TC055-15 - IMD Business School
Alumni Stories · Leadership

Learning to lead

Aman Chauhan found his path to leading a successful team in Building on Talent
November 2015

Working for Shell in Gabon means Aman Chauhan’s daily journey to work sometimes brings him face to face with a herd of buffalo or elephants. His employer’s oil fields and export facility are located in a top nature reserve and strict rules enforcing the protection of this idyllic environment means the onshore oil fields – one of them the largest in Sub-Saharan Africa – have no set perimeter. As a result, wildlife including gorillas roam freely.

The residential site includes a small international school, a company-operated restaurant and is adjacent to a nearby town of 8000 people. Once a week an airplane delivers the basic supplies for the residents who therefore all consume the same milk, bread and even steak, says Aman, who jokingly compares this situation to a boarding school. He adds that living on a small camp with over 15 nationalities is a unique experience and an example of unity in diversity.

But at work, this unity was not always so easy to foster. Aman has spent four years working at Shell’s remote site in this Central African country and a year and a half ago was given the responsibility of leading a team of 15 engineers. “I was thrown into a situation with probably the best people you could hire individually per discipline, but there was something missing as they were not functioning as a team,” he recalls. The joint ownership for a common goal was not there in a team comprising “too many stars that were not acting as a constellation,” he explains. In mid-2014, Aman therefore felt he needed to further develop his skills in leadership and searched for a course.

After looking at a list provided by Shell that included top names like Harvard and London Business School, Aman was drawn to IMD’s BOT (Building on Talent) program and signed up after seeing the other participants’ impressive levels of experience. Even before attending the school in March 2015, the oil man was required to read background materials, and the program also stipulated that he needed to establish mentors in his company. After reading one of IMD’s articles on improving leadership through experimenting he therefore set to work, customizing the change initiatives in place to better suit his team. His Technical Manager and Managing Director provided the sounding boards for his ideas. “This helped me to come up with my own critical thinking.” These ideas later became the case studies Aman brought to the program.

Once in Lausanne, a standout moment for Aman during BOT was the idea that leaders should show emotions and express them clearly. He later took this ethos back to Shell and during one of his weekly meetings said he was upset because he believed more focus from the team would really change the business’s bottom line. The engineers saw it as an opportunity and within half a day they formulated a plan that is still successful today. The experiment had worked. “Expressing genuine emotion really strikes a chord with people and this trust helps, even during difficult conversations,” says Aman.

Although the program was intense, Aman found he had time in the evenings for reflection and was finally able to put into words an important philosophy he still follows in life. “I believe one should never look for extraordinary opportunities, but instead seek the most common opportunities or tasks and produce an extraordinary result,” he says. “Automatically people then give you more responsibility because they know that your dedication and commitment is not a function of what’s at stake,” he adds. Reflecting on his Hinduist upbringing, Aman adds: “People say you find God in your work. Whether you have a menial job or a stellar one – and this is not in your hands. It is how you deal with what you are given that defines you.”

Later this year, Aman will move to The Hague to take on a new role as internal auditor at Shell. Handing over the reins to his successor in Gabon has made him reflect on the notion of winning. “I’ve always said to my team that we are not here to win but are going to do our best. If we fail, we will rebound the fastest and this will make us the best team.” Aman says he is proud that he is no longer needed on the site. “My legacy is that I have empowered leaders on my team.”

Building on Talent (BOT) is for high-potential managers early in their career looking to take on greater responsibility.