Route to the Top 2021: Interview with Simon Yang, chairman and president of bp China
Chief Executive Officer

Route to the Top 2021: Interview with Simon Yang, chairman and president of bp China

Simon Yang, chairman and president of bp China, shares his insights on the intersection between sustainability and organizational purpose.
Heidrick & Struggles
Simon Yang
Simon Yang image

Simon Yang is bp China president and bp Group senior vice president, Regions, Cities & Solutions; he is based in Beijing.

Mr. Yang has worked with bp for over 20 years extensively on corporate governance, business development and operation, long-term development strategy, partnerships and stakeholder relations in various business units, functions, and entities both inside China and abroad.

Mr. Yang started his career with McKinsey in China and moved to Unilever prior to joining bp ‎in 1998. Mr. Yang has spent most of his bp career with downstreams in energy industry and has held leadership roles for joint-venture management,‎ capital projects and commercial operation in China’s mainland and Taiwan, South Korea, and Malaysia. He was appointed as head of country for bp China in 2020 and leading the development of low carbon energy and integrated solutions for bp in China.

Simon Yang is an ACCA-certified fellow member and holds both M.A. and B.A. from Shanghai International Studies University.


Heidrick & Struggles: Could you please introduce yourself and talk about your career and milestones, what made you choose what you do today, and what propelled you to the CEO role?

Simon Yang: I have worked in the energy industry for more than 20 years, most of time with bp and two years in Shell. Along the journey, I gained culture insights from working assignment across various geographies: China, Singapore, and Houston. I started my career at McKinsey followed by couple of years in Unilever, before I joined bp. I have worked in headquarters as well, in joint ventures.

What attracted me to bp 20 years ago was a big project between bp and Sinopec, which led to the biggest investment bp made in China. That experience helped me gain deep insights into long-term financial planning, operations excellence, and joint venture (JV) partnerships.

Since then, I’ve held different roles in bp, from JV management to commercial head. Before I became bp China President, I was APAC VP for bp Petrochemicals.

Heidrick & Struggles: How is leading a joint venture different from leading a more hierarchical, top-down organization?

Simon Yang: It’s a very different experience. For instance, at a joint venture, you can make quick decisions as long as you respect the boundaries set by the board. It is imperative to be nimble and adaptive to win in the hyper-competitive environment in China. Joint ventures tend to be bolder and faster in decision making. In a more hierarchical, top-down organization, typically there are more stakeholders—you need to test and share your ideas, and gain support before decisions are made.

Heidrick & Struggles: Your appointment came as the COVID-19 pandemic was very much evolving, and bp was going through a large-scale restructuring. What was the main challenge for you stepping into the CEO role in such a difficult environment?

Simon Yang: My appointment came at a time when bp was going through the most fundamental change in its history and the whole world and economy was threatened by COVID-19. On one side, bp is making a bold move to transition into a greener company. It means a shift of our strategy, our culture, and our organization. It calls for different mindset, leadership, and capabilities. In such a challenging period of time, there have been more questions than answers, as you could imagine. On the other side, the pandemic hit us and paralyzed the economy. It has called for empathy, agility, and collaboration. While I was stepping into my new role under these circumstances, I needed to lead the team to perform while transforming. Keeping myself calm and my mind clear on what to achieve and prioritize was and still is important.

Heidrick & Struggles: Sustainability is very often intertwined with organizational purpose. How does the focus of purpose and sustainability shape your role and how does it make a difference in your work?

Simon Yang: bp’s ambition “to become a net-zero company by 2050 or sooner and to help the world get to net zero” reflects the current societal need and is fully aligned with China’s commitment to decarbonize. As a CEO, it is my role to translate the purpose into the principles and boundaries which will guide the whole organization on how we make decisions, prioritize our resources, and say no to some choices. It is also my role to translate it to a compelling value proposition and connect with our employees, business partners, and the wider society. Being a purposeful company will help us make tough decisions and grit and fight through adversity. It will give us a true advantage to attract talented people.

Heidrick & Struggles: How does this new reality change your day-to-day job?

Simon Yang: Any major changes when it comes to the purpose of the company are fundamental. It starts with putting purpose into strategy and then actions. It is not enough for CEOs just to talk about future visions, you need also to demonstrate that you have a plan of pathway to lead the organization into that future. You also need to change the leadership behaviors of the organization—being more agile, inclusive, and empathetic. CEOs and presidents need to lead and be able to admit that there are areas they don't know. We have experienced a lot of challenging changes throughout the last couple of years, and the role of the CEO is to hold the organization together; they also need to be vocal and communicate with the organization both internally and externally.

Heidrick & Struggles: How has the role of the CEO changed over the past 18 months and how do you see it evolving going forward?

