‘Never Waste a Good Crisis’ (Interview)
‘Never Waste a Good Crisis’ (Interview)

MERIT has sat down with Gerard Penning, Executive Vice President HR Downstream at Royal Dutch Shell. Our exchanges with him reveal how organisations can turn the Covid-19 pandemic to their advantage and why human capital leaders should lead by example.


People are gradually going back to their offices. How can HR teams ensure a high level of effectiveness while keeping everyone healthy and safe?

Early on in the Covid-19 crisis, HR leaders had very different worries. How to engage people while working remotely. How to ensure they were motivated. How to collaborate in a remote session. And I am very proud of what I saw. I fundamentally believe that however difficult the constraint, that is typically when people become the most creative in terms of solutions. And now that we are returning to “the new normal”, it will take the same creativity and resolve for leaders to deal with the new challenges.

I believe that people will want to go back to what they had in terms of physical presence. Technology does a lot of good things, but luckily it can’t compete with and replace the sense of community when people are physically present. When it comes to solutions, that depends a lot on what country you are from as well as the guidance and regulations issued by the local authorities. I am very confident and I think we can do it. But it will require agility and capability to adjust and adapt. Covid-19 has indeed brought a lot of sorrow to people, but it has also brought a revival of the HR function, where suddenly the guidance provided by HR professionals is of paramount importance. I really believe that we can prove our value in these testing times.


How can HR leaders continue to provide ways to add new skills in the current situation?

First of all, I am a big believer in leading by example. So, if you say “You should learn new skills,” or “This department is lacking the ability to refresh itself,” when it comes to, let’s say, digitally enabled working, act in accordance with that principle. We in HR have a lot to do when it comes to fully embracing the capabilities of digital tools. We are learning as we go. Some things are going well but there are some areas where we can get better. Only if we add new skills ourselves can we go to others and ask them, “Hey, where are you on this and this?”. We call this whole attitude “the learner mindset”. Allow yourself to be adaptable and challenge your beliefs. Rather than being the knower, the person that has all the answers, you should allow yourself to be the kid, to ask questions. Are we fully leveraging data yet? Are we at the top of our game when it comes to effectively managing diversity and inclusion?


The Covid-19 pandemic has led to an economic downturn, and the first casualty of a downturn is usually the people. Working hours are being cut, jobs are being lost... What can companies do to turn their employees into a source of competitive strength instead of treating them as dispensable?

If you treat people as dispensable the outcome is very simple. You get very poor performance from people if they don’t trust you, and rightly so. Whether in crisis or good times, you always need to treat people with respect, honestly and transparently. Yes, Covid-19 has challenged many sectors. In the aviation industry, the supply of jet fuel has dried up. Some other sectors such as manufacturing are dealing with similar consequences. Even when drastic measures are necessary, you need to treat people with respect. You can facilitate in financial terms and also support them in finding employment at other companies.


During your MERIT keynote speech in Vienna in 2019 you said that to drive performance, leaders need to understand their employees. How important is understanding your employees during a crisis?

People’s performance starts with their trust in you, what the enterprise stands for, and the excitement that people have in participating in something bigger than themselves. This sense of purpose is important in good times, but also in difficult times. And human resources can play an important role in dealing with human emotions such as fear. Fear is a very logical emotion in these difficult times and leaders can turn this emotion into something positive. Helping achieve something positive as a team during a period of fear, adjusting to the new circumstances – that’s what good leaders do. Emotions like joy, fear, and even frustration are good material for leaders to work with. In good times and in bad times you can actually deliver. And I also believe that you should never waste a crisis. Crises often create a situation where you can do a reset. You can see clearly how your company is set up to compete and can spot an opportunity to emerge stronger from the crisis than your competitor.


Can you expand a little bit on that? Where can you see a silver lining in the Covid-19 crisis for HR leaders and employees?

I have been talking to executives at different companies, and similar themes apply there. Every company, under normal conditions, has a few issues that it normally wants to pick up on. It could be the application of digital technology, for example. Or the opportunity to give people the option to work from home. Most companies have taken steps in that direction, but have they gone all the way? The lockdown in many countries has stretched the boundaries of what we considered possible when it comes to remote work. And amazing results were delivered. I really hope that we retain some of that.

And there are things like costs and efficiency. Every company has issues that, if fully tackled, will make the organisation more resilient and more capable of dealing with a challenging environment. Another part of the silver lining is the opportunity to critically look at how you do things and think about how they can be improved. This is something I have seen in the past as a positive outcome of a very difficult situation. I am optimistic and I see some of that happening now.

But you will have to ask me in a year’s time if we are in a better place and if we have tackled all the issues we want. It could turn out that, in hindsight, we could have done some things differently. The same goes for governments. I come from the Netherlands and the government there acted very swiftly. I would like to think that that helped the country deal with the situation better. Some of these interventions that would have been very difficult under normal conditions can really be facilitated by the crisis and allow us to emerge stronger.


To learn more about the challenges HR and L&D professionals are facing, claim your complimentary pass to the MERIT European Summit in Paris on 18 September – “Rethinking Learning in a Connected World”. This boutique event for CHROs and CLOs is co-hosted by LinkedIn. Places are limited – reserve yours now.

By Valentin Vassilev