At Shell, a Grassroots Effort Aims to Nourish Innovation Via Meditation

Mandar Apte, a chemical engineer, has worked at Shell for 12 years. He is part of the energy giant’s GameChanger program, whose mission is to provide seed funding and guidance to cutting-edge ideas and foster a culture of innovation. Apte is also the founder of a staff-led initiative called Empower, which uses breathing and meditation exercises sourced from the International Association for Human Valuesto nurture personal creativity and inter-personal skills. So far, some 2,000 employees at Shell offices in the U.S., U.K., the Netherlands and the UAE have gone through modules that are part of the Empower program. In a conversation with Knowledge@Wharton, Apte discusses the impact that Empower has had on him and his colleagues and his hopes for its future. 

An edited version of the transcript appears below.

Knowledge@Wharton: What inspired you to launch the Empower program at Shell?

Mandar Apte: I have been at Shell for 12 years. I’m a chemical engineer by background, so I’ve done many technical jobs in oil and gas production, technology and strategy. Currently, I’m part of a team called GameChanger whose goal is to bring a Silicon Valley-mindset inside a big multinational. My day job involves supporting people and ideas that have the potential to change the energy game. It’s about managing disruptive ideas and managing people who have disruptive ideas. In my non-Shell life, I teach leadership development workshops based on meditation practices. It is called Transformational Leadership for Excellence, offered by a non-profit NGO called the International Association for Human Values. I volunteer my time for this non-profit group.

A few years ago, Shell’s CEO laid out a very bold vision that he wanted us to be the most innovative energy company. I took this call for action to heart. I approached my manager and proposed a program that would bring together my innovation management role and my leadership development background. He encouraged me to build an educational curriculum blending the two because innovation begins with an idea in the mind. That was I guess the source of this program: Encouragement from my peers to create a program that would be innovative and also nourish the innovation culture at Shell.

Knowledge@Wharton: When you were about to launch Empower, what objectives did you have in mind? How did you structure the program to meet those objectives?

Apte: Empower’s objective is to nourish the innovation culture by empowering staff to play a role in innovation. The objective is also to leverage the passion of each employee and to play any role that the employee chooses to play in this innovation set up. So, for example, innovation starts with an idea, but once the idea is conceived, there are many other roles that one needs to play. One needs to learn how to sell the idea, how to build a story. One needs to learn to build networks and circles of trust where you get good feedback to develop that idea into something else. Finally, one needs to authentically connect with people who can help bring that idea to a proof of concept. This is a very social process. Not everyone in an organization needs to be the person with the idea. You can play other supporting roles — just like in a movie there is an actor and there are supporting actor roles. That’s what Empower facilitates — it helps you understand what role you want to play. It all begins with a state of mind in which you decide you want to play a role. This necessitates looking inward so that you can support not just yourself but people around you as well.

Knowledge@Wharton: Can you describe the program? How did you go about structuring it?

Apte: The uniqueness of Empower is that it’s a grassroots initiative. Employees organize these workshops for one another at the workplace — that’s the first step. It’s not mandated, but it’s peer-to-peer inspired. The first step is an introduction to Empower, which is held over a lunch session. During the introduction, we discuss the innovation theory and the various roles that one can play. We also introduce some breathing and meditation exercises. The staff then chooses the second step. Someone may say, “Yes, I like the introduction session and I want to invest my time in learning more about the innovation theory as well as mind management.” And the third step is, if people want to learn how to facilitate the Introduction class, they are trained and then they run the Introduction sessions at their workplace.

Knowledge@Wharton: What challenges did you face in getting Empower started? How did you deal with them?

Apte: That’s a very interesting question. The most important challenge I faced was having confidence in myself that I have something unique to offer the organization, to meet organizational goals that are beyond my technical training. The first thing is to realize that we, as employees, might have something unique to offer from our personal life. In my case, it was the fact that I teach meditation workshops and leadership programs outside of Shell. Once I overcame that challenge by getting some feedback and mentoring, I had the ability to create something that has business value. That was the biggest challenge.

The second challenge was to create a set of mentors around me who recognized the skills that I could offer and keep giving me positive feedback. That involved developing a network around myself. For that I had to invoke interpersonal skills; I think that’s crucial in today’s working climate. Interpersonal and social skills can create a circle of trust around you.

Knowledge@Wharton: How did you deal with those challenges and what lessons did you learn?

