Arjen Schulpen – Experiences in Iraq

No Jacket Required – Comment from LCG Geneva
29th June 2013
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Arjen Schulpen – Experiences in Iraq

I had never thought I would celebrate my 35th birthday in Iraq. I am seconded to the Basrah Gas Company, a joint venture with the Iraqi government and Shell as major partners. Iraq is recovering from decades of war and repression, as well as coming to terms with democracy in a country divided in many ways. Only recently has economic activity regained traction and especially the energy sector kicked off a first round of projects.

I am in the ‘early works’ team; a euphemism for having a wide range of tasks yet little manpower and many restrictions. We live in a walled base camp initially without phone or internet. And it is dusty, windy and over 50C in summer. We are only allowed outside the walls in convoys of armoured cars and a handful of armed guards. We are with 20, but our equal length work cycle means only 10 are in country at any one time.

We are outnumbered by the 3000 Iraqi employees, for many of whom we were the first contact with their joint venture partner. As such we needed to lay the foundation for a cooperative relationship. From the MCE4 course I knew culture is like a lens through which people see the world and I knew little about the Arab one. I needed to minimize our cultural divide. I called some Arab colleagues and picked up a few books and then made the cultural values overview from MCE4. Differing most from my ‘default’ Dutch working behaviour were relationships and saving face. I realised it was working for me when a colleague had a fallout with one Iraqi and was surprised the next day that almost no-one wanted to work with him anymore!

Next, with few people and many tasks I needed to get clarity on my work goals. Remembering ‘setting aims for strategy development’, I made the network of goals and tasks. I kept asking ‘what’, ‘what else’, ‘how’ and ‘how else’ to develop an exhaustive list of goals which you subsequently group and prioritise. Working these out with the ‘quadrant of aims’ gave the clarity needed to break it down into actionable work tasks. So now I was armed with my work plan and culturally adapted behaviours, but something was still missing.

I found that in almost each engagement I was being probed and challenged on what Shell and I could bring that they could not do themselves. I needed to ‘sell’ our presence to each individual. I tailored the HPL60 sales process of plan/approach/gain confidence/present/gain commitment to suit my needs and used it to help my new colleagues see the benefits of our cooperation.

Feeling pretty good about myself that I had been implementing my EIIL learnings, I was on the phone with Steve. Steve says:”that work cycle is perfect for a KOLB review and improvement, have you been doing that?”. Oops. So i was left on my 35th birthday under the Iraqi stars contemplating that you are never too old to improve, errr, you’re improving!

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