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Sunoco CEO Elsenhans Speaks at Moore
November 09, 2011
Wells Fargo Lecture Series
Lynn Elsenhans?Chairman, CEO and President of Sunoco, Inc. and Sunoco Logistics
"Overcoming Barriers to Personal and Organizational Success"
After 31 years of working, 15 years as a senior executive, and over 3 years as a CEO, still the most common question I get asked is, “what is it like to be a woman in the male dominated oil industry?” Or, “how could a woman become the CEO of an oil company?”
In the past, I have avoided answering these questions, not because I have had a particularly bad experience, I have not. Rather, I have not wanted women to dwell on gender as an excuse for their lack of success and I have not wanted to play into men’s stereotypes on the type of roles that are appropriate for women. Lately, I have decided that I would start to answer this question if the answer can help men and women fulfill their full potential.
Most people face barriers to their success and while some barriers are created by others (more on that later), the most severe are often those imposed from within. After observing people who have reported to me for almost 30 years, the ones that stand out are as follows:
Probably the most common self imposed barrier is risk aversion fueled by the fear of failure or a lack of self confidence. I see this played out in an unwillingness to accept roles or assignments that stretch capabilities and where there is the possibility to fail. I will say that I see this in women more than men. I’ve found that many women will not volunteer for assignments that they are clearly qualified for unless they are 100% sure that they will be successful. On the other hand, the men I lead are happy to take on these assignments even when they are largely unqualified for them and the probability of their success in the role is small. The phrase learned in boyhood: “put me in coach”, endures.
Invariably, the most impactful assignments I had were the ones that put me most outside of my comfort zone and provided the most challenges. So while difficult, even stressful at times, they were the ones that I learned the most from and in the end did the most for my personal development: preparing me for larger roles and doing the most to improve my effectiveness as a leader. A few come to mind:
- Taking a role as a process engineer at Shell’s Deer Park Refinery, outside of Houston, when only one other woman had done that role at Shell and not being an engineer by academic training
- Many years later agreeing to become the President of Shell Deer Park Refining Company when the highest level position I had at a plant up to that point was a first level process manager in a chemical plant.
Additionally, I had concerns whether the refinery’s joint venture partner, Pemex, the national oil company of Mexico, would accept a woman who was not an engineer as the leader of the organization. As an aside, it turns out that they were actually just as or perhaps even more supportive than Shell!
- Agreeing to move to Singapore in a big role leading Shell’s downstream business in Asia Pacific and the Middle East when the only other American to have a senior role in Asia had failed and when many in the organization questioned whether a woman could be accepted as a leader in several of the Asian and Middle East cultures. While the most challenging of all my Shell assignments, it was also the most rewarding both professionally and personally.
The second big self limiter, related to risk aversion, is being frozen in in-action, waiting to seek permission to act. One of the best pieces of advice I received early in my career was that it was far better to seek forgiveness than to seek permission. If you see something that needs to be done, just go do it. If after doing it, your manager indicates they wish you hadn’t, then say you are sorry and ask for forgiveness. I now give this advice to young people all the time.
The third limiter: a “knowing” mindset or a failure to be open to learning. In addition to blocking creativity and innovation, it is a turnoff to colleagues that hampers effectiveness. Who likes a “know it all”? If you feel your boss already knows the right answer, how likely are you going to feel that they will listen to your idea, so how likely are you to offer it? The knowing mindset generally keeps individuals and the organizations they lead stuck in the status quo.
A corollary to the knowing mindset is stubbornly holding on to the “need to be right”. The reason for the differentiation is that this person may be open to learning, continuous improvement, and even stretching the boundaries of know-how, but when trying to influence a decision or an outcome; they display a dogged determination in pushing their argument. The impact can be quite debilitating. If you are so focused on your own point of view you are not likely to come across as interested in the point of view of others. I think Stephen Covey said it best, “seek first to understand and then to be understood”. For me personally, this self imposed barrier, has been the most difficult one to overcome. I’ve worked hard on it and have improved but during times of high stress it sneaks out and roars its ugly head, particularly in arguments with my husband of 31 years!
