Detecting the energy to fuel global business: Interview with Helmut Schuster, HRD at BP

Written by
Mary Appleton

04 Feb 2015

04 Feb 2015 • by Mary Appleton

Beginnings at BP

When Helmut Schuster spotted a vacancy in BP’s personnel department in Weiner Neudorf, Austria, he did not foresee becoming group HR director at one of the world’s biggest oil companies.

During a career which has seen him take on roles in marketing, HR and operations, Schuster now oversees the HR strategy for 83,900 employees working across 80 countries. Together with 10 senior colleagues, he is a member of BP’s executive team.

He is driven by working in a fast-paced industry and likens the role of HR professional to that of a product manager: “Find the right products for internal and external clients, make them user-friendly and intuitive and you’ll have a successful HR function,” he says.

Identifying intrinsic drive

At the heart of Schuster’s work lie three key goals: to get the best talent on board, to develop social competence alongside skills and experience and to unearth what he terms as an ‘intrinsic drive’ among all employees – an attribute he is keen to push within BP.

“I deeply admire ethical people with strong values,” he explains. “I want people who work for BP to be motivated not only for their own good but for the good of the company and society at large.”

Schuster is concerned that a rise in online technology and social media has resulted in less emphasis on personal interaction. “At the other end of the phone or Facebook page, there’s another human being. In a large corporation, ensuring people talk to each other is so important,” he says.

“Usually when things go wrong, it’s because people’s ability to communicate is not as sophisticated as their technical skills.”

External v. internal hires

Three years into the role, it is developing the organisation’s ability to identify people with an intrinsic desire to go the extra mile that fuels Schuster’s passion for his work. And for a company that hires about 10,000 people annually, this is a huge task.

“Get your hiring right and everything flows from there,” he says. “If you hire people who are inclusive and respectful, you can eliminate so many HR issues.”

For Schuster, a large company with a strong brand will never have a problem attracting quality talent, but he believes the task of HR is to ask: ‘How can we become better at predicting whether this person is a good fit?’

Schuster explains that as heavy external hiring can feel risky in terms of developing loyalty, BP has focused on building the skills of existing employees in recent years.

“In our industry, a build model is key,” says Schuster. “It takes a long time from exploration success to getting oil from the ground. If we identify people early in their careers, it’s easier to develop loyalty, increase their understanding of our business and produce a sustainable talent pipeline.”

He also recognises the need to consider talent on a global basis. In 2013, BP aimed to recruit 40% of its graduates from outside the UK and the US – it beat this target by 4%.

In the same year, more than a fifth (22%) of group leaders came from other regions, up from 14% in 2000. Where necessary, BP will reach out to external talent pools. But for Schuster, developing global graduates is essential to enable a consistent approach.

Developing future leaders

“People say the next generation wants to be a ‘butterfly’ and work for lots of different companies – I don’t see that,” Schuster comments. “If you give people great opportunities they will stay with you.”

While the next generation might be looking for a portfolio of jobs across different locations and increased intellectual stimuli, the challenge for organisations is to offer meaningful talent programmes.

BP’s three-year graduate scheme trains participants on the principles of continuous improvement. Meanwhile, its Future Leaders programme is open to candidates with aspirations and a flexible outlook to work anywhere in the world. They can also be mentored by senior leaders.

Schuster explains that BP focuses on supporting people during moments of transition – the key ‘risk points’ – by addressing questions such as: ‘What does a leader need when they become accountable for other people? What does it mean when you get to middle management and how do you reach senior ranks?’

Engineering young careers

On a macro level, Schuster is disappointed by the lack of people choosing STEM careers (using science, technology, engineering or maths) and puts this down to a ‘fundamental problem’ that society is failing to inform people of the consequences of their choices.

“We need to do more to educate the next generation about what it means to work in a large oil company,” he says, adding that people have an outdated perception of engineering, preferring ‘more exciting’ technology companies. “There’s a lack of awareness – the technology we apply is amazing,” he adds.

And while Schuster emphasises the importance of engineering skills within BP, he is keen to point out the breadth of commercial opportunities available – for example in downstream marketing and trading – which do not require STEM qualifications.

Yet this brings its own set of frustrations from a recruitment perspective. With other sectors fishing not only in the same talent pools but the same geographical locations, competition increases. However, Schuster is adamant that the onus then falls on organisations to “stop looking at universities in an isolated way” and reach out to those in locations such as India and China. BP interacts with schools through a variety of programmes, which for Schuster, signals a long-term pillar of engagement with society. “It’s in our DNA to work with schools and has been throughout my career here – it’s so important to think about your future workforce.”

Shifting demographics - the big crew change

So what is Schuster’s view on the apparent diminishing supply of younger oil and gas specialists in tandem with the mass exodus of older, retiring workers, commonly referred to in the industry as ‘the big crew change’?

