Christian Stadler


On his book Enduring Success: What We Can Learn from the History of Outstanding Corporations

Cover Interview of February 06, 2011

A close-up

A section in Chapter 3 on how companies learn over time and across space is titled “Learning Stories.”

Naturally, corporations love to tell heroic stories.  They help to motivate people and inspire others to follow their example.  Which makes sense.  But great companies are also prepared to learn from their own mishaps rather than sweeping them under the carpet.

In the Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell, for example, a powerful story related to Henry Deterding, the company’s former CEO.  Henry was a brilliant businessman who engineered the merger between the British Shell Transport and Trading and Royal Dutch in 1907.  His success put him in a position of unchallenged power.  Unfortunately, after the nationalization of Shell by communist Russia, he felt that only Adolf Hitler could stop the enemies of capitalism.  Fortunately, he retired before he could create any compromising links between Shell and Nazi Germany.

It is interesting how Shell dealt with this near disaster in subsequent years.  We would expect them to quickly forget about the embarrassment. They did not.  On the contrary, they were determined to learn from it.

When in 1964 McKinsey, an influential consulting company, recommended that Shell reorganizes and installs a strong CEO, the company remembered the story of Henry Deterding.  They decided that, in a politically-sensitive industry like theirs, it would be better for a number of individuals to share responsibilities.  So, instead, Shell installed a committee of managing directors.  The outside world never liked its structure but Shell had learnt from its past.