At the end of 2001 I left Sasol to join Shell, even though I had managed to ‘escape Secunda’ and work my way into a very promising and exciting business development role in Sasol’s head-office in Rosebank. There were four drivers at the time. The first two were based on the fact that I was looking for work in Cape Town, and the second two reasons were based on improved career development alignment.
I was looking for work in Cape Town because I wanted to study an MBA and my first choice in university was the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business (GSB). The second reason was the location – I had been dreaming of the possibility of working and living in this amazing city for years and it represented the ‘perfect location’ for my outdoor lifestyle. When I got back from my sabbatical I put a massive picture of Cape Town up on the wall of my kitchen and my subconscious started working on achieving the goal. There is a lot to be said for making your goals visual, and reviewing them frequently!
Getting a full-time employment opportunity with Shell was very exciting. It gave me an opportunity to join an organisation that was very well known, that had a significant international footprint and a good reputation in my industry. This potentially opened many more opportunities for me in the long run. Even if I didn’t stay with Shell for the rest of my career, I knew it would look very good on my CV.
The job role entailed business analysis of long-term project investments and was well aligned with my career objectives to get involved in work that entailed more strategic decision-making, which is typical at the beginning of a project life-cycle.
How Did I Join Shell?
Initially I used some of my holiday time to go down to Cape Town and speak to potential employers, and let them know that I was available and looking for employment opportunities, with the hope that they might be interested. I had been looking for jobs in the traditional places (classified ads at the time) but hadn’t seen anything available for engineers in Cape Town. I did some research to figure out what potential employers were based in Cape Town and the list was extremely short. I didn’t have many options to pursue. I targeted the new business development type managers of these organisations and made a request to see them with a very vague agenda – something along the lines of ‘wanting to discuss business development opportunities’. In hindsight it was a poor approach and I believe there are much better ways to do this.
I only managed to get two appointments and both of them were unsuccessful. I felt that I had done my very best. I had put myself out there, I had made contact, I had the face-to-face discussions and there was nothing more I could possibly do. I had ‘done the work’. I accepted defeat and accepted that I was going to be studying my MBA through my second choice school in Johnannesburg.
However, I was already in a routine of scanning the job advertisement spaces, which I continued to do because it was a well established habit at this time, and I spotted an advert for three positions at Shell, based in Cape Town! This was around October, with the view to placements commencing in the new year. These newspaper adverts jumped out at me as if they were underlined with luminous highlighters. Had I not already been so focussed on looking for work in Cape Town I would have missed this opportunity, I thought the window of opportunity was closed considering it was so late in the year and the MBA started in February the next year. I was so motivated and focussed that I poured everything into preparing for the interview and was super alert during the interview – operating at my highest level. I have no doubt that this was one of the reasons why I was successful. I took pride in the fact that there were 90 applicants for three positions and I was one of the successful candidates. There are two other reasons why I think I was successful in that interview. There was one particular question that was asked, that was unusual and when I asked for feedback about what had made the difference in my interview performance I was told that it was the way I answered that one question that differentiated me. The other reason I believe I was successful is because of the attitude I take to my performance. I took the time to ask for feedback. It’s obvious if you don’t get the job to ask for feedback to learn and improve. But it’s also important to understand why you are successful when you are.
What did I learn when I made the change?
It’s nice to start on a new slate and establish new perceptions about your performance and potential. There is no historical prejudice and the new employer feels they have got the best candidate in the market for the job. However, there are some important lessons to be learned in switching to a different company.
The thing I learned is that every organisation has it’s challenges, imperfections, deficiencies and shortcomings. Even great international companies like Shell! Making a change to another company or a competitor with the hope that working conditions will improve or be better is a gamble and won’t necessarily pay off. You might find one aspect of your working conditions have improved but some other aspect is worse off.
The best reason to make this move is if you believe the experience you are going to gain is aligned with the experience you believe you need to get you to where you want to go. You might also initially be paid more, however, your ability to continue to perform and justify your incremental annual salary increases (adjustments) will depend on your ongoing and sustained performance. Your performance is significantly influenced by the supporting systems around you and your ability to influence the people that you work with. If the new working environment isn’t one that supports your role and performance, you are going to have to work harder to maintain your performance and meet the expectations of your new employer. Your strengths and past experience will help you get into the new role, but you need more than that to keep you there.
You should also always have a plan B, in case things don’t work out.
Fortunately I didn’t need a Plan B; the work at Shell was fantastic. The reason I left Shell was that my career objectives changed when I realised that the work was not aligned with one of my core values. This is a story for another post/day.