When COVID-19 hit, Shell was preparing for a 2021 launch of its new polyethylene business. The crisis prompted general manager Emma Lewis to lean on the company’s values and focus squarely on the care of its customers and employees.

When Shell Chemicals first conceived its new Shell Polymers business, IT was at the core of how the planned venture could change the way day-to-day business was conducted in the polyethylene market.

“Like a lot of companies, we started with the idea that we’re going to create all these really awesome IT tools—customer portals, apps, and so on—that would make customers want to do business with us,” says Emma Lewis, the venture’s general manager. “But when we got into writing the business plan, we realized: People still buy products from people.”

So Lewis and her leadership team took a step back and became much more mindful about the culture they intended to create at Shell Polymers, with a focus on the values of its people and its prospective customers.

“When we first started talking about disrupting the industry, it started with IT,” she explains. “But then it became about who we hired, how we showed up, and whether there were certain applications we didn’t sell because they didn’t fit with our values. It became much more about the culture than about an app on a phone.”

‘People Always Remember’

The new business venture, slated for launch in mid-2021, focused squarely on people—employees and customers—and on providing an unrivaled customer experience. But before it had a chance to begin delivering on its plans, the global pandemic came crashing down and everything stopped, including construction. Prospective customers, meanwhile, were suddenly dealing with a health care crisis that was creating a stunning business crisis, leaving little time for talks with a supplier “that might start up within 18 months,” says Lewis.

In response, Shell leaned on its values and pivoted to providing those customers with meaningful help.

“We said, ‘Tell us what you’re struggling with; let us tell you what scenarios we’ve used in our business and what we think GDP projections might look like,” says Lewis. “‘So you’re having trouble running something on a line? Let us get you on a phone with one of our people.’”

Shell connected with customers in a significant way to truly help them with their businesses, in other words. “I think people always remember how you treated them in a crisis,” Lewis says.

Scenario Planning

The scenarios Shell shared with its customers are the result of planning efforts that became much more detailed in the wake of COVID-19. The suddenly uncertain future-state of the chemicals marketplace prompted the company to dive more deeply into its traditional scenario planning, which had previously centered on the rate and pace of the energy transition. The new, more detailed approach was intended to build more resilience and flexibility into the business plan, since the Shell team didn’t know what the world would look like in 12 months.

Wealth and the global markets were considered a primary driver in the scenarios; also included were environmental drivers such as proposed green deal investments and security and health catalysts. “If countries start to shut down their borders, trade flows less, and people want critical products to be manufactured where they live,” Lewis notes. “We asked ourselves, how does that affect the demand flow, and what’s our role?”

Shell worked through four or five specific, COVID-driven scenarios and then tested the current business plan for the Shell Polymers venture against them to assess vulnerabilities and opportunities—not just over three to five years but the next 10. As a result, some of the original business plan has been modified, including the products Shell Polymers will make and where they’ll be placed, commercial agreement partners, contingency plans, and resource allocation.

Walking the Talk

The pandemic also tested Shell Polymers’ differentiator: its core values.

“We had to ask ourselves: ‘Are we going to walk the walk internally?’” Lewis says. “How are we going to support working families, what are we going to do when we don’t know when the startup date is going to be, and how do we keep ourselves whole as an organization?”

Lewis knew her employees were getting exhausted. Not only was the uncertainty of potential job layoffs weighing on them, but their personal lives and those of their loved ones had also been wracked by the pandemic. She found herself shifting between larger strategic decisions and personal conversations with her team about their mental health.

During times like these, leadership calls for authenticity, transparency, and a willingness to listen, Lewis says.

“I think you have to admit that you’re struggling too,” says Lewis, who acknowledges she didn’t take good care of herself at the outset. “There have been days when I showed up and said, ‘I’m exhausted. My kid is not sleeping. I feel like all I do is be mommy and work right now, and I’ve sort of forgotten who I am in the mix of all this,’” she says. Over the summer, Lewis had to recommit to making the time to work out, play with her child, and “do all the other things that give me space.”

It has been the most emotionally challenging period of Lewis’ career. Looking back at how she initially approached the health crisis, she admits she learned a valuable lesson.

“Back in March and April, everybody was running at this like there was a building on fire,” she recounts. “People were working 16 hours a day, seven days a week. The reality is, it’s not the 100-meter hurdles—it’s a marathon.”

by Dr. Gerald C. Kane, professor of information systems and faculty director, the Edmund H. Shea Jr. Center for Entrepreneurship, Carroll School of Management, Boston College; Rich Nanda, principal, Deloitte Consulting LLP; and Anh Nguyen Phillips, senior manager, Deloitte Consulting LLP

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of conversations with leaders for an upcoming book, “The Transformation Myth,” a collaboration between Deloitte and academics from Boston College and Northwestern University, to be published in 2021.