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Alumni Stories · Organizational Culture - Leadership - Workplace Well-being

The world is his oyster

Shell Vice President Parminder Kohli (MBA 2001) on oil, obstacles and opportunities
May 2020

Parminder Kohli is not a man with a plan.

When it comes to his personal and professional life, this senior executive doesn’t write the rules in advance. His philosophy of opening himself up to unexpected opportunity has served Kohli well – evident in his climb to the top at Shell, the world’s largest energy company.

Energy, petroleum and chemicals

While the current crisis prevents Kohli from occupying his new office at the Shell headquarters in London, the new VP Lubricants Europe/Russia & Africa is already at home in the position – and the company.

Kohli’s latest promotion is a step into the top echelons of Shell after a long, successful path at the company. He says he was drawn to working for a major multinational because he wanted a career, not just a job.

“I have been with Shell for 18 years and my journey there has continuously evolved,” says Kohli. “Shell believes that potential is important, which has given me a steady stream of new challenges.”

Every three to four years, professionals like Kohli are given the chance to take on new positions and gain fresh experience as they rotate in Shell’s internal job market.

Kohli started in strategy in the chemicals sector. Hungry for a position with bottom line accountability and team management, he moved on to the Commercial Fuels business in Northern Europe. There, Kohli led sales and marketing across six markets before progressing to Head of Global Marketing for Shell’s lubricants business.

His next role was as CEO of the Lubricants JV in Africa and based in Casablanca, Morocco, where he grew the business a whopping six-fold before moving to Shell’s Fleet Solutions business. There he spent the past five years as Global Head of Marketing, Operations and Business Development, and set the strategic direction of the business as provider of sustainable mobility solutions. Kohli led its digital transformation journey by automating core business processes, and achieved record operational excellence, putting Shell’s Fleet Solutions ahead of global competitors.

Now as VP Lubricants Europe/Russia & Africa, Kohli oversees a team of 2500 direct and indirect staff and manages the difficult demands of the 70 countries in his region.

Overcoming obstacles

Taking on a position with great responsibility during a pandemic is especially challenging. While COVID-19’s long-term effects on the energy industry and global economy are unclear, Kohli has faith that this too shall pass.

“These are unprecedented times,” Kohli says. “Many industries are impacted, but our industry is particularly hard hit as we are so dependent on the economy’s buoyancy.”

With the double shock of both oversupply and reduced demand due to the current crisis, Shell – like the entire oil industry – must make its way deftly through short-term disruption.

“In the short term, this means making sure our people are safe, and that includes our customers,” says Kohli. “Companies rely on us to keep their operations moving, but how do we keep things moving when the world is on pause?”

Thankfully, after nearly two decades in global management, Kohli has the answers.

“We have to rein in costs to survive,” emphasizes Kohli. “Tightening our belts has to include reducing capital outlays and operational expenses.”

Opportunity knocks

London is a far cry from the small towns in India where Kohli spent his childhood. He studied engineering but soon realized his professional ambitions lay elsewhere.

“I came to the understanding that I wasn’t meant to build bridges,” smiles Kohli.

Kohli decided he’d build bridges of another kind – between people. He earned a postgrad in management and looked to expand his professional horizons initially working in FMCG sector in India. With a strong desire to live and work outside India, Kohli considered all options – except IT services where many of his engineering classmates were headed in the ‘90s.

So when Côte d’Ivoire called, Kohli answered. He was recruited to set up a small business in Abidjan that focused on food imports, and created a solid infrastructure that would lead the company to success. But when a coup attempt in 1999 and civil war pushed him out, Kohli chose the calm and stability of Switzerland as a refuge.

“I decided to take a year off and continue my education,” says Kohli. “I wanted a one-year intensive program that focused on industry, and most importantly, could advance my global opportunities.”

He was awarded an IMD MBA in 2001, graduating in a year in which the global economy was struggling after the dotcom bubble burst in 2000. If that didn’t make a job search harder, the events of 11th  September, 2001, most certainly had an impact. But securing that first role at Shell came surprisingly easily, as Kohli used the strong IMD alumni network to earn multiple job offers.

“I am a simple man from a humble background,” Kohli reminds us. “The opportunities I’ve had have been – quite simply – incredible.”

Finding the balance

Honoring his strong commitment to equality, ethnicity and diversity, Kohli is the sponsor of the Shell Asian network in London and actively mentors young executives from ethnic minority backgrounds. He also boasts a gender-balanced team, which is uncommon in the energy sector.

Progress on gender equality is not moving as quickly as it should in the corporate world,” says Kohli. “I want everyone to play their part in creating a fairer society.”

According to Kohli, personal development is key to professional development. He is a big believer in physical and mental fitness. This early bird is up before 5am and devotes his mornings to meditation, self-reflection and a 40-minute run. Also an avid reader, he favors biographies of successful leaders from all walks of life.

“History, economics, world business – I’m interested in it all,” says Kohli. “We can learn from each other’s struggles.”

And what of his own struggle, as someone from a modest background who achieved success at one of the biggest companies in the world?

“When word got out about my promotion, I was touched to receive emails from many Shell employees all over the world,” he says. “They were thrilled to see someone of my background and ethnicity in such a position.”

Drawing on his own personal and professional experience, Kohli realized early on the importance of leveraging inclusion to increase effectiveness and productivity. Diverse representation, especially in leadership, creates a ripple effect.

Far from one small step for a senior executive, Kohli’s latest promotion to Vice President at Shell is a giant leap for mankind.