Best Boss Series: Ian Stevenson, Executive Project Director, France

Ian spent 35 years in the oil, gas and petrochemical Industry and has inspired engineers and managers from Africa to Asia, with Europe in between. One of Ian’s priorities has always been the development of teams – to deliver projects and align the objectives of all stakeholders in the ultimate challenges faced on major construction projects. Maintaining the ultimate goal and managing complexity in operationally challenging and difficult circumstances is one of Ian’s key skills. Coaching of the individuals and team as a whole to achieve the desired outcome for all stakeholders in various times zones and across cultures is another of Ian’s trademarks.

What do you think are the qualities of a successful leader? 

Successful leaders are those who have a passion for the product, project, service or activity that they are concerned with and focussed on. I think that is the key point. No passion then no drive to succeed and do something exceptional in their particular field. Just business as usual.

Next is a clear vision on what they want to achieve in their field. Even if it’s not initially totally clear in their mind, it’s the drive to make change, to improve and raise the bar that is required and not accept things as they are. How to achieve it? By asking the right questions of the team on “what could we do better”, “why do we do it that way” or “is there a better way” shows to the colleagues your expectations and the areas that need focussing on.

Leadership is also about inspiring drive in all the contributors no matter their position in the organisation. You then create an environment where people feel empowered to act as without action there is no progress.

When in your career did you find you really began to be an impactful leader and what gave you proof of this?  

In my late twenties, I took a position in a contracts department of an international oil company in the North Sea business. Very quickly I was appointed the head of the department, and this was the first time for me to lead a team where some members were older and more experienced than me. I was not in my comfort zone but through understanding of the needs of the business, willingness to listen to others’ ideas and a desire to improve, I really progressed matters for the team and it gave me the chance to take my skills to the next level in management. But over time as I got more comfortable and things started to get routine, I realised I had to look for a change if I wanted to develop. So, I moved on from what was a very comfortable environment with an oil company to the harsher world of oil service and contracting as I could see this was the only way to get new experiences and develop to the next level.

What are your greatest leadership success/experience?  

This particular experience certainly is one where leadership was key and how impactful it can be. I had been working in the oil and gas industry for many years in general management, operations, project management, contracts and business development. I had exposure to the North Sea and particularly the health, safety and environmental (HSE) aspects of that business; I was a member of the Step Change for Safety organisation in the UK sector of the North Sea which is a body with representatives from all the stakeholders. It helped me to learn a lot about the important issues of HSE and where it sat in the overall business agenda.

My company, an international contractor in the energy sector managing projects on a global scale, had experienced particular challenges in HSE with a series of fatalities year after year. The CEO had decided to reverse this unacceptable trend he wanted his company to be a reference in HSE in its industry. He left the HSE management in place but to support the change in perception of HSE, the CEO decided to appoint me, an executive from a non-HSE position but who had the operational, communication, managerial and leadership capabilities to take the journey to the next step of implementation. I was asked to sit above the existing HSE professionals’ team. That was not taken well by them initially but through my reasonable knowledge of the subject from my previous experience in the North Sea, my willingness to listen and mainly to highlight that I was not there to take their jobs but to support them in changing the climate and performance of the company when it came to HSE, we started to work well as a team.

Firstly, I made the team aware of the fatalities we had had. Who these people were, how old they were, how many children they had. I emphasised that it was our responsibility for the welfare of these people as we were the ones who had put them to the task and created the environment in which they worked.

So, we need to take the responsibility for the work to be done, conditions under which it is done, the training required, etc. Whilst our employees work at a remote site somewhere, we in our comfortable offices in Paris, Houston or Aberdeen are responsible. That means spending time in the field led to understanding. The cost to the business was also one to be considered as well, the cost of the incidents and their knock-on effect, as some incidents resulting in loss of life can cost millions and ruin company reputation as well. Many high-profile incidents in oil and gas have quickly destroyed reputations and careers.

The implementation of a climate change programme in my company had started firstly with the leadership across the globe. This programme was fundamentally based on the difference between transactional and transformational leadership and how transformational behaviours are the ones that change people’s approach, in this case regarding HSE. It emphasised to managers that they were in the front line, and what they said or did not say about HSE was analysed by all of their colleagues. If the behaviours from the top were not what they should be, you can never expect the levels below to do any different. The programme was cascaded with different modules and messages from executive level to worker level with climate surveys conducted every few years to see whether attitudes had changed.

The performance over the years changed and we got to a level where we had no fatalities in a year.

I was able to communicate to colleagues a clear message on where we were and what needed changing. I also was able to use the emotional aspect of fatalities to emphasise how I had personally felt in dealing with the death of one of our co-workers which I did. I did not know these people personally but I felt the knock-on effect on families, colleagues and all these even being far from the event. No one should die on the job. Simple as that. After my period in the role, the CEO told me I had made a difference. I could not ask for more.

