and to be relatable. That style of leadership has taken the place of the good old Jack Welch model.

So, what can HR do to help?

The first thing is to acknowledge that there's no one set rule of how it can be done, because every organisation is at a different level of maturity. You can't expect the same approach to work for a startup and a Fortune 500 heavyweight.

But what HR can do is to review your core values and your leadership framework to incorporate the growth mindset and the adaptive performance concept. That core culture needs to be there as a baseline fundamental. And then the leadership pillar needs to include setting minimum standards, changing conversations, maybe even helping them to develop a leadership conversation script, training them to break down the barriers.

Sometimes putting them on the other side of the table is helpful. Have them listen to conversations and look at speeches, and ask: if you were the staff member receiving this, how would you like to hear it? What would you like to believe? How would you like to be led? What will it take to bring you to that tipping point where you decide to follow this leadership? That's how HR can prepare the leaders.

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Topics: Strategic HR, #ChangeManagement

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