The next self imposed limiter is over emphasis on personal goals versus the goals of the team or enterprise. There are very few things of importance that can be achieved alone. The ability to get things done through others is fundamental to being a leader. One of the wisest leaders I worked for said to me “the best way to get power is to give it up”. The paradox in this statement also holds for reaching personal goals of success: the best way to be successful is to make others successful. Put the goals of others, individually and collectively, ahead of your own, to reach your own.
The last self imposed barrier to success that I’ll mention is not understanding the importance of relationships, and valuing technical skills, knowledge, and experience, over the ability to build and affirm relationships, particularly during a time of adversity. Along with holding on to the need to be right, this has been the area that I personally have struggled with the most. The struggle has usually not been vertically, with supervisors or subordinates, but horizontally, with peers, and in pushing myself to develop relationships outside of my company. It is so easy with the crush of time and the relentless pursuit of organizational objectives to put off reaching out beyond one’s own department, division, or company. I have to avoid blaming this on being an introvert, I’ve taken the Myers Briggs 4 or 5 times and it never changes, I am an INTP, and force myself to make time, to actually schedule time on the calendar, to develop relationships even when the current need for the relationship is not apparent. Even more important than making these deposits in the emotional bank account, as Covey calls them, is the importance in not making withdrawals during times of conflict and adversity. Dealing with conflict effectively, versus merely avoiding it, I think is one of the most precious leadership skills as I rarely observe it.
I spend a significant amount of time working with leaders both inside and outside of my organization, trying to resolve conflict or bridge differences in point of view that allow us to move forward toward achieving our vision versus remaining stuck in the status quo. To be fair, it is a lot easier to play this role when you not directly involved in the disagreement!
While most of the things that hold us back are self imposed, these self imposed barriers can develop due to our experiences in society at large or in the work place. Four that I routinely observe are: exclusion, stereotyping, lack of organizational sponsors, and limited access to key developmental assignments. I’ll talk about each of these: how they show up and how to overcome them.
After living on three continents and working in countries all over the world, I believe that universally, most people want to be a part of something bigger than them. They want to belong. They want to be seen. They want to matter. At the same time, people tend to be tribal. They like to associate with people that act, look, and think like they do. This natural behavior can lead to excluding those that are not a part of your tribe, either purposely or unwittingly. If power is concentrated in a particular tribe, those in power may behave in ways that lead those not in the tribe to feel that what they think or do doesn’t matter. This can lead to feelings of self doubt or a building lack of self confidence.
What is the antidote to the barrier of exclusion? Create your own support network of individuals that share the challenges you face and while you are forming your own tribe of sorts, be sure and make the network inclusive.
I am proud to say that I was among the group of women in 1998 that helped establish the women’s network at Shell. But in 1989, almost 10 years earlier, before the network was officially chartered as a formal network, 15 to 20 of us started getting together for lunch or dinner once a quarter to get to know other women outside our own disciplines. Our informal network grew by word of mouth and, by the time the women’s network was formally established, we had a distribution list of 400. Today, the network has approximately 1,600 participants and many subcommittees that work to influence Shell’s systems and processes to enable women employees to contribute fully to the company’s growth, profitability, and leadership. I am also proud to say that Sunoco has a woman’s network.
A strong network provides a support system not only for information sharing and education but also for leadership development in a comfortable environment. It offers exposure and access that might not otherwise be available, and can provide valuable contacts and feedback on jobs, career paths and development opportunities.
Stereotyping is not confined to beliefs about what are the appropriate roles and behaviors for women. Most of us will be the victim of some stereotyping at some point in our careers: Americans do not adjust well to other cultures, only engineers make good operations leaders, Asians are too passive to be good leaders, African-Americans will not be accepted in leadership roles in the South, etc. etc. Do these sound familiar? The danger of course is that these pictures that someone else has of you can determine whether you get the opportunities you need to develop your talents to their full potential, my fourth external barrier.