Recall your biggest managerial challenge. Tell me how you handled this. What did you learn that you might do differently next time?  

I was working as a commercial manager in a tendering of a large offshore project for an international oil and gas operator in the North Sea. It was a part of a joint venture featuring my company and 3 other contracting companies. I had become a part of the negotiation team and by the time we had won the contract, I was appointed assistant project director representing my company on the JV team. My direct project management experience was limited and certainly not on a project of this scale which was large for all the partners and the client, a US oil and gas company. But I was able to use my basic contract management, cost, planning and technical knowledge as a base to build the wider skills to contribute to the overall management of the project. Whilst the basic “science” of project management around the more technical aspects builds the foundation required, development of the “art” in terms of leadership, accountability, communication, organisational skills, people skills is equally needed in the management of major projects. I had the opportunity to develop these further and see how important they were in the management of the project.

Some example areas where I contributed was in the initial development of the JV project management team. This was a crucial piece of work to get people from different companies and nationalities to come together and perform together as a coherent team. Sometimes my sponsors did not appreciate what was involved to get the right balance in the team (considering peoples’ strengths and weaknesses), but for me it was the fundamental starting point from which to build success.

In my role, I was able to cover and manage many subjects even if I was not so technically knowledgeable but with an enquiring mind and lots of questions and particularly the ability to say “ok what is the problem”, “what are we trying to do”, “who needs to do it and by when” I found that highly technical specialists are not so strong on the project management approach which I was able to support them on and we progressed well like that.

We faced one major disruption on the project which received national headlines, this was a major crisis on the project, it was very challenging to manage due to the public image. The problem was eventually solved and the project was eventually completed to the satisfaction of all the parties. The client was very complimentary of my ability to keep things moving, communicate well with enough transparency and find solutions that satisfied all in a challenging environment.

In terms of what would I do differently next time is to be more questioning and dive further into details until information is totally clear. Not to micro manage but to get more understanding what the situation is when it does not seem in control. It can pay dividends to do that and be more curious and not just accept what is being said and ask what you may consider is the stupid question.

What vision or goal are you working towards in your career? What accomplishment would you like to retire with? 

My career has always involved projects in building, civil engineering, petrochemical/onshore plants, offshore and subsea of all shapes and sizes in different geographical locations. My current project is perhaps my biggest challenge and should take me to my retirement in theory as it’s almost a six-year project and we are one year in. It’s for a floating LNG production vessel plus subsea infrastructure being built for of a group of international oil and gas operators in the gas project for Mozambique. The project requires my leadership and experience in project management, stakeholder management and delivery of the project on time and on budget with the highest level of safety and quality to support the development of and for the people of Mozambique.

I would like to retire with the knowledge that I was able to fulfil the following:

  •  Contributed to and led teams in the development of oil and gas infrastructure from North Sea to Mediterranean to West Africa to now East Africa.
  • Developed the performance my teams and their individuals up to the highest level possible.
  • Created the environment where everyone has a chance to develop and progress.
  • Provided my clients with the solutions they wanted in the conditions they expected.
  • Helped in the development of social life in Africa through our African projects. We have a responsibility to support African countries and must do what we can to help them since they accept us as visitors to do business in their countries.

Common opinion states that in order to be successful in business one has to be ruthless. A quick survey of world’s most prominent companies and businessmen seems to support that view. Do you think it’s possible to be successful in business and still be a nice/kind person? 

Yes, I think it is possible to be nice and kind to an extent but you also need to have other qualities in a competitive business environment which may go against that approach. When dealing with your team it is better to be nice and kind, however people need to know that you’re not a “soft touch” as well otherwise you may be in a weak position. Showing a strong grip is necessary from time to time particularly with those who are “drifting” and not delivering as expected.

Let’s talk about managing pressure. How do you control your own emotions and temper when things don’t go as planned? Not lashing out on those around you is a skill, so what are your tips? 

I am usually calm at work, it takes a lot to make me upset.

I have worked with bosses who used fear and aggression as their way to handle situations that were not going their way. Such bosses may have felt good, but their employees did not.

For me, it never worked. I do not like to see conflict in the workplace and I will do whatever I can to defuse it. Healthy tension and competitiveness are however necessary particularly in high demanding environments where high performing teams are required to deliver an end product and handle the pressures.

At times, we all hit a low point. How do you motivate yourself? 

I take stock as to where I am on my personal journey that year. I have done this for a number of years now.

At the beginning of every year, I determine my top goals both personal and professional. I regularly check them as to where I am and in periods where you question your motivation levels it’s good to determine the actions required to get your motivation back to the needed level.

