How Shell Built a Blended Learning Program that Helped Maximize their Leaders' Potential


Royal Dutch Shell (Shell) is a global group of energy and petrochemical companies with over 92,000 employees and (U.S.) $233.6 billion in revenue in 2016. Its operations are divided into Upstream, Integrated Gas and New Energies, Downstream, and Projects & Technology. Shell’s strategy is to deliver a world class investment case, with a strong licence to operate, and rather than being part of an evolving industry, Shell aims to lead it.

Shell has taken important steps to reshape the company and set a clear course to become the world’s most competitive energy provider, while maintaining the largest value share among competitors. Shell’s refreshed purpose—powering progress together by delivering more and cleaner energy—is a compelling call to action for its leaders to deliver on this aspiration. Achieving this will require Shell’s leaders to engage and motivate their people to be their best.

This case study represents Shell's submission for i4cp's Next Practice Awards. The winners will be announced in March and will share more detail on stage at the   i4cp 2018 Conference: Next Practices Now  (March 26 - 29 in Scottsdale, Arizona). 

Business Challenge

Shell’s aspiration to lead the evolving energy industry means there is greater need for leaders to deliver safety, innovation and peak performance through their people. External research shows how strong engagement is the key to unlocking discretionary employee effort to deliver top performance. Internal analysis of Shell’s annual employee engagement survey backs this up. It showed a positive correlation between strong employee engagement and improved business and safety performance. The survey also indicated a gap to industry benchmarked top quartile team leadership performance for a portion of Shell’s leaders. 

Year-over-year analysis of team leadership scores shows that bottom quartile scores are often repetitive. This represents untapped potential in Shell to get the best performance from employees. The company has a large portion of top quartile leaders, however, to be a world class investment, they need world class engagement across the board. Shell consistently achieving top quartile employee engagement may lead to a 20% reduction in accidents and a 5% increase in financial performance.

A review of Shell’s existing leadership development curriculum revealed a more impactful and expedient approach could be taken to equip leaders to meet the challenges they face. There was opportunity to drastically reduce the 18-month long programs offered while leveraging active skills development and practical application in and out of the classroom.


The goal was to equip leaders with the skills and confidence to engage with their people to secure a sustainable commitment to extraordinary performance. Design and development of the solution was undertaken by a consortium of internal and external expertise comprised of Shell’s leadership development team, established business leaders, HR analytics, talent, diversity & inclusion, performance, safety, continuous improvement and Shell’s external training partner, Hemsley Fraser. Diversity of thought, a shared mandate and true passion for improving capability enabled an aligned and enduring set of beliefs and design principles that shaped the solution:

The first is a belief that great leadership is not a rare, innate gift, but rather can be learned through practice, courage, determination and the humility to make and to learn from mistakes.

The second is that the what and the how of leadership both matter. When leaders focus on the what, they help people connect to the business results that prove their organization to be a world class investment case.

When leaders focus on the how, they create an inclusive environment—a psychological safety necessary for people to exert discretionary effort, do things differently and show the resilience to bounce back when things go wrong.

The third is confidence to go back to basics—recognizing that leaders at all levels often want to dedicate themselves to improving a few core skills. For some, this is sharpening what they’ve learned in the past. For others, it’s about filling in the gaps in their development journeys.

These beliefs formed the basis of the solution, LEAD (Leading to Engage and Deliver), a five-month blended learning program with a core purpose to enable leaders to lead themselves, lead others, and lead the business to deliver greater performance and safety through top quartile engagement.

Over the five months, leaders take part in immersive experiences, facilitated workshops, and peer-to-peer coaching, supported by digital resources and virtual learning. The program includes 360 feedback and reinforces direct line manager support through on-going coaching and the co-creation of a development plan to identify and track progress.