The best response to the barrier of stereotyping? Ask for challenging roles and perform, perform, perform. Exceed expectations. Prove the stereotype wrong. Work hard but be focused on delivering results versus focused on effort. Be prepared. Deliver on your commitments. Do more than your fair share on a team, stretch yourself and be willing to continuously learn.
If you aspire to a position that puts you in the driver’s seat, make sure you align yourself with the organization’s mission. Define success for yourself and go after it. Know what your organization does, what roles are critical to the organization’s success, and get experience in that part of the company. Without that experience, success is possible but limited.
Let me give you an example. A downstream oil company like Sunoco is in the business of refining oil products like gasoline, selling these products, and distributing or transporting the products to customers. In Sunoco and Sunoco Logistics, to be in a business-lead position, certainly to be CEO, one must be experienced in these areas of the business. To be the head of one of the functional areas, like finance, HR, or legal, it is likely that you must get experience outside of the headquarters office and directly support a line business. You need to demonstrate that you understand the business strategy and how your function enables the execution of the strategy.
3. Lack of organizational sponsors
Today, there is a lot of talk about mentors. I can’t tell you how many inquiries I get from women seeking to be mentored. I define a mentor as someone who understands how an organization works and can help you fit into a culture. They take an interest in your career development and are willing to help you navigate your journey once you have defined what success is for yourself.
Mentors are good, but sponsors are better! A sponsor is different and extremely valuable. A sponsor is willing to put his or her professional reputation on the line for you. A sponsor is someone who will recommend you to others, or give you an opportunity to show your capabilities. They serve as your advocate. You don’t pick your sponsors, they pick you, and they pick based on your proven performance and your forward potential. In short, develop a track record of performance that people can count on that is achieved with integrity.
I have been lucky to have sponsors throughout my career. Earlier, I mentioned taking a job at Shell’s Deer Park Refinery as a process engineer as a career decision that I viewed as risky at the time but proved to be an important assignment that stretched my capabilities. The other side of that decision was being offered the opportunity in the first place. Someone had to take a chance on me to give me that opportunity. Someone had to be my advocate. I was fortunate that the Deer Park plant manager at the time, Gary Dillard, was willing to make a bet on me.
So I’ve talked about self imposed barriers to success and barriers to individuals that are imposed by others. What about barriers to success in organizations?
I believe that a key role for senior leaders is to develop the culture that removes barriers to the organization’s success and enables leaders throughout the organization to behave in ways that make it possible to get the most out of resources, especially human resources, in pursuit of the organization’s objectives. Most of the current business literature about achieving strategic success in an organization focuses on culture and execution.
What are some of the barriers to successful execution?:
- Lack of clarity regarding goals and targets
- Lack of focus – too many goals and targets
- Lack of clear job expectations or clarity about roles
- Lack of teamwork on work processes that require cross functional or cross business cooperation.
None of these concepts are rocket science but it is amazingly difficult to actually do them well and the difficulty goes up exponentially when additional challenges that are so common in global business are introduced:
Physical distance and multiple time zones; language; and, cultural differences such as response to hierarchy, cultural norms rooted in individualism versus collectivism, and the concept of face which is so critically important to most Asian cultures, to name a few.
Building shared vision and ensuring alignment to a direction in an organization is a 24-7-365 job. Yes, it is about effective and continuous communication and engagement at all levels of leadership, particularly the front-line leadership, but it is also about articulating a case for action, defining metrics and a way to demonstrate progress, having consequences for those that can’t get on board, reward and recognition for those that do , and a clear understanding by each individual of what is in it for them.
So that takes us full circle, back to the individual again. What do people want?
I have been blessed with the opportunity to observe people from all over the world in my work. Despite all of our differences, I am struck by how universal the basic human desires are. People want hope. They want to believe that the future will be better than the present. As I already mentioned, most people want to be a part of something larger than them. They want to understand their role in creating the future and feel like they are contributing to that larger cause. They want to be recognized for their contributions, and treated with respect. The successful leader taps into those basic wants to help people achieve things that they didn’t think possible.
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