[S01P01] Before Independent Social Performance

Series 01: Independent Social Performance – Our 5 Year Review

Post 01: Before Independent Social Performance

Access Independent SP – Our 5 Year Review Blog Series Here

September 2011. Having begun my journey in Amsterdam, I was jet-lagged and on the final leg of a flight from Singapore to Brisbane. I was reading a book. This was when Independent Social Performance was born.

In the slightly foggy state of the jet-lagged business traveller that had become familiar to me ever since I had left Shell Canada (to take the posting of Community Development Manager at Shell International Exploration and Production), I pulled a book out of my carry-on which I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy reading. I leaned back, cracked the spine, and heard the announcement that my flight was to begin boarding. I boarded my flight and I started reading. By the time the flight landed in Brisbane, the book was finished – as well as any certainty of my plan to stay at Shell until I retired.

The book I was reading was Independent Diplomat by Carne Ross.

Independent Diplomat by Carne Ross // Photo: J. Kuschminder


Some background for you…

First, I make notes in books when I read. I write all over them. Not in fiction books which I listen to as audiobooks, but in non-fiction books which I read as paperbacks or hardcovers. So, when I go back to my copy of Independent Diplomat to write this post, I am presented with the notes, the underlines, the ideas I scratched in the margins from eight years ago.

The second thing I should mention, for context and transparency, is that I didn’t start off wanting to work for an oil company, let alone Shell. In fact, ‘environmentalist’ was possibly a better label for me during my university years…although I’ve always hated that label.

I was raised between the farm and the city. Which meant, as any farm kid knows, you have a connection to the land whether you want it or not. Since I was old enough, I spent most summers working on the cattle ranch and the fields living with my uncle and aunt, returning to Edmonton for the school year. During university, when my summers became free and my uncle had passed on, I found the nature I had missed from the farm rock climbing in the Rocky Mountains and a purpose in working to protect sensitive ecosystems. I had first started being an -ist (environmental-ist, active-ist, cultural anthroplog-ist) by joining protest movements against logging company operations, usually by helping to block access roads in places like the beautiful Slocan Valley of British Colombia. I would come to sit on community-based planning committees for events like ‘take back our streets’, and that evolved towards my involvement in activities drawing awareness to human rights. These activities culminated in my becoming the Co-Chair of the Youth Committee for the United Nations 50th Anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights, a big event for Edmonton in 1998 – and for me. Through that role, I had the opportunity to meet several of the presenters who were human rights activists from all over the world, Owens Wiwa being among them. Owens Wiwa is the brother of the executed Ogoni leader Ken Saro-Wiwa who founded the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), a social movement that was fighting against Shell’s operations in the Niger Delta of Nigeria. After I heard Owens Wiwa speak, I had not only resolved to never buy Shell gasoline again, but to start to actively work against the oil and gas industry in Northern Alberta as I had the forestry industry in British Colombia. And so, I did. For five years I never bought Shell gas and told anyone who would listen why I wouldn’t and why they should do the same. I started working on water quality issues in the Oil Sands for an NGO called Toxics Watch Society which had joined the Pembina Institute’s Oil Sands Environmental Coalition (OSEC). Yes, that was me then, taking what would become my first steps towards working for an oil company, and not just any oil company, Shell.

But that is a different blog post.

View from Paradise Valley Lodge on Slocan Lake, British Colombia, Canada

When change came, I wasn’t looking for it. I was really happy at Shell, with my family, with the travel, the expat lifestyle in the diplomatique of Den Haag. The fact was that I had exceeded my own expectations for where my career and life was going to take me. I was the type of worker who worked hard but didn’t play internal politics because I didn’t have a clue about them. I did what I thought needed to be done and I said what I felt needed to be said. I know now that this behaviour was perhaps not the norm at Shell, many saw it for what it was, an ignorance of the nuances of the game at that level, but to others it was threatening. At Shell Canada, I had felt a freedom that came from a belief that nobody was watching me – I was a small cog in a huge multinational company. But that changed in 2009 when, as part of a massive re-structuring, Shell provided my wife and I the opportunity to relocate from Calgary, Canada to the Headquarters office in The Hague, Netherlands. To put it mildly, we were thrilled. It had been a dream of ours to be based internationally and have, the opportunity to work on projects all over the world. The new position came with two job titles: Communities Development Manager, and Subject-Matter-Expert Indigenous Peoples and Vulnerable groups.