Apte: Empower, for me, is just like innovation. Innovation starts with an idea, a hunch, a gut feeling. You don’t really know whether it’s going to be successful or if it’s going to fail unless you try it. So, the first step was to create the space where somebody allowed me to try that experiment. In this case, it was my manager who, from his innovation background, recognized the value of mindfulness for the social process of innovation. He kept encouraging me to develop this educational curriculum. That was the first step. You know, it’s like, you keep doing small things one at a time and you have small wins. Even failures tell you something, so you go back and you analyze. It’s just a process of innovation.

Knowledge@Wharton: Recently, we published a series of articles on a meditation program at Google, called “Search Inside Yourself,” which makes an explicit connection between mindfulness, meditation practice and emotional intelligence. I wonder whether at Shell you view it in a similar light and if so, what implications that might have for the way your program is built?

Apte: Yes, there is definitely a link. From my perspective, the link is that we’re all busy; we’re all racing to solve challenges. As for innovation, you know, it’s all about thinking of new things. One has to learn how to drop the old habits, the old ideas, the old concepts and it’s like taking a pause from the business of today, a gap in your mind from the train of thoughts. That’s what meditation allows you. It gives you tools and techniques to pause. And silence is the mother of creativity. So, if you can invoke that space of silence within yourself — through any means — it need not be through meditative practice — it could be any other means that anybody chooses to adopt. That’s the first step. The second step involves social processes and interpersonal skills. If you can invoke that quality of compassion or empathy in yourself, where you are not judging yourself, you’re not criticizing yourself, nor are you judging somebody else, then I think there is a space for insights to be created. These qualities are crucial for grooming your own innovative skills and nourishing the innovation culture in an organization.

Knowledge@Wharton: How many people have gone through the Empower program so far?

Apte: So far about 2,000 people have attended Introduction to Empower, the first step that I mentioned. This has been organized as a grassroots initiative. About 200 people in the last few months have gone through Empower training in the Shell offices in Dubai, in Holland, in the U.K. and in the U.S.

Knowledge@Wharton: How do you measure the program’s impact? Do you have any anecdotal evidence about how Empower has affected people’s lives? Also, given your background in engineering, how have you tried to quantify the impact?

Apte: The way you measure any innovation, I would say, is by putting metrics in place before knowing what you are measuring. In the case of Empower, what we are measuring is stories of empowerment. We gather stories of empowered employees who have used the techniques and the skills that they learn in the program and the changes they have made in their own work habits.

Knowledge@Wharton: Could you share some of those stories?

Apte: There are many stories I get everyday in my mailbox. Some stories are about how people have been able to make unique connections. By nature they may not have chosen to interact with somebody else, but through the Empowerment techniques, they have built connections that are beyond their traditional skill pool. It’s through such connections that you can start thinking about non-traditional ideas. That is how you can leverage someone else and together, co-create something. That is, again, another story of success; it’s not an “I-win-and-you-lose” world. It’s a world where I need to think about how I can win and how I can make you win. The third kind of story we measure it is when a group of staff have gone through the Empower program and then they organize a workshop for their peers. So, one way to measure success would be, after Empowerment, how many staff get involved in creating a culture of Empowerment around them?

Knowledge@Wharton: You talked about the Game Changer program and how it’s meant to inspire innovation in the energy field. How is what you are doing with Empower linked to Game Changer? Would you say it has made employees more innovative and if so, how?

Apte: Game Changer is a program where you can bring out-of-the-box thinking to our team, and we are licensed to give you not only a budget but also the support structure and network that you need to build that idea into a proof of concept. In today’s world, innovation happens when you make non-traditional connections. The skills you require to foster this innovation culture are mental and social. You need courage to think out of the box. You need to forget past failures. You have to have the skills to manage anxiety because when you are trying something new, you are stepping into the unknown. You need to build a circle of trust around you where you get positive criticism. By enabling staff to develop these mental and social skills, the Empower program has enhanced the ability of Shell employees to innovate.

Knowledge@Wharton: What impact would you say Empower has had on helping Shell employees become better leaders?

Apte: I think everybody is a leader and everybody strives to do the best they can. The Empower program, because it is based on breathing and meditation techniques, is a toolset that you walk away with that you can practice every day. It’s like running a marathon. You have to do the practice every day and it helps you build your own capacity to overcome the blockers to your innovation and creativity. Secondly, it helps groom positive habits that will support you and the company to be creative and more innovative. I think Empower has achieved on both levels. That is why, hopefully, it will resonate with organizations like Shell that have a global footprint.

Knowledge@Wharton: How do you see the future of Empower within Shell?

Apte: The future of Empower, because it’s run by staff, will be determined by the Empowered staff. I was just the person instrumental in bringing it to the workplace, but now it’s up to every Empowered employee to think about its future. Instead of trying to predict what the future might be, I would rather wait and patiently see how it emerges.

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