“When this idea surfaced years ago, we were all concerned. But as a business leader you always need to think about the continuous renewal of your organisation and have a succession plan in place,” he says.

He argues that the next 10 years will look very different to the past 10 and he puts this down to changing workforce demographics – in part due to retirement ages increasing – while remaining pragmatic about the agenda. “As an oil company, our business is predominantly in non-Western countries where there are different demographics. Brazil, for example, has one of the youngest populations in the world.

“Often, our thinking on these matters is heavily influenced by Western press – when you are a global company you realise the world is a big place,” he adds.

Embedding global consistency

Having a global outlook is crucial for Schuster when it comes to embedding people strategy. Most Western companies, he argues, do not have the diversity in their workforces (HR teams and executive teams) to represent the global nature of their business.

He believes his role is to ensure there is consistency across hundreds of offices around the world, while giving countries the ‘space to do their work’.

“As an HR team, we provide policy and process to reduce risk and have consistent methodology for people entering the company, wherever they are based. Equally, it’s important not to create extra work or redundant processes – consistency drives efficiency,” he explains.

Linking reward & values

Part of the approach is centred around embedding core values and the behaviour that reflects them. This is crucial for Schuster, to “get the balance right between functional and interpersonal skills.”

The company values – safety, respect, excellence, courage and ‘one team’ – form a key part of BP’s recruitment, promotion and performance processes, and Schuster reveals people are often surprised at how much emphasis is placed on them.

In 2012, the company reformed its reward mechanism to be calculated on an assessment of the performance of the employee, their business or function team and the entire company rather than predominantly on individuals. The aim was to build a system that reflects the importance of teamwork and long-term thinking, as well as annual performance, explains Schuster.

“We didn’t have the reward mechanisms in place to make people think about how they could continuously improve over time. So we spent a lot of time thinking about what we stand for as a company and discussing the right way to reward our people. We all agreed that it should be about more than yearly performance,” he says.

While many BP employees stay with the organisation for many years and rightly expect support in the form of professional development and financial reward, Schuster believes that employees should see themselves as long-term stewards of the company and its assets.

“This is a long-term industry and it’s important to represent that,” he says. “The performance model acknowledges an individual’s short-term performance, while making sure long-term issues like safety and risk management are reflected in the way we do business.”

BP also runs programmes to reward employees for displaying its values. In 2013, it recognised its ‘Ads to Bags’ project – which turns vinyl advertising billboards in South Africa into schoolbags and pencil cases for children – as a winner in its long-running ‘Helios awards’ competition.

Over recent years, the vast majority of respondents to the company’s annual employee survey have said they are prepared to go the extra mile for BP. Schuster believes this is particularly encouraging in light of the reputational damage of the Deepwater Horizon incident in 2010.

Schuster is clear senior leaders must exemplify behaviours aligned with company values. “If you don’t walk the talk, nothing will happen. You can’t preach respect and then yell at people.”

Creating modern HR

The challenge for HR teams, he suggests, is to become more modern – using simple processes underpinned by technology and supported by robust data, which he believes will go a long way towards improving HR’s credibility within the business. “With executive boards, there’s no language more powerful than numbers,” he says.

For the past three years, Schuster and his team have provided monthly HR updates to the executive team which he describes as a ‘simple one-page document with metrics aligned to the business plan and strategy’. Being clear what ‘good’ looks like and informing your opinion with data is very powerful, he argues.

BP is building capability within HR. “The demands placed on HR in 2014 have changed since the 1990s,” explains Schuster, adding that many people join the function with unrealistic expectations. “An HR professional is a business person who happens to have a specific remit for people,” he says, arguing that this is the mindset change needed for HR to make headway in the agenda.

However, from a practical perspective, he is keen to point out the power in keeping the status quo. “HR often talks about being a change agent – I only partly agree with that,” he says. “If you are a responsible HR person, you need to be clear on what works and try to preserve things that are done well.” As Schuster sees it, to adopt and embed behaviours and learning takes ‘at least’ two or three years.

“If you change all the time, you will not get to a stage of operational excellence,” he warns. When HR does need to facilitate change, you need to be clear where there’s a gap between where you are and where you should be. “We used to change things frequently at BP – when I started the [group HRD] job there were things I wanted to keep the same,” he reveals.

Into the future

Within BP, ultimately Schuster wants to create a self-confident HR team that feels empowered to support the business and lead in certain areas such as helping to build a modern organisation, being technologically savvy, and driving simple and efficient HR processes.

From a people perspective, he hopes BP will continue to offer a balance between direction and rigour, while still allowing space for individuals to develop.

“BP people help each other be successful, they care about and try to support different ways of thinking,” he explains. “We offer a unique combination of opportunity, community and excitement, and I’m extremely proud of that.”