Fast forward to September 2011. I was headed to Brisbane to join an HSSE-SP (Health Safety Security Environment – Social Performance) Audit team. I was the Social Performance Lead on the team and we evaluated the Arrow Energy operations of which Shell was a partner in along with China’s state owned CNOOC, who also sent auditors to join the team. It never escaped me, a winter-time city-kid/ summer-time-farm-kid from Northern Alberta, that this was the big leagues and I was loving and feeling grateful for every minute of it.

To some, I’m aware that it might seem strange that I was reading a book on international relations and international diplomacy in the first place. I was educated as a Cultural Anthropologist and Hydrogeological Engineering Technologist. My entire career had (and still has) been spent working on-the-ground at the interface of indigenous communities and extractive projects. I felt a world away – far from the practice and theory of diplomacy – but I had come across the book at an airport bookstore. I had picked it up, put it down, and left the store. Only to turn around ten steps out to return and buy it.

When I was transferred from Shell Canada (where I was working only within Canada, as the Public Consultation Team Lead for Canada On-shore Gas Projects) to Shell International, where I began working on projects globally, it was understandably a huge transition on many fronts personally and professionally. One of the shifts that I found fascinating was the mindset of the senior and executive level management I was now exposed to. In my experience, Shell Canada had operated pretty much as I imagined a large Canadian Company operating in Canada would. Shell International, however, was like it was its own nation state with the globe as its chessboard. And why not? It had – and still does now – a GDP equivalent larger than the majority of the countries in which they operate , they have a 100+ year old history (older then a surprising number of countries are) and an active project list, which at the time extended to over 100 countries across the globe. Shell Vice Presidents would meet with ministers and the company’s executives would meet with presidents. Northern Alberta started to feel very small to me.

Everyone is a Diplomat. For obvious reasons, commercial companies have been the first to adapt to this reality…multinationals have long ago transcended the bounds of national location and identification. Exxon Mobil has a large political department to monitor and negotiate with the many governments with whom the company has dealings. McDonalds and Google are effectively conducting their own diplomacy, such are the multiple effects (local, international, social, economic, aesthetic, environmental) of their decisions (pg 216)

Carne Ross

Independent Diplomat

Of course, multinational corporate international diplomacy wasn’t new then, and certainly, it isn’t new now.  However, what was changing for me then –  as a boots-on-the-ground community engagement practitioner working for a multinational company – was how at this time many indigenous communities started proactively and effectively asserting their rights. Indigenous communities were gaining both international recognition and support for doing so. In several regions indigenous community discussions were becoming further empowered by international declarations (such as the United Nation Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples), the acknowledgement of their rights by the ILO, the IFC, and OECD, national legislation which in many countries was shifting to accommodate these rights, and of course the diligent work of NGOs and civil society starting to improve the awareness and monitoring of these rights. This all collectively created a context where a state-to-state tone and protocol were taken when a multination resource company came to a community’s backyard.

In my opinion, no matter what side of the table you were sitting on (company, community, or government), this was the start of a fascinating and exciting time in our field that continues today. I remember feeling a need to keep up – a need I realise today that I’ll always feel – and my personal sense was that keeping up required the exploration of both a more globalised skillset and a more diplomatic mindset.

When I reviewed my copy of Independent Diplomat in preparation for writing this post, some of my pencilled underlines still haunt me today, both personally and professionally. I remember feeling punched in the gut several times on that plane flight as I read Ross’s words. For his words had finally given coherent expression to the feelings and thoughts I knew were there but didn’t know how to decode in myself.

I duly loved my work…it’s rituals and habits – the thick green memo paper, the elaborate protocols…delighted me, and i was quick to immerse myself in them. What I failed to notice was my parallel immersion in the ways of thought that permeate such institutions. As my posture became more proudly upright, so too did I begin to talk of how ‘we’ saw the world…My career prospered, but as it did so a shadow began to form across my experience. I tried to ignore it and became in response all the more vigorous in the aggressive pursuit of my (organisation’s) goals and thus of my career. (pg 12, 13)

The smart suits that I wore began to feel more restrictive and more uncomfortable. I realised that the separate identities I had maintained, as me and my professional self, would have to merge, and with that union, something very important would be lost…I began to yearn to be on their side of the table rather than my own. (pg 18)

