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Inspiring Business Women: Sri Rangan

Haley Fountain had the opportunity to sit down with Sri Rangan from Shell and chat about career progression, managing global teams, diversity within the energy industry, and more. Her refreshing perspective has shown me that we need to focus less on diversity from a demographic perspective, and more on diversity of thought. I think you'll enjoy this one!

We had the opportunity to sit down with Sri Rangan from Shell and chat about career progression, managing global teams, diversity within the energy industry, and more. Her refreshing perspective has shown me that we need to focus less on diversity from a demographic perspective, and more on diversity of thought. I think you'll enjoy this one!​

Tell me about your career progression into your current role.

IBWI had a really odd path into Shell and an even odder path into this position! I started as a high school math and physics teacher in Toronto but moved to Texas with my husband for his job. This gave me the opportunity to rethink what I wanted to do with my career. My first job was a huge systems implementation for the State of Texas, which turned into one of the biggest learning experiences of my career. We moved to a statewide system that was a complete disaster. After about five years there, I went back to UH to get my MBA, where I got picked up by Shell as part of campus recruitment.

After starting in Lubricants in business finance, I got admitted into an internal strategy consulting group at Shell. I worked across all business lines – upstream, downstream, business, finance, in country exits and divestments, greenfield investments, organic investments. It was an amazing job, but I was on the road most of the time. By then, I had three kids and it was just impossible to balance all of it. So, I walked in one day and told my boss I was resigning. She looked at me and said, “Are you nuts? Is the only problem that you don’t want to travel? There are 9,000 jobs at Shell in Houston. I’m sure you can do one of the other 8,999 jobs here. You’re not quitting!” She took me off the projects, put me on the bench and told me we’d figure this out.

That was a huge learn for me. I had assumed a certain rigidity in the system, that I had to meet the conditions of the system and the system could not flex to meet my needs. I started to wonder; how many other women are making these types of choices? How many are leaving just because they assume the system can’t flex around their needs or their life events? Looking back now, I realize that was nuts! Why didn’t I just ask for flexibility so I could have a career and a family life?

Within three months, I ended up on a local project working for Shell Trading. It was fantastic, and at the end of the project, Trading asked if I would consider a job within this business unit. That was 10 years ago, and I’ve been with Trading ever since. I don’t know that I would leave Trading. It’s one of those businesses you either love or you hate. (I love it!) It’s given me the opportunity to do all sorts of things – I was a business finance advisor working on structured transactions, then moved into running a back-office team working with our offshore centers. I then ran a Sales Marketing Strategy team. I have no marketing experience (I’m a Physics major, remember) so that was interesting! Now, I’m running Gas Operations for all of North Americas and I’ve taken on a Digital Transformation leadership role inside the organization.

What were some key factors that helped you progress your career?

I don’t know if this is a gender thing, or a “me” thing, but it’s so easy to misidentify sponsorship. The reason I was able to take some of those jobs that I had absolutely no experience in (e.g. Marketing, Digital Transformation) is because there were people inside the system that trusted my capabilities. Not my experience, but my capabilities. These sponsors are people who are willing to take a risk on you or see something in you that hasn’t been proven yet.

Now, I deliberately identify my sponsors. And I work them! I take a much more active role in my career and start navigating it. Before, I was like a leaf floating along a river wherever the winds would take me. I was trying to set up conditions under which I would operate 30 hours per day and travel a lot. But now, I shape where and when I go next. And the system enables that. That’s not unique to me – the system enables that for everyone. 99% of us don’t know that it does. The 1% that do, really take advantage of it.

How do you ensure an inclusive environment when working in a global organization with remote teams?

It’s a hard thing to do. We all work better when we see people face-to-face and build relationships. You can’t ever discount the value of those relationships, nor can you discount the value of face-to-face interactions. It’s hard to maintain inclusivity with people you don’t see or interact with every day. I won’t pretend that we do.

I think we do it better every year; we have learned over time to be inclusive. But, this also comes with certain drawbacks: we are slower to move and slower to make decisions because we have built a consensus-based culture. We talk a lot to each other, we reiterate the same points, we make decisions and then we revisit those decisions again. We don’t have the body language or human interaction, so a lot of things take longer to accomplish. This is also reflected in our internal language. We don’t use phrases like “we need a decision” or “approval authority”. Instead, we say “let’s get aligned’, or “let me reflect on what you just said”. Those are some of the things that are very common across Shell. Admittedly, there are a lot of meetings, a lot of emails, a lot of “let’s get that person in the room”. But we’ve found that’s how we end up coming to the best decisions.

The energy industry has a reputation for being the least diverse, and slow to adopt change. What are your thoughts on this?

I’ve been in the energy industry for 17 years and can attest to the slow speed of innovation. You’ll find it in pockets. In upstream, in the technology space, they are already using drones to go underground, take pictures, study the environment and collect soil samples. Yet, there are other places where we are still pushing paper: paper invoices, talking on the phone, email. I even recently heard there’s still a fax machine in use in my building!

