Resourceful Leadership

Thursday, September 1, 2005 - 08:20

Don Voelte, Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of Australia's largest publicly traded oil and gas exploration and production company, Woodside, talks to Lauren Thomsen-Moore about his views on management and leadership.

Armed with 30 years' global oil and gas experience, with senior roles in Mobil Corporation, Atlantic Richfield, Chroma Energy, and ARCO, Don Voelte joined Woodside in April 2004 to replace former boss John Akehurst. Born in Nebraska (US), Voelte is a graduate of the University of Nebraska and, in 2002, was named as the University's Engineering Alumni of the Year. Voelte is now based at Woodside's headquarters in Perth, Western Australia and leads more than 2500 staff.

When you were appointed CEO of Woodside, what was your key aim/focus, and do you feel that you are achieving this?

When I joined Woodside, I said I wanted Woodside to:

  • Invest in solid core assets that provide a strong financial foundation for shareholders;
  • Present a steady stream of high-value opportunities that are developed for the benefit of shareholders;
  • Build a world-class workforce that is provided with great technology, tools, and training; and
  • Care for the communities in which we operate, the safety of all we touch, and be extra sensitive to the environment.

We still have a way to go but I am pleased with progress.

Briefly describe your role.

The people who work at Woodside have values based on strong performance, care and respect, integrity and trust, initiative and accountability, creativity and enterprise, and working together.

My role with Woodside is to create value for our shareholders. As such, I have a strong commercial focus across the company and spend a lot of time discussing with teams how we can create or enhance value in our projects, commercial negotiations, contracts, and relationships. I spend a lot of time with customers and potential customers, our joint venturers, our Board, governments, and our staff, [as well as] visiting our assets around the world.

As my role is creating value, I also spend a lot of time with my Chief Operating Officer, Keith Spence, whose role is to deliver value for our shareholders. We work closely as a team.

What do you regard as the most important skills a manager needs to be successful? What are some of the strengths and weaknesses you could identify?

First they need to be smart and "on the ball".

Managers need to take responsibility and be accountable. They need to be prepared to step forward when others think it's necessary and when they think it's necessary. They should not have to be asked.

They need a "can do" attitude. It's easy to think of why we shouldn't do something. It takes a little more thought and courage to think of how we could do something.

The best managers have a little something extra. I call it: "fire in the gut". Enough said.

How do you define leadership as opposed to management?

To me, leadership is the effort of strategic delivery as opposed to management which is the effort of tactical delivery.

A pre-requisite for any leader, above all else, is integrity. It's not a bad pre-requisite for life, either. But if we want to lead people, this is number one.

Empathy is important. Leaders and managers must be able to connect with people, to read the signs, to understand the nuance, and to draw out the best in people.

Can you teach leadership? Or for that matter, can you teach management? If you read all the books and pass all the exams will you be a better manager?

Perhaps the question should be: Can people teach themselves? I cannot 'teach' leadership or management. But I can give people the opportunity to manage and to lead. I can provide them with access to the theoretical tools of leadership and management but it is what people do with the opportunity that matters. My biggest thrill at this stage in my professional life is seeing a person take an opportunity and achieve success. In other words, seeing them grow as a person. If, along the way, they look to me as a role model, that is a bonus for me and, I hope, for them. The good ones will choose what works best for them.

What would you regard as your management/leadership style?

Folks at Woodside have figured out that I am performance motivated. Therefore, I am fascinated by what people think is going on in the company, particularly how we can improve our results.

I love hearing what they have to say. People send me emails, they visit with me, I visit with them. Australians, in particular, don't hold back in telling me what's going on or what should go on. I don't always agree with them but I love their style.

As a CEO how do you grow and develop the management team?

As I said before, growth of our people is about opportunity. I am about giving people opportunity. They have to take it, especially my leadership team, or it won't be offered again. And, with that opportunity comes accountability. We are all expected to produce results and create value. If we don't, it's not unreasonable to be called to account.

How do you develop a culture of success in an organisation and how do you sustain it?

It's clichéd, but success breeds success. We work hard at explaining what success looks like. Our good leaders can paint a picture of a successful project even before it starts. As a company, we are learning that our success in the next five to 10 years depends on growing our business internationally. That's a mindset shift we're having to make. When we do well as a company, our shareholders do well and our people do well. It's not hard to build a culture of success - I don't know of any company that actively promotes the alternative.

