Yasmine Hilton is the first woman chairman to be heading one of India’s biggest multinational energy companies - Shell India. After serving 30 years in the company in various roles, she says this will be her last job. She spoke to Hindustan Times on the responsibilities and challenges faced by a leader. Excerpts:
How do you define a leader?
I think a good leader is someone who can inspire all the employees of an organisation to deliver exceptional results - now and in the future - sustainability is the key.
What are the three most important traits of a leader?
First, the ability to develop a shared vision, carrying everyone in the enterprise; second, being able to deliver results as promised, or beyond; and third, the ability to inspire and develop talent - recognising in people potential that they do not realise they have. If a leader can do this, it is tremendously motivational.
In the end it’s about inclusive teamwork – a good leader knows that to be successful he or she needs to have the whole organisation pulling together effectively.
As a leader of your group, how do you cultivate leaders?
By devoting a lot of time to working with people, observing and helping them - coaching, encouraging and giving honest feedback. Everyone needs help and support to grow and develop, and I enjoy this aspect of my job very much. Seeing people improve their skills and confidence gives me great satisfaction. It makes my job easier in the long run and is good for the enterprise. Time spent mentoring staff is rarely wasted.
Can leadership be learnt? In other words, how can a manager become a leader?
Yes, I believe so. People aren’t born to lead - a manager can become a leader provided that he or she has the drive, application and willingness to learn and adapt. It is important to be able to see the big picture over a longer time horizon to build a sustainable organisation. A little humility and empathy for people and above all an ability to be decisive, having listened to and considered other views, go a long way.
What is the role of a professional leader in a promoter-driven company?
It is not a role I am familiar with. But any large successful organisation has to attract and retain talent and that cannot be done effectively without professionalism and good stakeholder management. It’s a universal truth.
Since September 2008, the world has fallen into a maelstrom of serial crises. What is the role of a leader in these times?
It is a volatile world and there have been serial crises before 2008 as well; the energy business has had many shocks over the years. Keeping the big picture and longer term vision in mind are important. Leaders need to be able to respond calmly in a crisis, steady the ship and act decisively. Being prepared, using scenarios and crisis management techniques are important.
What has been the biggest leadership challenge you’ve faced?
Well, there have been many - that’s what I love about working in Shell. You get the chance to move across functions, businesses and countries. My previous role was chief information officer (CIO) of Shell’s global retail business, stretching over five continents. We had a poor track record at delivering major multi-million dollar global projects on time and on budget. My team turned this around, and we were benchmarked at top quartile after three years. Reaching this milestone proved a tough challenge – and it was a proud moment for the organisation. It is now in their DNA.
Do you think the role of business leaders has come under cloud -globally and domestically - of late?
Every era has its challenges and every company has problems from time to time, no matter how well-run they are. In Shell, we have a strong code of conduct and everyone must comply with ‘Shell Business Principles’, with their emphasis on health, safety, security and the environment (HSSE), ethics and compliance. For me, this makes life simpler.
Leaders have to often carry the cross of others’ wrongdoings and inefficiencies - the global banking sector today, for instance. What role can a good leader play to counter balance this image?
I think good leadership means running your own business well in the interests of all your stakeholders, communicating clearly what you are doing, while playing the role of a good citizen within the community. Reputation is built over decades and can be destroyed in a moment. It’s the responsibility of every business leader to be aware of this and act accordingly.
What is your one-line leadership mantra?
Always deliver on your promises.
Who are the leaders who have inspired you?
There have been many in my own company, who are not household names. I have learnt more personally from people that I worked with than iconic industry leaders, much as I may admire them. Shell is a company that offers many opportunities, takes some risks with appointments and supports people while they develop and are growing in the job. I was the first professional woman to work part-time while my kids were young and even reached the position of CIO in Shell UK on this basis. I am inspired to do the same for others so that they too can fulfil their potential.
Who is a leader in your industry whom you respect?
With my original information technology background, I would say Bill Gates and Azim Premji — both for their creativity and their philanthropy.
What is the biggest leadership lesson that you have learnt?
Treat people with respect and support them, but do not tolerate underperformance.
What is the best leadership decision you have taken?
All the tough ones. You never regret taking tough decisions and those are usually the best ones, when you look back.
What is the worst leadership decision you have taken?
The ones I did not take quickly enough, allowing situations to run on for too long. Lesson learned.
Do you see India as a challenging market vis-a-vis other markets?
I believe India has huge potential, with exciting, innovative young talent emerging all over the country. It’s challenging, yes, and India may not be the easiest country to do business in. However, it is slowly, inexorably moving to a level playing field where open access, deregulation and a consistent and transparent framework will become the order of the day. I believe Shell’s technical and commercial best practices can make a real contribution to meeting India’s energy challenges. India has some way to go to become a place where foreign investors feel welcome. Business growth and people growth go hand-in-hand. That’s why I believe India has a bright future – and why I was delighted to take on this job.