Regarding diversity, I have a unique viewpoint on this. We do ourselves a disservice by speaking of diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity, age, etc. Of course, all those things matter. What really matters is diversity of thought. For example:

I’m a middle-aged female in the energy industry who was born in the southern part of India and then lived in Canada. I had someone working for me who was also a middle-aged female, born and raised on a ranch in the pacific northwest of America. We had completely different life experiences. Looking at the talent pool, leadership may have looked at us as two females, therefore bringing diversity. But, we could finish each other’s sentences. We would think exactly the same. Half the time, I would never have to ask her opinion, because I knew exactly what she would say. There’s really no diversity in the room in terms of perspectives, ideas or thoughts. This prompted me to really think about diversity in ways that matter.

Real diversity is this:

“Do you think differently than me? Would you look at the same problem and come up with a completely different way to solve it?”

I don’t care if you’re black, brown, green, female, male, old or young. Diversity of thought matters more. I’ve learned that when you start taking that type of approach, you end up with a diverse pool of people. Don’t bring me into a project, job, or leadership role because I’m female and I’m a minority – bring me in because I think differently and I’m going to add value to the table and different solutions.

Do you believe the "glass ceiling" exists for women in the workplace? What should companies do to combat this?

It definitely exists. Just look at the stats – there are less than 15% of female CEO’s in our country, and progression is still a struggle in most organizations, including the energy industry. There’s 18-20% female leadership when 60% of graduates coming out of college are female. How do you explain that discrepancy without assuming it’s something systemic that’s getting in the way?

Sure, some women choose to leave the workforce to take care of children, and it’s hard to get back. But that doesn’t account for everyone. Even if you say that 20% of women leave the workforce to care for children, what about the other 40%? Whether you call it a “glass ceiling” or not, there is a limitation to women’s careers. At Shell, we aren’t embarrassed saying that this is a problem and we are working on it.

I do a lot of mentoring of women within Shell. We have a lot of different networks that staff can get involved in, but I think the women’s network is hugely important for those who are coming into the workforce in their first 10 years. Many are facing big life events like getting married, having children, aging parents – all things that females still disproportionately feel responsible for in society. They need to know that if they choose to have a career throughout this period of their life, they can have a successful one.

When you ask what can be done, we (women collectively) have not done a good job of enabling, lifting, and putting out a helping hand to younger women in the workforce. I notice a lot of women still seem to see other women as competition. It’s a mindset that “only one woman can get to the top, and I want it to be me”. There’s still a bit of that energy in the workplace today, but it’s simply not true. Leaders are telling us they want more women to get promoted. There’s room for all of us here.

As someone in a leadership role, do you believe that creating a diverse and inclusive environment starts at the top or at the grassroots level?

It’s important to role model it at the top. When I look at the board at Shell, and I see 90% are men, that’s sending a message to everyone else. I can’t ask you to do something that I’m not doing myself. You must demonstrate, at the highest level, what you want to see throughout the organization. We’re in a transitional phase now where millennials are forming the core of our company. They come with different attributes and ways of looking at the world. The level of diversity we hope to achieve is much more intuitive and normalized for them than it is for older generations. Those people can really change the landscape of diversity and inclusion, without really having to lift a finger because it’s natural to them. But it must happen on both levels: at the top through programs and at the bottom through simply being themselves.

What are some practical steps that leaders can take to improve their pipeline of diverse talent?

Large companies have very structured programs for recruitment. For a long time, we’ve used structured interview questions, we’ve sought structured answers and we’ve done case studies with candidates. This has resulted in less female and minorities in leadership, and we are struggling to change that.

As leaders, we need to expand the way we look at talent. When I have tried that, I have been pleasantly surprised. We were looking to fill entry-level roles for customer facing activities. We took a chance when interviewing these people, and I hired a bartender who had no experience in the energy industry. He knew nothing about our commodities, but he had such an easy-going way about him. He was a great multitasker, he worked well under pressure, he was poised with agitated customers. He had the qualities we needed, he just had to learn the commodities. He was one of our most successful hires!

It’s important we start thinking about diversity and inclusion differently. We feel very confident about what a successful person looks like. Often based on things like degrees, career experience, industry experience – and yes, those are all indicators of success, but they are not the only predictors of success. We need to become more open-minded about who to bring in and why we bring them in. I hired someone else in a business role who only had an IT background. I got feedback that it was a bad idea to hire her, but she turned out to be a great hire at Shell because of the way she thought about business problems.

Managers need to get really open-minded. Behaviors trump competencies. I can teach you to code, but I can’t teach you to wake up every morning to come to work. I can’t teach work ethic.

Thank you Sri for a fantastic, refreshing interview!

Posted over 1 year ago

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