Carne Ross

Independent Diplomat

Other pencilled-in underlines continue to have relevance or, at least, share a strong context to my work today at Independent SP. Such as the time when I sat down at the table across from community representatives in Sierra Leone to discuss the tri-party Community Development Agreement their Paramount Chiefs have signed with an international mining company and their own country’s national mining ministry. Or when I was a key-note speaker at a televised CSR event in Ulaanbaatar before I helped structure and facilitate a World Bank workshop for international mining companies operating in Mongolia:

Today, our problems are global as well as local. We do not have world government but nor do we have world democracy. Instead, we have an agglomeration of states cooperating sometimes well and sometimes badly to address their shared problems…the governed have very little access to the governors of this system, still less do they have a means to sway or influence them.  (pg 11)

Carne Ross

Independent Diplomat

More than any other quote I had underlined in Independent Diplomat, it was this quote that was my call-to-action to start Independent Social Performance:

At a more prosaic level, contemporary diplomacy is deeply unbalanced and unfair. Its practices and machinery are dominated by rich and powerful states whose political and economic power is reinforced and supplemented by their less-recognised diplomatic power. Big, rich and established countries have large cadres of experienced, well-trained and well-resourced diplomats who are able to dominate negotiations. They are better informed and more able to turn negotiations to their advantage…on the other side of the table, poorer and less experienced countries (and particularly non-state groups) often struggle to get their point of view heard, let alone accommodated…in agreements that do not address the interests of all concerned, above all those affected, are not good agreements and they are unlikely to have the desired effects or to endure. Ways need to be found to enable all those affected to be hard and their interests somehow addressed. This is the ‘diplomatic deficit’ that Independent Diplomat was designed to address…the fact (is) that international relations is ultimately about simple effects on simple people: it is merely politics…our common world, is just people and the environment in which they live. (pg 24, 25)


Carne Ross

Independent Diplomat

So, there it was. I was 25 pages in, about 20 minutes after take-off from Singapore International, heading to Brisbane and right there, Independent Social Performance was both conceived and named. Independent Social Performance was going to work on what could be called the ‘social performance deficit’ that exists inside the extractive industry. I later came to explain this – much less eloquently – as those projects that many recognise need to be done but are not being done because of an imbalance of interest or power.

The problem was that as much as I felt the desire to make Independent Social Performance a reality, I had no intention or desire to leave Shell. I really enjoyed my job and the work I was doing there. I was inside the castle rather than shouting from across the moat – I was influencing decision making and I valued that. I respected Shell as a company, I felt that despite my often community-based perspective, I always had a voice that was heard in any boardroom at any project site. Indeed, I described my job to others who asked as my ‘having the responsibility to bring the community in to the company boardroom and the company boardroom in to the community.” Shell allowed the space for this, it was a company that rewarded both success and innovation – which, to be honest, I felt was personally evidenced in the internal Individual and Team Performance Awards I had won. There was no reason to leave. So, I didn’t.

Returning from Australia, I was invited to co-manage a project that would win me another performance award within the company. Along with Shell’s Social Performance Competency Manager and a former Shell employee then working as a consultant, we developed over six months both Shell’s Social Performance Handbook and Shell’s Social Performance in Action global SP competency training programme.

Shell’s First Edition of The Social Performance Handbook // Photo by: J. Kuschminder

But the words in Independent Diplomat had continued to eat at me while I was working on what Shell’s future Social Performance practitioners would be trained on. Independent Diplomat sat on my desk in my home office. I’d pick it up, leaf through it, more often than not landing on the same page with an underlined paragraph that always made me toss it emotionally back down on the desk. This one underlined paragraph was actually a quotation of a quotation by Harvard Professor Joseph Nye:

The basic concept of power is the ability to influence others to get them to do what you want. There are three major ways to do that: one is to threaten them with sticks; the second is to pay them with carrots; the third is to attract them or co-opt them so that they want what you want. If you can get others to be attracted, to want what you want, it costs you much less in carrots and sticks. (pg 145)


Joseph Nye as quoted by Carne Ross

Independent Diplomat

I was emotional about it because it was the most honest definition of community engagement in the extractive industry that I had ever heard. I was at the water well looking in, re-evaluating all my past successes at the engagement table in a new light and I was no longer so sure of what I was seeing.

But let’s be pragmatic about this. I’m a professional at what I do. I’ve worked for all sides of the table now, NGOs, governments, oil companies, mining companies. Almost everything I do for corporate clients is done confidentially under NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) and interesting, so to is an increasing amount of NGO projects I’m a part of. But in spite of the professional secrecy, I can honestly say that attraction is my preferred approach to influence, and it has never included coercion or deception. Strategy has played a role, of course it has – as it does from every side of the table. But in my experience, there are always fundamental realities to power and influence beyond my personal control that express themselves at any engagement table: the desire for financial gain; the capacity of the actors at the table; and foremost among the three, the ability to embrace empathy in order to reach a sustainable agreement because trust is only built when you both have something to lose.

