Failure is Part of Learning: Insights on Advancing Your Career and Creating an Excellent Employee Experience with Shell Downstream CIO Craig Walker

Episode 117

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Craig Walker was our guest on the first-ever episode of IT Visionaries. We’re so excited to welcome him back for a second interview in which he dives into everything from his origin story to what it means to be a leader. And he should know. Craig is the VP and CIO of Shell Downstream at Shell International Petroleum Company, and he has spent the majority of his career with the company. His journey in tech has taken him all over the world and he’s been forced to learn on the fly and make mistakes. But those mistakes have been the most important learning experiences of his life, and now he’s encouraging his employees to explore, fail and learn in similar ways. Craig shares all of that and more on this episode. We hope you enjoy his insights.   

Best Advice: “I think we all should spend time every week listening to podcasts such as yours, making sure we’re listening to our fellow CIOs, our fellow industry experts because there’s always a gem you pick up in these things. I always pick up a gem when I listened to my fellow CIOs. And I think that is so important. Whenever you, the traveling makes sure you’re just reading some of the right stuff in it. It’s not a question of going into the detail of a hundred-page document, but it’s picking the stuff you like to read, which just gives you that piece of insight, gives you that spark of an idea that is going to come out at some point in a conversation that you’re having. And make sure we’re really focused on what our businesses are trying to deliver. Cause that’s what it’s all about. You’re a business person first as a CIO, you just happen to have the technical team with you. So let’s step into that role. Let’s take our place.”

Key Takeaways:

  • Progressing your career with one company
  • Lessons learned from unique experiences and failure
  • How to inspire innovation and create an exceptional employee experience
  • The future of data and how to leverage it in new ways

Craig’s origin story

Craig graduated as a chemical engineer during the 1980s when computer science was beginning to become a part of everyone’s degrees. He says that it was great to do an engineering subject, but he wouldn’t have made a good engineer. Instead, Craig fell in love with IT, and Shell happened to be hiring IT people. Craig was hired and started off as a programmer, and learned to love the discipline of coding and the languages involved. During this time period, the position of CIO didn’t exist and the IT department was primitive. Craig wasn’t sure where his career would take him, but he came up through Shell’s graduate program, so he knew there would be an opportunity for growth. Through that plan for growth, Craig was able to gain experience in a number of roles in various places around the world including Dubai, Scotland, and South America. Through those roles, Craig learned leadership and made mistakes he learned from.

“I would not have known when I joined as a programmer that I would have got all those opportunities to actually run a little IT department and be able to stay in Saudi Arabia or in Dubai. And you’ve got to remember that was at a time when we didn’t have email, there was certainly no internet… it was a very different world. You were sent off over there and told, ‘Hey young man or young lady, we think you’re good. We think you need the opportunity to go run this thing for us. Go make it happen over there.’ And that was a fantastic opportunity.” 

Lessons learned from previous roles in other countries

While working in various global offices, Craig was given budgets in the millions and a small team of people. But his role wasn’t confined to just one area or another. Instead, he says he was accountable and empowered in many ways, and he had the opportunity to work across a number of different areas. He wasn’t always an expert, and he made many mistakes along the way, but learning from those helped him become the leader he is today. You learned how to do things, you make mistakes and you keep the scars from those, but you learn how to do the job. Craig was lucky to have been given the trust as a young man to go and do and try new things, and he hopes to offer the same opportunities to the next generation.

“You had to make the decisions. There was no one else from IT that’ll help you. I was accountable to the general manager …but I was going to train the operators on the plant. I was going to build a little IT department. That’s fantastic knowledge and stuff to do at that age. And if it went wrong, the only person to blame is me. Yes, I could send a telex to head office and said, ‘Hey, I’m having problems with this. Can someone advise me on what I might want to do?’ But you built your own network out there and by that I mean people network and you learned how to do things and you made mistakes you’ve got the scars from those. But you got on with the job.”

Craig’s focus on employees

One of the major jobs Craig believes he has is to create an environment for his employees that allows them to innovate and fail. In today’s culture, Craig thinks that people are afraid to fail because more people will know about it thanks to the openness of society. But Craig says that as long as you learn from those failures, you can figure out how to make the business do better and you can grow as an individual. Mistakes can also lead to collaboration, Craig says, because you can discuss with others around you how things went wrong and come up with ways to do things differently. 