What are the key issues organisations need to consider in building an ethical culture?

I am lucky in this respect with Woodside because the company had done a lot of work before I came aboard on aligning the values of 'the company' and the values of the staff.

Today, the values that our people hold are embodied in the company. And, they signal clearly that the people who work with Woodside want to do business the right way. They want to treat people the right way. They expect to be treated the right way.

Every day, I see examples of people living out their values and this is the important thing: people must have the courage and the freedom to live their values. It's no good espousing a value about creativity and enterprise, for example, if we ridicule every new idea that somebody puts up.

The key is allowing - even demanding - that people live their values.

We continually hear that people are the strength of any business. Why is this true and how do you convince the staff that you really do believe in an environment of change?

People thrive when they are given, and they take, opportunity. Companies thrive when people are able to extend themselves. A key role for me is to give people opportunity. It is in their gift to choose to take it.

As to convincing staff, we just have to do it!

We fail as leaders and managers if people do not feel they are being given opportunity to change and to grow.

Who are the people in business you most respect and why? Have you had mentors who have helped you along the way? And have there been any lessons you have learnt that have indelibly stayed with you?

Warren Buffett: a role model for value creation (and he is also from Omaha!).

Bill Gates and Paul Allen: they changed the commercial world.

Trevor Eastwood and Michael Chaney: good to have role models just down the street.

Mentors: my mother, Iryl, who instilled competitiveness; Professor Swihart who said I could achieve anything I set out to accomplish; and Jim Cain who gave me my first break at Mobil Corporation.

Lessons: too many to list. But my one guiding principle: the day I do not learn something new is the day I retire.

What areas of business do you think Australians do best at and why?

I do not believe in stereotyping Aussies (or anybody else for that matter); good business people are good business people no matter what other box they fit into.

How important is maintaining a work/life balance?

Everybody is different. What is right for one person at a certain time in life is not the same for another. Obviously, we have to work at both. People who give all to their jobs tend to sacrifice their home lives. People who give all to their families tend to sacrifice their careers. This is a personal responsibility on people where they have a choice. I expect people to work hard but I don't expect them to sacrifice their families. At the same time, I expect them to have time for their families and to work hard. How they manage that balance is their choice. How they work it with their supervisor is their responsibility. For the supervisor, understanding and accommodating that sort of request is a part of leadership. It's all connected.

What do you like most and least about your job?

What I like most about my job is coming to work in the morning. What I like least is knowing I have to stop work each night.

What does the future hold for you? What are your short-term and long-term goals?

In the short term, I want to leave the company better for my having been here. I want to see more of our senior executives drawn from the ranks of Woodside. I want to see more women in senior management. I want to see more indigenous people working for us. I want our international businesses to be run by the citizens of those countries. I want us to be running a less bureaucratic company. I want our safety performance to be vastly better than what it is today. I want the assets and financial underpinning of the company to grow in that the share price and dividends delivered to our shareholders are top rank.

In the long term, after Woodside, I want to spend more time with my wife Nancy, my son and daughter-in-law. Nancy and I would like to broaden our charity work in the field of education with our foundation, and I would like to dedicate a large part of my remaining time to non-profit volunteer work.

What are the key challenges you face in the future?

Value creation is the number one challenge for the future. Without that, all else doesn't matter in the long run. Key elements for us in creating value are speed, skill, and success. We need to be quicker than our competitors in everything we do; we need the right skills in the right places with the right focus; and we need to be successful across every facet of our business.

Other key challenges are leading a domestic Australian energy company into multiple international opportunities and maintaining a sound culture and strong ethics in a rapidly expanding business while returning top quartile returns to our shareholders.

Woodside facts

  • The company sells liquefied natural gas, natural gas, crude oil, condensate, and liquid petroleum gas around the world.
  • Woodside produces nearly 60 million barrels of oil equivalent a year.
  • Woodside operates the North West Shelf Venture, Australia's largest resource project.
  • Don Voelte's current contract with Woodside expires in 2009.

Voelte says he is particularly pleased with Woodside's progress in Libya, after successfully bidding on new exploration acreage against 163 other global oil and gas companies. "We and our partners thought we might win one of the five offshore blocks on which we bid. We won four. I was very proud not only of our Libya team that day, but all Woodsiders."