Retired ConocoPhillips CEO James Mulva offers good advice for anyone seeking success in the oil industry.


The small city where I live, De Pere, Wis., is far removed from the Texas oil patch. Dairy farms, not oil rigs, dot the countryside here, and there aren't many local energy industry support service companies I can call on for my next story in GOMC. We do have a well-known football team up the road four miles in Green Bay, but the closest I get to crude oil is filling up my pickup at the gas station down the street.

Still, my hometown has made an important contribution to the oil industry in the way of human resources. Two of the industry's top executives in recent years hail from De Pere. In fact, they're brothers, James and Patrick Mulva. James Mulva, 66, recently retired as chairman and CEO of ConocoPhillips, while Patrick, 60, serves as vice president and controller of ExxonMobil.

Serving as editor of GOMC, I am attuned to the impressive achievement of one family producing two high-level industry leaders. For me, it's a source of community pride that my kids go to the same schools these two important oilmen attended a couple of generations ago.

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Even though the Mulvas grew up here, I didn't know much about them or their parallel career paths to the top of two of the world's biggest energy companies. So I turned to the Internet for more insight. What I discovered was less Mulva family history, but more valuable insights about how to run a successful company. Beyond satisfying my curiosity about two De Pere guys who made good, I stumbled upon some great advice for support service contractors.

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In 2009, James Mulva gave a long interview for the McCombs Leadership Forum at his alma mater's University of Texas business school. In the far-ranging discussion with professor George Gau, Mulva talked about what it takes for a business owner to succeed, ethical business behavior, and his enduring respect for an industry that is often maligned in the public eye.

James, who in retirement sits on the boards of both General Motors and General Electric Corp., spent 36 years with ConocoPhillips, and was at the helm of Conoco when the two oil companies merged about a decade ago. Similarly, Patrick has spent a long career rising through the ranks of ExxonMobil. In the McCombs forum, Mulva said a passion for the industry is what led to his success, and it's a critical trait in executives of any company, large or small.

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"I believe I probably work in the most interesting industry in the world. It's politics. It's huge in technology. It's billions of dollars in investment and it's so important. It becomes intoxicating," Mulva said. "You work pretty hard and play to win. It's a very competitive business and it's always been very competitive. So there's always been the thrill of the win.

"Whether you're the CEO of ConocoPhillips or part of any other organization or company, I don't think you can be really successful if you don't have a passion to do it."

Here are a few more bits of wisdom Mulva said propelled him to the top and can do the same for you:

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Create a strong company culture.

"We work hard and we set goals with intense focus, and we get there. In the context of decades, you're really only around for a short period of time. You're part of a team; you're a custodian, and what you want to do is nurture it, grow it and pass it on as a group. The thrill is, what are we creating? Where are we going? Always have a plan, and then really push to get it done."

Like people and treat them right.

"To be reasonably successful, you've got to really like people. You can have knowledge and passion and intelligence, but you have to like and want to work with people. The way you're going to win is not with just intelligence and brainpower and money. You're really going to win with people and your team.

"I have a lot of time for any employee that works really hard. When it's all said and done, it's ... judgment. Be a little lenient and let people find their own way and their own time to accomplish what they've been asked to do. Don't try to make individuals do it the way (you) do it. You have to be more understanding and let them find the balance. There are times when the family is most important, and you just have to take care of it. And there are times when the family may not need as much time, but we've really got to get something done."

Identify confidants to help with your decision-making.

"It's very important to have some close confidants. I've always had in my time as a CEO, oh, four or five people that will really challenge me. We get in a room and argue and debate something. I want to know the blind spots. I've been told it's important to be a good listener. If you're talking all the time and not listening, you won't learn anything. You'll just know what you know."

Find leaders to admire.

"My wife and I are ... real fans of Vince Lombardi. I know a lot of his quotes. 'There are three important things in life: God, family and the Green Bay Packers, and not necessarily in that order' And another one, 'We are going to strive for perfection, knowing full well that we won't achieve it, but in the process we will attain excellence.' "

Be industry proud and think environmentally.

"I believe, not just ConocoPhillips, but the industry that I work for is a very noble industry. I know in the public domain there is a lot of questions about that, but we wouldn't have our standard of living, or the development of our economy, if we didn't have the energy and develop it. It's not understood by the public very well ... You're working on something that's really important for society and the development and growth of mankind.

"We believe the basic premise that fossil fuels—oil, gas and coal—are going to represent 80 percent or more of the energy we need for the world for decades to come. And the world demands and expects that we're going to have cleaner and more efficient use of energy. So it's in our interest to develop this cleaner and cleaner. It's our license to operate. It's a license for the sustainability of the company.

"But I'm also a human being and I want clean air, and I want clean water, so we really need to believe in this ... We provide energy and we intend to do it for the next 100 years, so sustainability is important ... It's the responsibility of living on this planet to be good stewards."

Be a good corporate citizen—for the workers and the community.

"(Working with) high-pressure, high-temperature oil and gas materials, we stress safety. If any employee doesn't like something in safety, we can shut it down. We have no tolerance for any irregularities in financial reporting. We have a no-tolerance policy in place for substance abuse. We have all the safeguards in place, and training for our employees is routine.

"I don't want to work for a company that's always on the fringes. I want to work for a company that's safe, and I want to work for a company that the communities want us to be in. You've got to walk the talk. And you better be consistent, because in today's world, everyone can see that."


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