This usually runs to about 10 goals. I regularly check them as to where I am and in periods where you question your motivation levels it’s good to determine the actions required to get your motivation back to the needed level. By refocusing on the goal and determining where I am falling short motivates me to get back and think of the good feelings I have when I, for instance, had run for 5 kms and I felt so good. It’s the same with business activities as well. There is no better feeling than when things are moving well and you are progressing the key issues in front of you and you are in control.

Working in an organisation where business culture isn’t people oriented, how do you create an environment where people want to work for you/in your department? 

You have to like being with people. It may help if you are motivated in creating, developing and sustaining teams. I work in an environment where the team is key to success in delivering projects. I try to develop a vision and purpose for the team and then work with each individual to determine his/her objectives in contributing to that team and the wider goal. Helpful are regular face to face meetings to check as to where we are. I look for feedback on my approach and solicit ideas as to what is working or not working with the team. People feel motivated when they are being asked for their views on how we improve and continue to move forward.

Most large organisations have a strict bonus and pay raise policy, which makes it difficult to reward people even when you know they truly deserve it. In the absence of monetary rewards, how else do you keep people motivated? 

I think it’s important that people understand how significant their role is in their personal development and how fits their overall career plan. Does everyone have an overall career plan? Normally the answer is no. But I think this is something very important that you should consider right at the beginning of your career. What do you want to do? What are your ambitions? If you don’t write it down its difficult to be clear on how you guide yourselves forward. There is a common interview question “Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?“ People mock this question as being too primitive. But I think it’s a good question and I ask it myself. I know a person who had a 20-year plan. Of course, people laughed at that. However, when I review his career over the past 20 years, he is overperforming against it, and this is great. You need to ensure that in your current role you are motivated, learning and feeling some discomfort. I think if people are in this zone then its good as they are progressing and let the money take care of itself. If you are not feeling discomfort, then it’s time for a change.

I like to ask people “Are you feeling very comfortable with your role?” If the answer is yes, I say, well, time to change and start looking for a move. If you want to grow you need to get out of your comfort zone, look for the difficult challenges and have a go, to take risk.  

You will more than likely succeed.

Of course, sometimes you will fail but even failing will teach you. People who have had no failures in their careers were not trying hard enough.

I see many people take that nice department job rather than the client facing sales job or project manager job. Too risky they say! Look at all the big entrepreneurs. They had many failures among the successes. Of course, some people are beyond motivation and with them you need to find a neat way out good for both parties.

Some managers believe in a strict hierarchy and “do what I say” approach, sighting cultural norm as an excuse. What are your thoughts on this?  

I work in an international project environment. I am Scottish currently working in France with an international team including Japanese and Korean partners and a multi headed client with Italian, US, Chinese, Portuguese and African members. A real mix of cultures and approach. We have the formal and informal situations. In the formal situations, I think you have to be aware that such hierarchy is cultural particularly in Asia. You need to appreciate that when dealing with formal situations, Asian team members at lower levels are not used to be asked their opinions. My experience is to build a relation and rapport at an individual level with all the team including the Asian members. Building that rapport builds trust which means that you can use persuasion to get your point across and an issue moving in the direction you want offline. Does not always work but this is my approach.

How do you decide to be available to your team and to support them? How do you determine the best way for them to contact you and not interrupt your workflow? 

I make myself available to my team usually by organising face to face (F2F) slots in the agenda with each individual which can last on average 30 minutes and normally no more than 45. I do this with my N-1 direct reports as required. Some more regularly, others less frequently depending on priorities. I also do the same with N-2 reports on some occasions when I want to know the subject they are managing better, get to know them if I do not know them well. I travel frequently with on average two weeks of the month on the road. I find this an excellent way to be available to the team I am travelling with and get to know them and some of the issues better when you travel together. Time in an airport lounge, on the plane (although I prefer the solitude to work normally) and evening dinners are always useful to hear their thoughts and let them see the real you as well.

How much do you value transparency of information at work? To what extent do you share information with your team?

It’s very important. I provide what information and feedback is relevant to the team individually either by email or face to face with my direct reports. I meet the team once a week face to face but as it’s a global team, people join by Skype as well. I share the latest updates I have on the issues of the day. I expect the same in return. I do not like when information is held back or not made available to me My view is “no surprises”, surprises are not welcome. In project management particularly, it’s about anticipation of what’s coming next so we need to be open and discuss the difficult issues so we have time to react and resolve quickly.

How do you best harmonise your work and personal life – for a healthy balance? What are your biggest challenges around this?  

I read an article recently that questioned the word “balance” and suggested the word “harmony”. I think this is good advice as it’s difficult at times to consider how much you work versus how much you do other things. You need to find the right rhythm in your life. To be honest I have got that wrong in my career where the work was taking priority and the family life particularly suffered. It can easily happen and you need to watch for that.

