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Interview with Helmut Schuster

Group human resources director, Helmut Schuster on diversity, leadership and career development
BP Horizon Interview with Helmut Schuster. Photographed By Graham Trott at BP  SJS

About Helmut

Helmut became group human resources (HR) director on 1 March 2011. He completed his post graduate diploma in international relations and his PhD in economics at the University of Vienna and then began his career working for Henkel in a marketing capacity. Since joining BP in 1989, Helmut has worked in the US, UK and Continental Europe, and within most parts of refining, marketing, trading, and gas and power. He is also a non-executive director of BP Europa SE and the Swiss dental company Ivoclar Vivadent.

 

What is the difference between sponsorship and mentoring?

 

For me, mentoring is all about formalized coaching, whereas sponsorship is about having someone supporting you in a less visible and maybe less structured way, encouraging you to go for things; a positive reinforcement. A sponsor might do that for a number of people over a number of years, providing proactive encouragement, helping them to make the right decisions for their careers. I think that could make a big change in the way in which our leaders encourage everyone to achieve their potential. My advice to anyone is to be very clear about what you want from your career. Be clear and specific about your aspirations and communicate them to your line manager.  All employees need to be clearer and more focused when articulating their career aspirations. This would create a great foundation for deeper career conversations in the future.

 

You have been BP’s head of HR for five years now. What have you learned in that time?

 

I’ve learned the value of getting to know the people you work with and the recognition that the world is not black and white. We operate in so many countries and it’s important that we develop a deep understanding of those regions. What feels right here in St James’s Square might not be right in other environments. My biggest concern is that we often tend to think with a UK/US mindset, but, in reality, the world is moving north to south and west to east. Personally, I think I have learned to be more patient. I have also found that the executives of large oil companies that I have met are rather personable and approachable people. I have been very impressed about how respectful our executive team is to one another and their teams.

 

BP’s position on the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index (which ranks the most inclusive and supportive corporations for LGBT employees) has improved dramatically in recent years. What more can be done?

 

I am proud of the work that’s been done over the past few years. We went from not even being on the list to reaching 22 in 2015 and we have two executives listed on OUTstanding’s 2015 Leading 100 LGBT executives [Paul Reed, head of IST, and Michael Sosso, vice president, ethics and compliance]. I also see our business resource groups doing a tremendous job, but this is something that never stops. You never reach a point where you are done and we must continue to be better.

 

Do you think we have enough support inside BP for staff with disabilities?

 

I think, as a business, we need to become more mindful of people inside BP who may, or may not, choose to declare their disability. It’s about awareness. As team leaders, we need to engage with our people and, as we get to know them, we will better understand any challenges that they may face. It’s easier when a person’s disability is easily visible, then we can provide the right support. However, I think this issue goes far beyond that. There are ‘invisible’ challenges that people face—perhaps mental health issues or learning difficulties—and we have to get better at managing these challenges. We have a great occupational health team led by Dr Richard Heron, who is working on this at the moment. I think, on the whole, our people do a good job at welcoming new employees and embracing diversity, we just need to keep building on that.

 

What does energizing people mean to you?

 

I think it all starts with getting to know your people. Then, it’s about being clear about what they have to do, giving direction while also giving them space to grow. You build trust and provide challenge. My biggest concern is not that we overstretch people, but that we are not giving them challenging, inspirational tasks. People want to perform, to make a difference, and they want recognition for a job well done. It’s about fulfilment and I think leaders play a huge role in that. I would say the most successful leaders are very humble. They don’t seek the spotlight and have great capacity to listen and observe.