Preparation is key, says Prof John Read

23 Aug 2012

What does your current job involve?
I'm the Global Technology Manager for Shell Specialities; which is both bitumen and sulphur.

I lead a team of more than 100 people to deliver expertise and best practice input for technical sales and product management, including industry representation and government liaison, technical service to more than 2000 customers across 24 countries, management and maintenance of a commercially-viable range of products to meet the needs of customers, assurance that all products meet the required standards and to advise on any changing regulations. My team also provides high-level input from the market place to the research and development team in order to deliver a targeted technology development programme.

I am also Professor of Pavement Materials at the University of Nottingham, UK, where I give lectures and act as an industrial advisor to the Department of Civil Engineering.

You manage over 100 people. Where are they stationed, and how do you achieve a smooth running operation?
They're spread throughout the world, in 18 countries. Like with most things in life, preparation is key. Managing across so many markets, you have to select the right up-and-coming leaders to fill the key positions and then you need to delegate, whilst maintaining accountability yourself. That way when the team's successful, everybody shares in the success, but if there's an issue, you personally take your share of the repercussions.

I would also say developing people's leadership skills is key; without the ability to manage virtually, to nurture and exploit diversity, to communicate well with stakeholders and to be able to help people see where their activities contribute to the bigger picture, we wouldn't be able to deliver.

What motivated you into postgraduate studies and to pursue a career in engineering?
At the end of my A-levels, having been bombarded with information for 15 years, I felt I'd had enough, so went to work - and stumbled across the industry I now work in. I happened to be taking my friend to the job centre, and saw an advert for a trainee junior materials technician, at a consultant testing firm and thought that would be good for the summer. I worked at an RAF base, testing the asphalts, concretes and soils, got to the end of the summer and thought, I'm really enjoying the work and having some money!

I decided to carry on and to continue my education at another time. I did for three years but felt I wasn't achieving my potential so I decided to go back and finish my education. I was very fortunate that the company I was with, Redland (now Lafarge), sponsored my materials engineering degree and I carried on from there. Those three years in industry were very beneficial - they allowed me to really decide what I was interested in.

What are the most important things you've learned in your career so far?
Listen, listen and listen again. We rarely listen, particularly as scientists and engineers, as we're trained to think and interpret data by ourselves. I've found if you truly listen to people and add your thoughts the outcome of the combined thinking is always superior. All around my office I have post-its reminding me to listen, listen again, test that I have understood by repeating back, and listen once again: only then do I begin thinking about the outcome. Try it. I promise the outcome will be better.

What have been the key milestones in your career?
Returning to education allowed me to achieve my potential. The birth of my children changed my focus from me to them and created a desire to achieve for them. The publishing of the Shell Bitumen Handbook: suddenly I became known by virtually everyone in the industry, almost overnight. Finally, the restructuring of all the commercial businesses in Shell in 2005 to be global businesses - it gave me the opportunity to become Global Technology Manager, and to drive through my ideas and strategies for how technology should contribute to the business.

What key things would a young person need to do if they wanted to get to the position you've achieved?
Work on your education, achieve your potential academically and the rest of your career will open up before you. If you don't then you will forever be chasing what might have been.

What does being a member of SCI mean to you?
It's very important to me as it offers a broad perspective of all aspects where chemistry contributes to society, as well as being an excellent means to observe and adopt new ways of thinking, behaving and delivering, to improve both myself and the businesses in which I work.

That's vital - we must continue to develop every day, to stay at the forefront of any discipline. Having a vehicle like SCI where you can tap into other people's ideas, attend prestigious lectures and workshops, and even be a formal part of SCI in one of the groups or committees - all of that gives you the opportunity to continue to develop.

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