WGLC ’14: Female energy leaders see importance in initiative, authenticity

By Ben DuBose
Online Editor

HOUSTON – The energy industry is open to minority hires for prominent positions, but it is up to prospective candidates to take initiative themselves and be opportunistic in seizing those possibilities.

Speaking at the 2014 Women’s Global Leadership Conference, five leading female executives in the energy industry spoke in a panel discussion on empowering the female leaders of tomorrow. Drawing upon their own industry and life experiences, the panelists explained what younger employees could do to further enhance their career options.

“I have two pieces of advice, and they’re the same for men or women,” said Jennifer Koury, vice president of human resources at BHP Billiton Petroleum.

“The first is to know what you want and ask for it. The second is to be authentic.”

Koury offered examples from her own life, noting that she worked for ExxonMobil and Imperial Oil for the first eight years of her career. She had three children and a husband, and when Exxon suggested she move to Houston, she told them why it wouldn’t work and instead made a counter-proposal.

“I went to them with a plan that served their needs and my needs, and for the next 10 years, I worked part-time, four days a week, as a manager with increasing responsibility for global projects.

“It worked for me.”

Similarly, Mary Streett -- the vice president of US government affairs, communications and external affairs at BP America – told a story from her past that involved dropping out of law school after just one year.

“I was in law school in Little Rock, Arkansas, when Bill Clinton announced he was running for president [in 1992],” Streett said. “After Year 1 of law school, I dropped out. I wanted to work on the campaign. I started off by just volunteering, and I didn’t have any assurances of even getting a campaign job. But I took advantage of all these amazing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities and ended up working and getting a job in the White House.

“There’s always critical points in your career where you have to make tough decisions, but there will always be opportunities, and as young people you have to be ready to jump when they’re there,” she said. "Don't be afraid to take risks."

To the point of authenticity, Koury said the key thing for a young employee to remember is that he or she is the architect of his or her own career.

“You own 50% of the relationship you have with your company, so own it,” Koury said. “If you can’t find a company that fits with who you are, work within your company to build an environment that is truly authentic. I’ve seen so many people self-destruct either personally, professionally or both because they’re trying to be something they’re not.”

Koury said many people across the industry had expressed concerned to her that they can’t be their true selves in the workplace, but she disputes that point.

“I don’t think faking it is an option,” she said.

Koury noted that at BHP Billiton, the company recently established a council on inclusion and diversity, with one of its goals being to create an environment where differences are not just accommodated, but leveraged.

“I challenge each of you here to do that today,” she said to attendees at the annual conference. “Go to your workplace tomorrow, be who you are, and find other people in your organization who want that. If you want more authenticity in your workplace, be authentic.”

If those goals are met, opportunities do exist for minority candidates, the panel explained. Melissa Law, vice president of chemical and industrial services at Baker Hughes, said executives across the industry are becoming better at not making assumptions of candidates based on reasons such as gender.

“We can’t make assumptions on what someone can or can’t do,” Law said. “We have to let them figure it out and give an individual a chance to make it work.”

One way to do that, of course, is for young minority employees to build relationships with potential mentors within their organization. Law, who first started in the chemicals business as a field support engineer, recalled that when she first entered the doors of Baker Hughes, there were only two women she saw in the building at the time.

“I quickly realized I needed to find people that looked like me if I was going to stay in this industry,” Law said. “I needed role models. I tried to find those women and learn about their careers and how they progressed. I needed to ask how I could take on a new assignment when I’m pregnant. I needed that safe space to ask how it worked for them.”

Kim Clarke, senior vice president at Key Energy Services, said she took a recent survey of her mid-level female managers, asking if they felt empowered within the company.

Out of that group of eight women, all managing departments or groups of people, the top thing they said made them feel empowered was having women in the executive ranks.

“This is a service business, so we’re 93% male,” Clarke said in the panel discussion. “That’s even a bigger proportion than production companies. “But we do have two officers in the executive ranks who are female, and that is a critical part of what [other female employees] need.”

The second item cited by the eight managers was the corporate recognition of flexibility.

“Our company allows them to raise their children and to do their jobs in and out of the office, offline or online, and make special arrangements when necessary,” said Clarke. “We’ve created an environment where they can ask questions about their career and not feel threatened that the answer isn’t exactly what they’re looking for.”

But while the industry does appear to offer ample opportunities for minority advancement, panelists cautioned that a focus on the future shouldn’t come at the expense of the present.

“The last piece of advice I have is to be really good at the job you have now,” said Janeen Judah, general manager of Chevron’s Southern Africa business unit.

“I see that a lot of younger people are always wanting the next job,” Judah said. “Just be good at the job you have now, and that attracts attention and positive reinforcement.”

The annual Women’s Global Leadership Conference continues through Wednesday at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Houston.

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