“Embrace The Chaos” - David Coleman, Global Head of Equity at bp


David Coleman, Global Head of Equity at bp writes about their huge new all-employee share plan to 63,000+ people across 65 countries.

If you are anything like me, when you are asked to write something like this, your first thought is ‘word count’. Normally I’m trying to work out how I can stretch whatever it is I’m trying to write, to the number I’ve been asked for. On this, very rare occasion, it is the opposite. In over 20 years of working in equity plans, both in-house and for many of the administrators, this is by some margin the biggest and most complex plan I’ve worked on. And as I’ve already used up 92 of my allotted words, I should crack on and tell you about it.

In February 2020 bp appointed a new chief executive and, shortly after that, unveiled a new purpose and strategy to the world. Specifically, we are making the change from an international oil company to an integrated energy company, which, in layman’s terms, means we are going to work towards continuing to provide the world with the energy it needs to grow and thrive, but in a way that is increasingly clean and sustainable. Lofty ambitions and if we are to achieve our initial 5-year strategy, we’ll need everyone pulling in the same direction. From our retail people in Poland, to our head office team in London and on to the men and women drilling in Azerbaijan, every single bp employee is important to us achieving our goals.

Which is where this monster of a share plan comes in. Those of you who have enjoyed the exquisite agony of managing share plans for an issuer will know full well that there is rarely any lag between the senior management having a great idea and you being asked to deliver it. Such was the case this time too. Our CEO was determined that every bp colleague should have a meaningful stake in the journey we were undertaking and, after some deliberation, it was decided that the solution should be an all-employee share plan to 63,000+ people across 65 countries. All delivered whilst we were undergoing a complete reorganisation of the workforce and sadly having to lose thousands of people from the business.

My first reaction was to think maybe this can’t be done. The timescale was tight, the complexity is high, we were very light on resources and eyeballs deep in a reorganisation. Then I stopped and (metaphorically at least) looked around me. I am lucky enough at bp to be surrounded by smart people who know their stuff and work hard to deliver every day. And most importantly on this occasion, we had the full and unequivocal backing of everyone all the way up to the CEO to get this done, which always makes a huge difference and opens doors that otherwise might be quickly closed. And bolted. And perhaps a few boards nailed over for good measure.

It’s fair to say that there are dozens of interesting aspects to the delivery of this plan, but they can broadly be drawn together into three categories: data issues, technical challenges and structural challenges. But even across those categories there is an enormous amount of overlap and often the successful delivery of one part is entirely contingent on navigating two or three earlier problems. Let me give you a slightly longwinded example:
As I’m sure you can imagine, bp is a geographically vast business and vast also in terms of the different types of business it operates. This means that whilst most of our workforce is managed on a central people system, there are several large pockets of our business that are managed independently and on entirely separate systems. Almost one third of the plan’s eligible population to be precise. This means that data for eligible employees from those entities had to be harvested much more manually and then merged with the system drawn data, to create grant and demographic load files. It also means that rather than working with one area internally to pull all the data we needed together, we actually had to work with more than a dozen different areas, just on the data alone. But before we worked through all that, we had to navigate the more technical challenges of gaining access to the data in the first place, when many of the entities we’re working with have different employment contracts and some of those don’t allow the same movement of personal data that our central contracts do. For us that meant reviewing contract wording in a number of countries and, in some cases, contacting employees en masse to request permission for our administrators to use their data. We’re not done yet, either. All of that follows the complication of trying to navigate granting into a country where the reorganisation is ongoing and it’s sometimes difficult to immediately identify who is staying and who is leaving. In this instance we had to source and integrate within the data, a substantial array of local reorganisation files to help us try and predict future grades and employment statuses.

Now, even for share plans professionals such as ourselves, that little bit of detail makes for dull reading, but it does serve to perfectly illustrate the point that projects like these are puzzles. They are complicated, there are sometimes a thousand different pieces and if just one of those pieces is missing, you can’t really complete it. So if any of you are about to embark on a similar project, I humbly offer the following five pieces of advice:

• Embrace the chaos – unless you are working for a company where you are the only employee, it will always be more complicated than you expected or planned for. So fight for a timeline you want and give yourself the room to breathe and fix.

• Never believe anyone who tells you the data is ‘in good shape’ – the data isn’t in good shape and that person has told you a lie. This is true regardless of whatever fancy people system you have just implemented. At some point or another, you will likely have to roll up your sleeves and start reconciling data yourself, manually, and sometimes with the calculator on your phone. Build time for this and don’t beat yourself up about it.

• Accept that you won’t always get your own way – you can advise, you can discuss, you can
propose but more often than you would like, someone with more power, responsibility and
sometimes sense, will decide to go in a different direction. Accept it. It helps me to feel like I
am a builder of bespoke things rather than the owner of said things. I have clients and really
my primary goal is to deliver the thing they want.

• Be nice to everyone, all of the time – because projects like these need everyone on side to make them happen. Legal, HR systems, Finance, Reward, Comms, the Company Secretary’s office, the list goes on and on. It is likely that everyone is trying to get this done almost as much as you are. And those that aren’t… keep a list and vow revenge.

• Finally, and pertinently as the pandemic has brought physical and mental health to the forefront of everyone’s mind, look after yourself – projects of this scale and complexity can easily become all consuming, voraciously gobbling time in the same way I approach cinnamon swirls. It’s fine to work really hard, admirable too and we all do it. But try to remember that at work everyone is replaceable, at home no-one is. Look after you first and the project second.

If you’ve read this and still like the idea of delivering a big share plans project, feel free to come and find me with any questions on LinkedIn.

David Coleman, Global Head of Equity at bp