Shell Next Practices Award

LEAD focuses on building leader capability in eight core skills areas—the basics of leadership:

  • Self awareness: Lead with purpose, recognizing strengths and limitations, and adapting to different circumstances ensuring people feel cared for, engaged, and motivated.
  • Inclusive leadership: Unlock the potential of diverse teams by building common ground, lifting people up and creating clarity. 
  • Coaching: Deep listening and helpful questioning techniques enabling people and teams to be more self-sufficient in problem solving and stretching their capability. 
  • Managing performance: Develop clarity on how teams add business value while providing support and recognition and managing underperformance. 
  • Feedback & enabling conversations: Provide positive reinforcement that unlocks potential and confront unhelpful behaviours and situations without delay. Drive performance through meaningful conversations in a range of situations. 
  • Selection: Identify and mitigate the impact of personal bias in interviewing, appraisal, and promotion. 
  • Resilience: Show care for self and others and take care of physical and emotional wellbeing. 
  • High-performing teams: Create a culture of continuous improvement leading to enhanced productivity and commercial value.

The success of LEAD is how curiosity for learning is maintained outside the classroom. The approach differs from traditional, often passive forms of learning that don’t always inspire leaders to act in engaging ways. Instead, in-role development activities were designed to help leaders define their deliberate development intentions—starting each day with a specific development goal and staying alert to opportunities to practice new skills or a different approach. The aim is not to overwhelm leaders with theory but instead to create a simple and immediate context for development.

Peer coaching is another important component. Leaders re-connect with peers regularly as they travel through LEAD together. There are forums to share real-time leadership challenges and receive help, challenge, and support one another. It’s a short Skype meeting leaders schedule at a suitable time, connecting about every three weeks. The bigger prize for the business is that leaders establish trusted professional networks serving as a useful development resource beyond the formal program.

The journey from concept to roll out took six months. After engaging with global business stakeholders, the team developed a high-level design, shaped and validated by a senior sponsor group with representation and commitment at the executive level.

A detailed design followed and was pressure tested through a dry-run and continuous improvement event. This provided the opportunity to challenge assumptions and hear diverse points of view from both sponsors and representatives of the target leadership population.

As the final design was being made ready for pilot and roll out in four locations in Europe, Asia and the Americas, Hemsley Fraser set about accrediting and operationalizing the global faculty. This process was accelerated via a digital faculty hub, a central platform for sharing core program materials and details of the global people initiatives that matter to Shell’s workforce. It was imperative the faculty, chosen for their credibility in leadership development, cross-cultural acumen and sector experience, had immersed themselves in Shell’s culture and context to derive full value from the strategic partnership.


LEAD launched in April 2017. As of December 2017, over 2,680 leaders participated, rating the program 4.4 out of 5 for impact and delivery. In scaling up the program to meet demand, 35 Hemsley Fraser and Shell faculty members were accredited in the first six months to deliver globally. In 2017 there were 361 days of facilitated workshop learning, delivered in 27 locations worldwide and 44 days of virtual facilitation have taken place and they are scaling up to deliver LEAD to over 4,000 participants in 2018.

Qualitative evidence collected from participants, their line managers, and their teams demonstrates the positive impacts of LEAD. Data gleaned from questionnaires and interviews indicate improved leader efficacy and team engagement. Impact is noted across all skill-building areas of the program and most notably in performance coaching. Leaders and teams alike report a refreshed focus on both personal and business goals enabled via skilful coaching conversations.   

Metrics on bottom-line safety and business performance will be tracked closely in 2018 and onward. It is anticipated that Shell will see all leaders consistently meeting top quartile team leadership benchmarks, having a direct impact on improved safety and bottom-line business performance.


The development and deployment of LEAD tested assumptions about leadership development. What has become apparent in the delivery of the program is the concepts and methodology used in LEAD have shown to be relevant for junior to very senior levels. The strong design means that custom programming is not required across different job levels.

What does differ depending on seniority is the complexity and context of the challenges leaders encounter in their work, requiring adjustments to the level of challenge incorporated in to respective programs. In short, LEAD is scalable across a broad range of job levels.  After successfully piloting LEAD with senior leaders in late 2017, Shell is exploring piloting the program at the senior executive level.

LEAD is helping Shell to reinvent leadership development, to ensure leaders at all levels can develop and build capability both in themselves and their teams which in turn will drive engagement, and improve business and safety outcomes.

Erik Samdahl
Erik is the head of marketing at i4cp, and has nearly 20 years in the market research and human capital research industry.