Career development

A Discussion With Hugh Mitchell, HR Director of the Royal Dutch/Shell Group

Success requires not only technical professionalism but also project management, commercial, and relationship management skills. The future requires a more rounded E&P professional but one who still stands on a solid platform of deep professional technical skill.


This section of the magazine offers a perspective of the oil and gas industry from the viewpoint of the human resources (HR) community. Prominent HR leaders with diverse professional and cultural backgrounds share their views and experiences as well as give valuable advice. Upcoming articles will reveal HR strategies and policies, which will lead to a better understanding of HR mechanisms and how they can affect career progression.—Claudia González, HR Advice Editor

With a degree in modern history from Edinburgh U., Hugh Mitchell started his career with Shell 25 years ago. At that time, Shell was one of only a few companies that offered real careers in HR. That, together with an effective recruitment process from the company, attracted Mitchell to the Anglo/Dutch oil major and led to a first assignment in Aberdeen during the North Sea boom years. Since then, he has had many assignments, mostly, but not all, in HR related positions.

The challenges that our industry is facing, Mitchell said, are getting increasingly tough, calling for delivery of superior technical knowledge and application as a minimum requirement for success. “Reservoirs are getting more complex, and there is an increasing movement to deeper-water offshore developments, which represents 60% of all the new discoveries of our company,” he said. “Our present and future professionals need to maintain a leading position in this area. Success requires not only technical professionalism but also project management, commercial, and relationship management skills. The future requires a more rounded E&P professional but one who still stands on a solid platform of deep professional technical skill.”

The current demographics of the oil and gas industry show that a good portion of the E&P workforce will retire in the near future, creating an experience gap that will pose major challenges. While recognizing the problem as focused on Western Europe and the U.S., in Mitchell’s view this dilemma reinforces the need for companies to have a global approach to talent attraction and recruitment. Companies such as Shell, which operates in more than 100 countries, can benefit from a broader pool of talent and work-force supply. Independent of the magnitude of the impact that the crew change will bring about, young professionals should perceive this as a wonderful opportunity to build their own experience and progress their own careers, he said. He also pointed to creativity as an important asset that young professionals have and should value, especially in an industry in which technological development is rapid and being on the edge of it (“innovators” and “early adopters”) offers a competitive advantage. Securing top future talent is a highly competitive part of HR responsibility. Mitchell stressed that this is not new and that success is linked with playing a long and sustained game. It starts with working closely with the academic world and building relationships with universities and business schools. In addition to working with departmental faculty and student bodies, it also includes collaboration on research. Building and maintaining relationships with universities enables the company to gain credibility and reputation in the academic community as well as among students. In addition to the structured relationships with universities, support is given to networking of recently graduated young professionals in Shell and university undergraduates. “Our own young professionals are always our best ambassadors, and we involve them in all our attraction and recruitment activities,” Mitchell said.

Naturally, it is not just about attracting talent, but also about being able to retain and motivate individuals. In Mitchell’s view, the best way to achieve this is by stimulating young professionals with new challenges and greater responsibility in recognition of their increasing experience and contribution. “Recognition is a powerful source of motivation for young professionals, who will see their contribution and performance being valued,” he said. While having competitive remuneration is important for major corporations, he also stressed that internal analysis supports his own belief that monetary reward is not the prime motivational driver for professionals. The scale and scope of Shell’s operations enable it to give our young professionals broad and international opportunities through which they can develop both their technical and leadership skills, he said.

Because young professionals are regarded as an important asset, Shell has in place a robust induction/development program. This program consists of two phases: an immersion phase, a 5-week course in which a comprehensive introduction to the E&P business is given, and the training and development phase, wherein classes alternate with on-the-job training. “Parallel to the technical grounding preparation for young professionals, we are committed to support our young talents in growing as integrated professionals,” he said. “Shell Life is one of the programs conceived for this purpose, where in a global and multidisciplinary group, a leadership journey is followed in conjunction with peers in a multicultural environment. Project management and commercial skills are a focus for future development.”

“We believe that structured programs supported by ongoing coaching of young professionals contribute to building a deep professional capability and a strong company culture, both of which are critical to the future success of Shell. As leaders we all have a responsibility of nurturing and developing our own successors,” he said. “As most of our leaders have benefited from high levels of personal coaching and support, they recognize its value and the need to promote the same approach to new generations of professionals.”

Results of the Forum published in the first issue of TWA showed that approximately two-thirds of the polled young professionals would like to see their careers evolve into management jobs. Mitchell said he recognizes these aspirations and believes they have not significantly changed over recent years. What he stressed was that it is important that both technical and managerial careers are attractive and appropriately valued and rewarded. “Technical professionals with deep knowledge and experience are as required today as they have ever been. Within Shell, people can progress and be promoted based on developing their professional competence. Progression is not limited to taking on bigger management roles,” he said.

Mitchell believes that the separation of career path between technical specialist and management can be overemphasized. General managers usually have a solid professional base in one discipline or another, and it is vital that technical specialists also develop the leadership skills to be effective in working in teams, setting a clear direction, and effecting change, he said.

Hugh Mitchell is HR Director for the Royal Dutch/Shell Group of Companies. Before his current role, which he assumed in March 2005, Mitchell was Director Intl. for the Royal Dutch/Shell Group, responsible for providing regional advice and the management of international government relations. Before that appointment, he held the position of HR Director for Royal Dutch Shell’s global Oil Products business. In earlier assignments, he held different positions within HR, including assignments in Shell’s upstream E&P business as well as within the Oil Products and Trading businesses, both overseas and in the U.K.

Mitchell’s personal recipe for success:


Always carry out tasks to completion and to the highest possible quality standards. That is what gets you the invitation to contribute more strategically and broadly.

Test your boundaries:

Take all opportunities to understand and get involved in the wider organization you are part of.

Seize opportunities when they come:

From assignment to assignment, we get exposed to diverse and potentially enriching situations (e.g., working on a state-of-the-art technology or with a visionary leader). Being able to see these opportunities and to draw real experience and learning from them is key to success.