WGLC '17: Refining women's careers in the downstream: Listening and looking beyond

By Adrienne Blume, Executive Editor

HOUSTON—On the afternoon of Day 1 of the 2017 Women's Global Leadership Conference in Energy (WGLC), a panel of experts discussed working in the downstream industry as a woman in a senior position.

The panel was moderated by Sally Ramsay, Senior Vice President of Pierpont Communications Inc., and included panelists Kim Foley, Site Manager of LyondellBasell's Channelview complex; and Kendra Lee, Chairman of the Board and CEO of Merichem.

Seizing unexpected opportunities

Ramsay first asked the panelists to talk about how they became interested in the downstream industry. Foley, whose background is in engineering, manufacturing and supply chain management, discussed her academic experience.

She explained how Drexel University required co-ops for all engineering students at the time she was a student. "This enabled me to come out of school as an experienced young engineer," she said. Foley also pointed to "being able to make a difference for customers" as another encouraging factor in downstream work.

Lee, whose background is in science, technical sales, business administration and finance, noted that although Merichem is her family's business—the company was started by her grandfather—few people in her family have worked for Merichem, and she did not plan to do so from the outset. However, she saw the opportunity to put her science background to work at the company.

Ramsay also questioned the panelists about the challenges they experienced over their careers, and asked if they believed the same challenges were present in today's industry.

Lee responded, "Even today, there are still challenges in the downstream; it is still a white, male-dominated industry. However, I feel it is changing. The more conferences I go to, the more women I see in higher roles."

Lee also gave an example of traveling to Japan to represent a product line when she was in her late twenties. At first, she saw resistance from her mostly male business partners. However, her colleagues began to listen "…once they saw that I understood their businesses and understood what their issues were," she noted.

Ramsay also asked Foley and Lee about their defining career moments. Foley talked about an experience with a corporate job in manufacturing where she was asked to lead a cross-functional team to develop an engineer development program. "When I looked back, it was more than just teaching," Foley said. "It was about driving home corporate goals across the company for everyone."

Lee cited her decision to take a seat on Merichem's board of directors as a defining career moment. When her grandmother—who had occupied the seat on the board—passed away, Lee was asked to replace her. Lee said she thought hard about how taking on the responsibility would impact her life. "While it was defined by a career change, a lot of it went back to being true to who I was and what I wanted to do," she said.

Ramsay then asked the panelists to discuss opportunities in the downstream, particularly for young people starting their careers.

Lee pointed to growth in petrochemicals, particularly on the US Gulf Coast. "It will continue to be a robust industry," she noted. She also said it is important to recognize the "new normal" in the downstream industry since the oil price downturn of 2014.

Foley pointed to the "huge experience gap" as an opportunity for young engineers. "I see opportunities for young men and women to have huge leapfrog jumps in engineering" due to the crew change and the experience gaps in the industry, Foley said. "These [young engineers] can become 10–15-year employees."

Sustaining healthy careers

On the topic of work/life balance and building a career, Foley posited, "Can you have everything? Absolutely, you can, but you can't do it by yourself." She noted that it is important to have a good mentor, and a good life partner.

Lee pointed to a strong community and a strong professional network as the keys to maintaining a good work/life balance.

Ramsay also asked the two panelists, who have both spent their entire careers at their respective companies, to talk about what has kept them at their companies.

Lee answered, "There's always another challenge around the corner for me to take on. I've done so many different things at Merichem that it feels like I've done five different jobs over the past several years."

Foley cited the values of ownership, excellence and teamwork. "It's that teamwork piece that makes it worth it; they're my extended family," she said.

Ramsay then asked the two executives, "What's next, in terms of challenges and growth?"

Lee, who is CEO of Merichem, replied, "Being at the top doesn't mean a lack of challenges or growth opportunities; the challenges are just bigger and more strategic in nature. The downside is that I tend to get lost in my own head, so it helps to have great mentors and advisors to talk to." She also noted that, as CEO and Chair, it is important for her to ensure that the company has growth and trajectory to support its 140 employees.

Foley shared this advice: "Surround yourself with people who are better than you, and help develop those people so that they'll become your future bosses." She noted that it is important to look beyond the experience of creating small, short-term project teams, to contributing to an organization with thousands of people. LyondellBasell has 13,000 employee worldwide.

In closing, Ramsay asked the panelists to share their leadership philosophies and how they engage people in their organizations with those philosophies.

Lee mentioned "listening to those around me" as an essential skill for leadership. "Everyone adds value; it takes an entire team. You don't always have to agree, but always listen to what your team has to say," she said.

Foley answered, "Encourage participation and collaboration. At the end of the day, help every member of your team walk away feeling like a valued member of the organization."

The Women's Global Leadership Conference in Energy is taking place at the Hyatt Regency Houston from November 1–2.

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