Mary Johnson

Profiles in GRIT: Shell's Suganthi Subramaniam on the biggest challenge of her career

Blog Post created by Mary Johnson on May 29, 2018

Suganthi SubramianThis week in our series Profiles in GRIT, we introduce you to Suganthi Subramaniam, Shell’s Malaysia IT country chair.


Suganthi is based out of Shell’s business operation center in Kuala Lumpur, where she manages some 200 people. She was honored with a GRIT Award at our inaugural ceremony back in March, in part because of her role in the demobilization of Shell’s IT hub in Malaysia beginning in late 2016. It was a tough job at a critical time for the organization — and marked an enormous professional transformation for Suganthi, who has always sought opportunity in the challenges that come her way.


Read below for more about Suganthi.


PINK PETRO: What’s the biggest challenge you have faced, and how did you overcome it?


SUGANTHI: The Shell IT transformation strategy was announced toward the end of 2015 while implementation began in 2016. This transformation focused on establishing IT hubs in London, Houston, Bangalore and Netherlands. This essentially meant that the IT hub in Malaysia, home to 1,500 IT staff and contractors who operate a significant part of Shell’s critical IT operations, was to be demobilized. An estimated 500 roles were to move to Bangalore, including my own, leaving behind a retained organization of 21 people in Shell IT Malaysia.


While I myself internalized this announcement and went through the emotional change curve, I could see the impact the decision had on the Malaysian IT community trying to deal with what it meant to their personal lives, such as supporting their families, paying mortgages, finding another role outside Shell, etc. Little did I realize, the biggest challenge I was going to face was going to unfold in November 2016, when I was asked to take on the role of Shell Malaysia IT Country Chair, which would make me not just part of the IT transformation journey but leader of the transformation journey for the Shell Malaysia IT community.


PP: What hurdles did you face in that role?


SS: The most significant one was to manage the successful IT transformation while maintaining secure and reliable IT operations, which relied heavily on the impacted staff. To overcome this hurdle, I first secured leadership support at the highest level — namely the Shell CEO and CIO. I then leveraged a network called People’s Change Agent Network [PCAN], which was run by the impacted staff to motivate and empower them with a voice at the table. As the sponsor of PCAN, I enabled my team to run upskilling programs for both soft and technical skills and outplacement activities, and I kept staff abreast of changes through tailored communication in monthly newsletters, town halls, floor walks and booths. On my floor walks, I, together with my leadership team, actively listened to concerns and morphed our plans to support this journey.


Another key action was to encourage and create the opportunity for the leaders such as the Shell CEO, CIO and VP of strategy and planning to visit Malaysia. Jointly with my stellar PCAN network members, I worked on ensuring that these visits had deep meaning and recognition for the relentless effort and professionalism demonstrated by the Shell IT Malaysia community. Staff needed to embrace and internalize that the organization genuinely cared and valued their contribution towards enabling the success of the Bangalore hub and that they were committed to do the best in supporting their welfare. I’m proud to say, the strategy and action plan has been successful.


When I took on this challenge of being the IT country chair, I was asked the rationale of wanting to be the captain of a sinking ship. The answer was simple — the people. I have had many opportunities and gained much from Shell and these people. This was the perfect opportunity for me to give back in a small way to those who have been with me on this amazing journey.


PP: What’s one mistake you made and what did you learn from it?


SS: In this first 10 years of my career, I was focused on establishing myself in Shell, developing content knowledge, leadership skills, visibility and relationships to enable myself to deliver effectively. My external networking was minimal. However, when I became Shell Malaysia IT country chair, I realized I would not be able to do justice to the Shell Malaysia IT community without external and purposeful networking — a mistake that stuck out to me like a sore thumb. 


With this difficult journey, I needed to showcase my community, understand the external market trends in human capital, work with government organizations to leverage opportunities for staff and keep abreast of other organizations in the industry. In this last year, I have successfully networked and influenced several organizations that have joined us in our outplacement activities, worked with the government on some specific digital transformation initiatives on human capital, learned about market trends and implemented them in my functional role as an asset and configuration manager, as well as facilitated the certification of staff with skills required by Shell and the industry.


PP: What’s been the most rewarding part of your career?


SS: As a professional, I am motivated by learning opportunities and challenges that give me the platform to grow, sharpen and develop both technical and soft skills. As I established myself as leader of teams and grew into a leader of a community, I realize the passion to nurture, mentor, coach and develop the pipeline of leaders, as well as staff, was innate and very strong in me. Staff coaching, training and mentoring sessions enriched my experience as it is truly a two-way learning curve and has been a gratifying way to give back to the organization.


PP: Who’s been a “gritty” role model for you and why?


SS: My mother. She lost her father at the age of 18. Her responsibilities were heavy. She needed to support her mother and younger sister, who were both uneducated. However, she never stopped to think, “Why me?” And with the help of her school headmaster, she joined a teacher’s training academy that paid allowances that she could use to support them while she got trained to be a teacher. There was no looking back for her. In every challenge she has faced, her motto was, “Look forward, learn from the past, improve and improvise.” And there has never been an obstacle that has crippled her.