Keeping a log book is a very good way to check where you are with the harmony. As I mentioned earlier, each year I write down my key personal and professional goals for that year which will cover my health, family, friends and relationships, business/project goals, travel, sport and culture. Then each month I check to see where we are. What needs more time, what needs less and what’s not started and why. Doing that keeps me clear and “harmonised”. Of course, sometime you get out of harmony but at least when it is written you can see clearly where you need to improve.

I am a man of routines. I like to get up early and I find that first part of the day is the time to do some exercise which means either 40 minutes in the gym which is 5 minutes’ walk. Or I run for several minutes from my apartment in Paris to Arc de Triomphe, down Champs Elysses to Place de la Concorde and back via Bord de la Seine. I then read a little, this helps to slow the pace down accompanied by breakfast. I then plan my day in writing not with laptop. Paper and pencil are good. I can then see what I did yesterday looks like and what I did achieve and what’s important to me today.

As I travel regularly including long haul and time zone change, it’s important that this does not disrupt my personal life too much. I try to leave Sunday evenings and use travel time as work time. Planning, catching up, thinking. I will read as well to change the mood and I use audiobooks business/personal development related. I am trying fasting when flying now plus exercise every day when I am away. Helps fight jet lag and keeps you sharp and you sleep better. With this routine I am ready to enjoy my weekends when I get home.

How do you respond to employees / colleagues who are diagnosed with mental disorders, e.g. depression or anxiety?  

Today this is a real issue in companies and you have to be aware when such a situation exists and you need to consider your individual strategies in how to deal with that. I have had a number of exposures to this. The first time was when I was younger when I was in a situation where my boss was finding the large project we were engaged in very challenging. He was older than me and he shared with me how difficult was the project, how difficult his relationship was with his boss, how life at home with his wife was difficult and how he was disappointed that his son had wanted to become a DJ and not become an engineer like him. I never engaged him in any discussion or questioned any of his concerns really. I chose to ignore it as that was easier. Our relationship was not close and indeed we were with different companies as it was a joint venture project. He eventually committed suicide in the office in a disturbing way. The signs were there but I did not react as I was not concerned with his problems, I had never really listened to him or discussed in any way his issues. Maybe I could not have done anything as it was easy to look back with this conclusion but when the signs are there I think you need to intervene.

More recently I had one team member who clearly had depression and personal issues and was considered by the team as not useful. We had one difficult task without solution and with one of my key managers, we decided to give this individual the problem to fix. He did it well as he was given a chance and we were counting on him. He reacted to the challenge, felt he was being useful, was listened to as had done something very good to the business. Do not write off people if it seems they cannot achieve certain things. Take a risk, give them a chance and see what happens. My colleague benefitted from the experience, appreciated the support and is now pursuing his career. It may not have solved all of his issues but it certainly helped.

Sometimes an employee is not working out despite your best efforts and you know that this relationship is not serving him or the business. At which point do you decide to part company and how do you go about it?  

I try to give people the maximum opportunity to succeed but when the performance level is below expectations and is not supporting the wider team, then other options need to be considered and an exit strategy is required. My HR directors always supported me well in such situations.

It’s difficult when you work internationally and you find that what applies in your native country regarding rules on non-performance do not apply in the same manner in your host country. That can be very challenging where removal of non-performers can sometimes be very lengthy, stressful, costly and has a detrimental effect on the rest of the team.

How do you create, manage and motivate an efficient team when your team works remotely?

Whilst remote working is the norm now, the biggest challenge is probably time difference. I am leading a global team from US to Europe to Asia. Sometimes we all need to talk together. So, it’s very late in Houston, very early in Europe and afternoon in Asia. That can be a challenge but it is possible.

The first key aspect for me is alignment of the team and keeping that alignment. On my current project and in similar situations in the past there was no substitute for a face to face alignment initially. But the team needs to be together for a couple of days to discuss vision, strategy and goals. Even if the teams are from many different parts of the country or the world, there is no substitute for this face to face contact. Follow ups using Skype, virtual rooms or video are of course necessary and the norm as at least the ground rules and understandings are developed in these alignment sessions. I have used mind mapping very successfully for such exercises where you discuss and brainstorm what the team purpose is, the roles of individuals, the issues and develop a full mapping of the project, the issue and the challenges going forward. The key aspect is to determine the actions going forward and what everyone’s role is in ensuring that things are moving in the right direction. This follow up is visible across the team so those who are performing can be seen and those who are not are also seen. A bit of peer pressure for me is always important as that is what develops good teams. We need to help each other including those who are struggling. The team is only as good as the weakest link and using this approach you can see where you need to adjust if performance of the team is slipping.