Financial Times: The clockwork
mind in Shell’s high echelons: "She
is also one of the five executive directors of a
business that has been through two years of
hell, following the huge overstatement of its
oil and gas reserves that led to the removal of
Sir Philip Watts, the chairman, and two other
directors, fines of about $150m and a corporate
governance overhaul. Restoring morale and
rebuilding the group’s shattered reputation are
inevitably top priorities. Earlier this year, an
internal survey found that fewer than half the
112,000 employees thought the company was well
led. But are those executives who belonged to
the previous senior team tainted by association?
“It’s something that we can’t worry about,” Ms
Cook says briskly. “Worrying about reputation or
morale isn’t going to change it.": "But the
group faces another major headache – delays and
cost overruns at some of its biggest projects,
including Sakhalin-2, its flagship Russian
project. With hindsight, it is clear that Shell
underestimated the enormous challenges involved
in Sakhalin, she says.": Posted Wednesday 23
By Alison Maitland
Linda Cook, head of gas and power at Royal Dutch Shell and one of the most senior women in the international energy industry, has set several conditions before our interview. She does not want any “posed” photographs. She would rather not discuss her Catholic faith. And she can spare no more than 45 minutes.
The last of these strictures means there is no time for small talk or admiring the slow rotation of the London Eye through the picture windows of the Shell Centre’s plush 24th floor office. But the 47-year-old petroleum engineer from Kansas is not one to seek, or to offer others, a relaxed or easy ride.
“What would people say about me? That I’m impatient; that I set high expectations; that when you set a target or say something will be done by a certain time, I expect that that’s what happens,” she insists. “The more challenging the job, probably the more impatient I get.”
What happens if people do not meet their targets? “It depends on whether it’s important or not,” she replies. “If it’s important, we all pitch in. We don’t let ourselves fail or let time be our enemy.”
Time management has always been important to her. When she last ran the gas and power business a few years ago, before a stint as chief executive of Shell Canada, she introduced a bleeper to keep team meetings on time. “I threatened to bring it back, but they’ve been trained.” She laughs, but I wonder whether her exacting style intimidates people. “No, I don’t think I’ve ever been thought of as scary. Usually people are right there with me.”
A rare woman to make it to the top of a global energy company, Ms Cook has gained accolades for her achievements. She was recently ranked by the Financial Times as one of Europe’s 25 leading businesswomen and by The Wall Street Journal as one of 21 women around the world “in line to lead” their own or other companies.
She is also one of the five executive directors of a business that has been through two years of hell, following the huge overstatement of its oil and gas reserves that led to the removal of Sir Philip Watts, the chairman, and two other directors, fines of about $150m and a corporate governance overhaul.
Restoring morale and rebuilding the group’s shattered reputation are inevitably top priorities. Earlier this year, an internal survey found that fewer than half the 112,000 employees thought the company was well led. But are those executives who belonged to the previous senior team tainted by association?
“It’s something that we can’t worry about,” Ms Cook says briskly. “Worrying about reputation or morale isn’t going to change it. What’s going to change it is that we have our heads down, that we’re delivering against the targets we set for ourselves, and that we’re laying out a clear and strong strategy for the future.”
She argues that the troubles are now largely behind them. “As directors, we do town hall meetings in the big Shell locations, and the questions we get from staff now are much more about the present and future and much less about difficulties in the past.”
But the group faces another major headache – delays and cost overruns at some of its biggest projects, including Sakhalin-2, its flagship Russian project. With hindsight, it is clear that Shell underestimated the enormous challenges involved in Sakhalin, she says. But she insists that “over the long run we’ll be glad we’re part of it”.
Her elevation to the board came as a result of the scandal and management shake-up, bringing her back to headquarters in The Hague only a year after she and her family had moved to Canada. She liked and respected Sir Philip and was devastated by what happened. “No one can work for a company for that long . . . and not feel that personally.”
Petroleum has been part of Ms Cook’s life since she spent a summer as a teenager working at the filling station attached to the family dairy business. The second child in a family of six, and one of five girls, she was never told there were jobs she could not do.
All that changed when she left university with her degree in petroleum engineering and entered “the real world”. As a rookie Shell engineer, she found her approach to a rig in Michigan blocked by a foreman who had parked his truck across the road. Women were not allowed in, he told her.
Ambitious and competitive, she was not one to be put off. “The more someone might have implied that there was something I couldn’t do, the more I wanted to do it,” she says. She spent the next 18 years in exploration and production with Shell before moving to the commercial side.
At this point, she signals that we have five minutes left, so I ask how she progressed in a largely male world. It was not a matter of being the same as the men, she says. “I didn’t go out golfing with them after work. I had my own life and a husband and pregnancies and kids. Was I better than them? That’s hard to say. I did a good job, and I set targets and delivered against my own goals, and got along well with people.”
Was she seen by some of the old guard as a “token” woman? She remodels the question. “Do I think there might be people in the company who think that somewhere along the way I got a promotion because of my gender? I can’t deny that that might be the case. How could that not bother you? But I don’t waste a lot of time worrying about it.”
Her promotions over the past seven years, which have entailed a Cook family Odyssey, depended on her husband Steve quitting his career as a gas trader to man the home front. High-fliers like her, especially those with three or more children, are often held up as gender role models. But she judiciously rejects this. “People have to find their own way and make their own choices. I’ve just been fortunate to have such a great husband.”
Her travel schedule is relentless, yet she knows from feedback that some staff feel they do not see enough of her. Teleconferences and videoconferences fill in the gaps. She has to prioritise, and that means spending time with customers, energy ministers and senior officials. “That’s where I’m going to make the most difference for the company.”
The London Eye is well into its second full circle and time is up. It has been an intense encounter with a demanding and well-rehearsed but courteous woman. There is also a sneaking pleasure in finding she has let the interview overrun by at least three minutes.
WHEN GLOBAL INTERESTS CLASH WITH DOMESTIC ARRANGEMENTS
The rise of the dual-career couple has made it harder for multinational companies to send employees on expatriate assignments, as Linda Cook knows from personal experience. She was part of such a couple until her husband gave up his job so that she could move to Europe from the US in 1998 to be director of strategy and business development on Shell’s exploration and production executive committee.
Mobility is made even more complicated for international energy groups as they are forced to seek new reserves in ever remoter and more hostile parts of the world. “I’m very sympathetic to the dilemmas these people face when they’re offered an opportunity to move that doesn’t fit their partners’ career aspirations,” she says.
“I tell them: if it doesn’t work for you now, keep an open mind, your situation might change in the future.”
Ms Cook, who is also a director of Boeing, does not have a complicated philosophy of leadership. “First it’s about setting strategy, making sure you’re externally focused, that you understand what’s happening in the marketplace, with supply, with demand, what the customers are wanting, and what you have inside the company to differentiate yourself so that you can win.
“Then it’s making sure the leadership team is aligned and everyone understands that we’re all heading in the same direction, which isn’t easy in a global business like this.”
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