There is a flip side though. Craig says that as a leader on a larger scale, you need to be able to spot things that will fail and stop them from happening. When there are millions of dollars or the future of the company on the line, allowing failure to happen would not be a wise decision. So you need to learn early when it is necessary to step back and start over. 

Success can be found though. But achieving it is dependant on the team, so Craig emphasizes creating an environment where your team can thrive. They have to be open to asking the hard questions all in the service of achieving the outcome needed. 

“What I like to do is give people the opportunity to find their boundaries to learn. And you know, the best way to learn, as we all know is actually to mess up. When you do things well, you might reflect and pat yourselves on the back, but you never learn as much as when you get it wrong. So I think helping people be apart of a learning culture, helping people be able to experiment, to innovate, to try things out is, is part of what being a CIO is all about.”

“I think particularly in big companies, there’s a stigma about standing up and going, ‘Guys, I think this was a bad idea. We should stop.’ Many people would say that was one of Steve Jobs’ greatest abilities was to not necessarily to spot the things that were really going to succeed, but spot the things he knew were just going to fail…. And I think we must always take the learnings of things that didn’t work out and explore with friends and colleagues what would have worked differently. And maybe that difference would not have been to make it succeed. It would have been to pull the plug on it earlier.”

“Very few things are delivered by the individual. It’s all about the right blend of people on the team, the right culture on the team. You have to have a maniacal focus on what is the outcome we’re after. You know, this may be the most beautiful solution in the world, but it’s not going to give us that outcome we’re after. So what are we going to do differently?”

How has employee experience improved?

Because Craig believes in an environment rich with new ideas and innovation, he takes his role as a steward of that environment seriously. He believes that the leader needs to be seen as someone who sponsors and supports innovation and champions the result whatever it may be. He also believes that the employee experience and scope of innovation can improve when the situation is gamified. No matter what, though, Craig insists that a good employee experience always comes back to a commitment to learning. He believes that you have to spend 10% of your time learning in order to really be operating at your best. He also champions one of his favorite ways to learn, which is through storytelling. Exchanging ideas and information is critical, and yes you can use tools like Slack or Yammer, but nothing replaces actual conversation. 

“It is about constantly learning. Whether that learning is about the business, whether that learning is about the environment in which we’re operating, or that learning is about the technology itself. We cannot stop learning.”

“Sharing stories is how the human race got to where it is.”

Common mistakes being made by CIOs

Craig believes there are two types of CIOs. Ones with passion for the business, and the ones who are stuck on the technical side. He advocates that CIOs should take the former approach. You certainly need to have the technical skills, but you can act as if the other people at the table want you to talk about the business and moving the business forward with technology rather than talking IT and tech-speak at them. In today’s world, people making a difference are the people who embrace the business arena and who understand how value is generated in the business. To that point, CIOs need to have a business goal in mind, especially when it comes to utilizing data. People can fear A.I. and ML but really what we’re trying to do is liberate people. 

“What turns me on is seeing the business results as a result of what I’m doing. Can I translate some of the things I’m doing internally into a value proposition to our suppliers?”

“At the heart of digital is data. What we’re doing today we weren’t doing five or 10 years ago is generating data. All of the data is pouring back to us and a mistake some CIOs make is saying I’m going to clean up our data. Good luck with that. You have to have a goal in mind otherwise you’re cleaning just for the sake of cleaning.”

 How to leverage data

In order to get the most out of your data, you have to have a strong view of the technology stacks you have to use. Take a view on the tools you want to use and then be so deep into the business that you know where the pain points, pressure, and competition is coming from. Then identify what data you’ve been collecting and how it can be used. When you find the answer that works best for the business, throw everything behind scaling and employing it. And when it comes to machine learning and A.I., they can be used to augment your workforce and help leverage data even more. The trick is that you have to tune and re-tune the algorithm until you get to a point where you can trust the algorithm to make the right decision. But it comes back to knowing exactly what you need to achieve in order to build the right thing. 

Craig also thinks that you shouldn’t discard your old data because there may be a time when you want to go and look at it or gain insights from it in a new way. This is especially true when you are implementing machines to look through data. They are able to visualize things in a different way and discern patterns that humans can’t. One question that still remains is how can you turn the view of a market or the view of anything and turn it into a visualization that our brains can easily recognize anomalies in? 


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Craig Walker, the VP and CIO if Shell Downstream at Shell International Petroleum Company, returns to IT Visionaries to explore how he grew in his career and the ways he uses what he’s learned to inspire and engage his employees.

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