Simon Yang: In the past, the CEO job was narrower; it usually had a more defined scope or simply a clear mandate to run and expand the business. Many companies will pivot from that scope with their new generation of CEOs. The massive changes we have seen over the past 18 months—concerning sustainability, the environment, DE&I (diversity, equity, and inclusion), COVID-19, the supply chain interruptions—have definitely stepped up the requirements for CEOs’ ability to cope with dramatic changes and link them to their strategy and purpose of the company.

The COVID-19 pandemic certainly added to this complexity. It challenged and changed how we work and connect with people. Like most of other companies, we are experimenting with new ways of working. We need to rethink how we collaborate effectively as a team and how we build trust with remote working employees. DE&I is another big topic. Embracing diversity of thinking is critical to win the talent competition and innovation. As a CEO, becoming digitally savvy is also becoming more important than ever.

Heidrick & Struggles: We have seen the contract, on one side, between the CEO and leadership changing, and on the other side, the contract between the CEO and the workforce changing as well. The workforce has become more vocal and more assertive when it comes to presenting a point of view. How do you feel this contract has shifted?

Simon Yang: Today’s workforce is more confident, and the working environment is safer and more equal. It is a positive evolution. In today’s world, leaders need to practice their listening skills so that they can listen effectively and intuitively. The CEO needs to be more empathetic and more human. He or she needs to balance between managing polarity, holding tension, and having a stance, which is easier said than done. The CEO also needs to be more personal. He or she needs to spend more time with the front-line workforce instead of staying behind the table in the boardroom. The CEO needs to learn to ask more questions instead of providing more answers. Basically, CEOs need to explore the unknown and challenge their existing thinking hypotheses and assumptions.

Heidrick & Struggles: How are the necessary skill set and prior experience of a CEO different from the way they were three years ago, and how do you expect they will change in the future?

Simon Yang: There is a clear element of agility that CEOs need to demonstrate. We are moving towards an environment where there will be more changes that organizations will have to adapt to, and learning curves will need to be pretty steep. It won’t work well for organizations that are too hierarchical or too rigid. It’s also important to be able to connect with even more diverse stakeholders than before, from government to shareholders to employees, society, and NGOs. CEOs need to up their game to listen to the voices from all stakeholders and respond quickly. There is no ready recipe.

Heidrick & Struggles: Some of the CEOs we've been talking to the past couple of years said they have seen a lot of their roles shifting from the day-to-day management to softer areas such as sustainability, DE&I, or employee engagement. How do you balance those priorities with your day-to-day management of the business?

Simon Yang: I don’t see these two sets of activities competing with each other, instead I see them intertwined. Sustainability, DE&I, and employee engagement help us to connect the company purpose to people’s individual inner drive and make the purpose relevant. And the day-to-day management of the business helps us translate the purpose into actionable activities, so that we can track them and make tangible progress to bring our purpose to life.

Heidrick & Struggles: What do you think are the most difficult skills to find for the next generation of leaders? What do you think the challenges will be in trying to find the right leaders?

Simon Yang: There are two at the top of my mind: complex adaptability and culture influence. There will be more chaos as the world becomes more complex. No one can foresee the future. The only thing we are sure is there will be more black swans. Leaders need to hone their skills to be more complex and adaptive. Culture influence reflects the reality that we will be facing more and more diverse stakeholders, across generations and cultures. Leaders will face more polarity and need to know how to manage it effectively while still holding the principle.

In my view, the biggest challenge in finding the right leaders is to stay humble and be aware of our own blind spots. We are looking for leaders for the future, and they come in all styles and approaches. My job is to find those talents with the forward-thinking mindset and nurture them in the organization.

Heidrick & Struggles: As you think back over your career, what steps have you taken to evolve as a purposeful leader and how have those steps changed your overall approach to leadership?

Simon Yang: One thing I learned during dealing with difficult situations and making tough decisions is to seek meaning and establish boundaries. I adopt the habit of looking into the future and put things into perspective. At the same time look inside to seek my inter-drive and principle. This helps me focus and prioritize and say no to distractions. It also helps me grit and persevere under pressure. The other thing I learned along the journey to hone my leadership is to stay personal and always in touch with front-line colleagues. This gives me huge insights on what really matters to our people, to their work and life. This keeps me grounded and connected. In such a large and well-established company, one of the common tendencies is to be too internally focused. I spend time visiting customers, suppliers, think tanks, and universities. That keeps us relevant to the fast evolution of the environment and society and able to stay ahead of the competition.

Heidrick & Struggles: Do you have anything else in mind related to the critical aspects of the CEO role?

Simon Yang: Maybe just one point in terms of Chinese leaders that are playing a global role: it’s important for Chinese leaders to grow and gain a global perspective, particularly in newer areas such as sustainability as well as other global themes. And, if there's anything that they can do in the earlier stage of their career, that will be rewarding.

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