In my free time – without really even acknowledging it to myself – I had started plotting my departure from the oil industry. I updated my personal five year plan (which had me abruptly leaving Shell within two years rather than aiming for a promotion to a Job Grade 1), I started cautiously testing my wife to see if she would be ok with a different path forward for our family, and I started reacting to the internal politics of the office at a much more personal level than I had previously. By either destiny or design, my path was changing and my departure from Shell imminent.

But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t bring myself to leave the company that had provided myself and my family so much, a company that offered and taught me so much professionally and had made dreams of mine come true. In retrospect, I recognise now that I had anthropomorphised the company into a near father-like figure, but it was a relationship that I was coming to understand wasn’t mutual. I needed a bridge across the water and it came in the form of an email from a recruiter.

The recruiter’s email basically explained that a major international gold mining company was looking for a Senior Manager of Exploration Community Relations and they thought I would be a fit. I was being headhunted but what I saw was an opportunity to leave Shell to go and get solid experience in the mining industry before I started Independent SP. Five years or so I thought, the next five-year plan and then I’ll start Independent SP. So, I did that. But again, what happened there is perhaps another blog post.

Barrick Gold’s First Edition of it’s Exploration Community Relations Handbook by Jordon Kuschminder 

I often get asked if I miss working at Shell. The honest answer is yes. But in speaking to several of my colleagues, I understand that today’s Shell is a different Shell than the company I experienced from 2006 to 2012. Having not been a part of the changes that took place since I left, whether it’s the efficiency efforts, the acquisitions (i.e. with BG Group), and/or the restructurings, what I have heard from the remaining colleagues I have talked with both sounds and feels dramatic to me. I often walk away from those coffee sessions with a mixed sense of relief for my timing and concern for the stress some appear to be holding that I never knew I held myself until I had left. Several who I considered friends – and Shell ‘lifers’ – have now also moved on, mostly to other companies, but there’s a small group who became entrepreneurs – not just academics or consultants in the industry like I did but to successfully owning and operating businesses outside the extractive sector: yoga studios, yacht design companies, podcasts, and farms. I like to think it is a testament to the type and character of employees that Shell attracts.

 When I had first started Independent SP I was concerned that I needed to complete a master’s degree to be competitive as an international consultant (a feeling that still follows me around) but a mentor had made me feel better about it by re-framing my career for me: ‘Professionally, you need to start thinking of your experience this way: working for the Oil Sands NGO was your bachelor’s degree, working for the First Nations community in the Oil Sands was your master’s degree, working with Shell was your PhD, and working with Barrick Gold was your post-doc.’ It was one of the best pieces of advice and confidence confirmations I’ve ever received. So, as I write this, I can’t help but wonder: ‘what does this first five years at Independent SP represent?’

The only answer I have is that, at five years into operation, Independent Social Performance is here despite a journey that, of course for any founder is not always easy. Independent SP more often than not works on the types of projects that I dreamed I would be working on when I started it. These are the projects that deal with challenging social aspects of oil, gas and mining in complex social environments – projects where investigation, original research, capacity building, providing volume to the voices of vulnerable groups, and addressing power take the centre stage. But, of course, there are always exceptions and you need to learn to roll with the punches. In so many ways, Independent SP feels like what I have spent my life preparing for.

After re-reading Independent Diplomat so many years later and in the context of where Independent SP is now, I’m grateful to Carne Ross for having written a book that had within it a story of personal change powerful enough to help inspire me to have started Independent SP.

Maybe on one day I’ll get to meet him.

This post is part 1 of 8 in the blog series Independent SP – Our 5 Year Review

Post 01: Before Independent Social Performance
Series 01: Independent Social Performance – Our 5 Year Review
8 January 2019
By: Jordon Kuschminder

±27 min read

This entry is part 1 of 8 in the series Independent SP – Our 5 Year Review

This is a conversational blog written and maintained by Jordon Kuschminder, founder and executive director of Independent Social Performance Pte Ltd.  The purpose of this blog is to provide updates regarding Independent SP’s activities and announcements and to share personal musings that are not intended to represent the position or opinion of either Independent Social Performance Pte. Ltd. or any of its past or current clients.


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