I was a keen conceptual geologist. I worked with inspiring people in Greenland trying to understand the nature of the earth at its beginning. I loved building models to explain and predict things—and still do now. Artists don’t have a monopoly on imagination. But I was then, as I am now, a realist, and Britain in the 1970s was losing the luxury of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, so I applied to Shell for a job on their international staff. In those days, the selection process for such a post was exceptionally rigorous. They were looking for people with what they called “helicopter quality”. It was 1975. I had 24 interviews.
In one, that included my wife, we were asked whether we would “drink South African sherry”. These were the days of Apartheid and protesting youth—political correctness had not been massaged into the population! Shell was still in its “colonial phase”, and was measuring cultural tolerance with a trick question. I passed the test, mainly out of innocence, but unbeknown to me it was useful preparation for what was to follow.
The 10 years with Shell gave me the best technical apprenticeship in the industry at that time. Anyone wishing to make an impact in the oil and gas business must develop the skill of communicating with technocrats. But there was a catch: An unspoken condition of employment that you ‘did what you were told and in return Shell provided you with a life’.
After six months in The Hague, my family was grass widowed—sent back to the home base country—and I was despatched as the company representative to oversee the first drilling offshore North Yemen and then, in full view of the Tigrayan Liberation Army, offshore Ethiopia. In nine months, I saw my family three times. I never questioned it; I was becoming a neo-colonial—part of the Shell Army.
Maybe as a reward, I was sent to Japan in 1977. That changed my life. It was then, and remains now, a place of alarming contrast for a Westerner. Either you were fascinated by it, as I was, or you retreated, as many did for three years into the American Club in Tokyo.
Postings to Oman and Tunisia followed but there came a time when my ideas about my plans and Shell’s began to diverge. In 1984, I quit and did what few had done then, but many have subsequently: Transferred to a rival, in this case BP.
BP welcomed me in as a manager. I was fortunate; I was given three very challenging jobs. In Norway in 1989, I found myself model-building again, but this time focusing on the psychology of project problem solving, an area few wish to discuss openly and even fewer professionally analyse. But this was a bad time for BP; it had reached the geriatric stage and was entering into survival mode. There was no time for innovation from a ‘blow-in’.
I had reached the seminal moment in my business life. I didn’t want to be diverted into some indirect role, however well remunerated. I wanted to carry on doing what I enjoyed: Finding and producing oil and gas but also something else. The modelling and conceptual thinking of my student days had become refocussed to an equally challenging puzzle: How to make problem solving organisations work better.
It was a desperate time for everyone as the company contracted and a new order established itself. I learnt a big lesson then: “If you’re ill, don’t wait for the ‘doctors’ to help—do something about it yourself; it’s your life.” Someone told me to read Shakespeare—it had most of the diagnoses.
From my comfortable office in BP’s international HQ in west London, I sent a hagaki—a postcard in Japanese—to my old boss in Japan outlining the situation. He came back with a succinct reply and two company names. I eventually met, in a central London hotel, the chairman of one of those companies, a wonderfully imaginative and inspiring man called Kikuo Yamada. There was an instant bond between us—he had a vision and wanted me to be part of it. I took a taxi down the M4 motorway, back to Stockley Park and resigned, with little thought about pensions or share options.
That was 1993. What was it that made me give up the status and security of a Western corporation for the uncertainty of a newly-formed, Far Eastern, international oil and gas business? The answer was simple: Opportunity. Not financial—I have never been convinced that accumulating money as the main goal was worth much effort—but the opportunity to make a long-term impact: To say at 60, “I shaped something.”
I learnt a lot about myself in those early years after the change. When you come out of corporate life you are a child, albeit with a very specific skill. I didn’t know what an ATM was! I’d never done a tax return. I knew nothing about computing and my knowledge of my own industry was horribly compartmentalised. Suddenly, you’re thrown back on your own resources and you learn to measure the amount of risk you’re comfortable living with. Discovering how channelled I had become by corporate life and how much I had to learn was a shock—a great shock! But there was also a chance to think about all the assumptions and relationships in my life. A lot goes unaddressed when you are corporately cocooned for 18 years. I realised that I was a sort of closet entrepreneur, trying to survive in a corporate framework. I even discovered the condition had a name, intrapreneurship.