One Culture, One TAQA

Corporate culture —
We want people who care about their work for its own sake, are absorbed by the detail and love the challenge of working for TAQA, says CEO Carl Sheldon

Successful companies have always been built on people. The quality of your staff and the strong relationships that they form are the cornerstone of developing a world-beating business.

At TAQA, building a culture of excellence is Chief Executive Officer Carl Sheldon’s vision. “Business is a performing art,” says Mr Sheldon. “I hope we improve people’s lives. I am an optimist and believe that human beings are heroic.”

Outlining TAQA’s core values, Mr Sheldon talks about inspirational figures such as the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson and the world’s greatest football player, Barcelona’s Lionel Messi. He also discusses the challenges of integrating a company that contains a vast array of nationalities and is spread over four continents.

Why are we talking so much about the culture at TAQA?

Essentially, our culture is the sum of our collective attitudes. Thinking about that in a disciplined way, and attempting to move towards the most powerful cultural and organisational model you can have is a tremendous force in business. If we do that well, you will always hire staff for their character and not just for their skills. People need to know what is expected of them and how to do the right thing instinctively.

They don’t need lots of rules and procedures to make that happen. It really comes down to simple things about people trying to do their best. They should be surrounded by colleagues who don’t always think the same but feel the same. That is really what culture is – a deepening and growing bond between people. That is what we stand for. It’s what will identify TAQA.

What else does TAQA stand for?

I hope we are helping to improve people’s lives. Energy is an integral part of day-today life and one of the cornerstones on which rising prosperity is built. The challenge the world faces in the next century is to deliver energy intelligently to seven billion people. We could do it badly and end up being wasteful, warm up the planet and trigger resource wars. Or we can do it intelligently and retard climate change by changing the fuel mix. This is incredibly difficult. To make a significant change in the fuel mix in a developed society will take more than a generation. It will be a 30-to- 50-year endeavour, and during that time the demand for energy will rise, mostly from emerging markets.

When did it strike you that TAQA needed to look at its corporate culture?

I could sense there was a unity of purpose in the company, and a desire for One TAQA. But we didn’t have any data, so we needed to discuss the issues. We started by holding two meetings in 2011 with about 60 influential people at TAQA and then held sessions with LRN, an American company that specialises in this kind of work. I believe corporate culture is about how you behave, and the LRN sessions focused in on that. There were no pious statements on the wall, or themes about vision and values, motherhood and apple pie. No, we looked at what happens when someone is dishonest or when they put their own interests above those of the company. Those sorts of probing questions tell you what people actually do.

What have you discovered from these meetings and the subsequent survey carried out among TAQA staff?

It was a sophisticated piece of data from almost the whole company as around 90% of employees responded. So it was meaningful. The results were also very encouraging because there are lots of people who want to work at TAQA and thought their jobs were meaningful. On the downside, there was a lack of clarity about TAQA’s core purpose, but that was not surprising because we grew out of acquisitions. During the past three years, we have started to change that – to get people to think as one company. I think you can see in the last six months that we have demonstrated the ability to do sophisticated, complex things. We have shown that we are worthy of people’s trust. That trust extends to our safety record, and I think people understand that we care. Keeping people safe is crucial.

You have talked about this as a journey without an end. surely, there has to be an end?

Why? The author Robert Louis Stevenson said it was better to travel hopefully than to arrive. This sort of thing cannot be perfected, it can only be improved because that is the nature of the human condition. We will constantly be changing our targets and reinventing ourselves. Business is performance art. You have to do it again, and again, and again. It is not like the Mona Lisa, you paint it and there it is, done, thank you Leonardo. No. Do it today, do it tomorrow, get up the next day and do it again.

What surprised you about the survey findings?

I was surprised by how fundamentally we felt the same across businesses and across nationalities. It was really encouraging. Even so, people can underestimate how changing the culture takes time – it is very challenging. But I am an optimist and I believe that human beings are heroic. At times, people confuse management with leadership. They confuse control with power. Leadership is not about authority, leadership is about influence.

Where are we now on this cultural journey?

We have a roadmap. The meetings and survey showed us where we stood on the leadership ladder that ranges from anarchy, which is the most primitive form of non-governance, to a highly empowered and self-directed community of colleagues. We are probably beyond command and control, where people are not really self-governing but are in a mixture of roles. During the next couple of years, we are going to fine-tune the roadmap, so we continue to develop.

What will change for the average TAQA employee?

When you go to an excellent organisation, you sense it immediately. It is the very fabric of the company. People care about their work for its own sake; they are devotees as much as employees. They are absorbed by the detail and love the challenge of working for TAQA. It is not about recognition in the sense of prizes or pats on the head, it is about knowing in your heart that what you are doing is worthwhile. That is the truest form of recognition. For example, look at the way Barcelona play football. Lionel Messi is considered the greatest player in the world, but he never hogs the ball. He is just one player in a team system that has turned Barcelona into an incredible force. You can’t outrun them and you can’t kick them off the ball. They are very hard to beat at their own game but that is your only choice.

What would you say to the sceptic who says he is just here for the money?

Go and do that somewhere else. This is not the place for you. You need to have the courage to say, this not for everyone. It is hard, it is demanding, you might not like it. If you don’t like it, don’t waste your time on it. Life is too short, so go and find something you do care about.

Can you give us examples of successful corporate cultures around the world?

Sometimes it comes from the people who founded companies. Apple would be a good example under Steve Jobs, so would Hewlett-Packard. They are companies that are imbued with the culture of their founders. Now that does not necessarily endure forever, so you have to step back occasionally. If you get a company with high energy in the early days, it can become complacent. The energy that was key to Success can fade. What is important is picking good people and trusting them to get on with it.

What has been your most difficult task?

Getting people to understand how hard this is. It is not skating across the surface, it is not branding or image building. It might be all those things, but in essence it is looking at the really difficult questions. If it isn’t probing into deep issues, it will not be authentic and people are supersensitive to a phony.