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Chevron's Energy Boost

The bastion of Big Oil is developing a new resource: people.

January 26, 2009
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Related Topics: Behavioral Training, Career Development, Global Business Issues, Employee Career Development
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As a former teacher, Greg Schoenborn is experienced at helping others learn. Schoenborn also is proving to be an apt pupil. Since joining Chevron Corp. a decade ago following an academic career in his native Switzerland, Schoenborn, a structural geologist, is evolving into a new breed of leader at the San Ramon, California-based energy company.

Several times a year, Schoenborn serves as a mentor to a select number of top performers throughout Chevron. He recently joined one team on group outings to the National Renewable Energy Lab in Denver.

Schoenborn is coming full circle. Before being selected as a mentor, he was one of the first technical employees chosen for Chevron's Mentoring Excellence in Technology program.

Upon entering the program as a mentee, Schoenborn's first goal was to learn what made Chevron's top scientists tick. "I wanted to see how they approach their jobs and what makes them happy doing the same job for so many years," he says.

He learned that enjoying his job ultimately meant sharing his knowledge with others, particularly in ways that aid Chevron's business. It is a lesson the 48-year-old says he is trying to convey to other Chevron employees in his role as mentor.

"Being generous with your time is a good long-term strategy, even if it doesn't come back to benefit you right away," Schoenborn says.

Mentoring Excellence in Technology originated with Texaco, which merged with Chevron in 2001. Oversight comes from a group of Chevron Fellows: technical leaders whose expertise is recognized companywide for helping to build value. The Fellows Program consists of 19 Chevron leaders, as well as six retirees who are active mentors.

It provides leadership development geared toward people with a high degree of technical competence, says David Wisch, a Chevron Fellow with Chevron Energy Technologies Program in Bellaire, Texas.

"We're asking for the business lines to nominate people in the eight-to 10-year range whom they think are going to be technical ‘thought leaders' in the future," Wisch says.

Each year, 60 to 65 top performers, just a fraction of Chevron's 65,000-person global workforce, are tabbed to participate in the program. It initially lasted about a year, but Chevron recently shortened the time frame to between nine and 10 months to accommodate an increasing number of nominees.

Most of those chosen are in a technical capacity within Chevron's vast network of business units. The groups average 10 to 12 people. They meet at least once a month to pursue chosen learning activities and monitor their progress toward specific goals.

Each group is assigned two or three mentors who preside over introductory and year-end meetings. The rest of the monthly get-togethers, however, are the sole province of the participants, including the selection of learning topics and the specific activities.

Activities often include field trips, speeches from experts, or presentations to other internal groups within Chevron. Mentoring is based the idea that the mentees learn by doing, which means mentors usually wind up being observers, intervening only if a group begins to get off track.

"If everything goes well, as a mentor you have as great a chance to learn as does a mentee," Schoenborn says.

Individuals can lobby for inclusion in the program, although most people are proposed by their team leaders.

"You have to be pretty good at what you do, because this is a pat on the back, not a promotion," Schoenborn says.

But Chevron does use mentoring to fill its pipeline and address a number of tactical concerns. Offering people the chance to receive ongoing coaching and development probably aids retention, but also gives employees time to decide if they wish to pursue a managerial career or remain in purely technical positions, Wisch says.

Chevron is an old-time energy heavyweight with a market capitalization approaching $146 billion. The company operates refineries and other facilities in more than 100 countries. Its global refining capacity is estimated at more than 2 million barrels of oil per day.

Chevron is the second-largest U.S.-based energy company (Exxon Mobil ranks No. 1), with annual revenue of $214 billion. Much of that money gets plowed into finding new sources of energy: Chevron in 2008 spent $22.9 billion on capital and exploration, a one-year jump of 15 percent, according to its annual financial report.

Like other big energy companies, Chevron has benefited from soaring prices for fuel. The 129-year-old company in October posted record-setting profit of $7.89 billion for the 2008 third-quarter, more than doubling the previous year's $3.7 billion quarterly profit.

The scope and diversity of Chevron's work make it difficult for employees to know everything that their employer does, so mentoring is vital, company officials say. It enables people of varying experience levels and different business units to acquire a broader working knowledge of how Chevron's vast services and products interconnect.

For example, Wisch is mentoring a group of employees who are pursuing a project to increase awareness of how Chevron's "upstream" activities of exploration and production affect the "downstream" efforts of refining, selling and distributing natural gas and oil. Fostering that kind of knowledge is crucial in light of U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission regulations that require that publicly traded energy companies to keep the two business activities separate and distinct.

Wisch says the mentored teams could unlock technological breakthroughs within the energy industry, and he points to the learning program's track record. Most of the groups have at least one activity relating to alternative energy.

The intense mentoring is used predominantly in North America, especially the U.S., where the bulk of Chevron's technical workers reside. They include chemists, geologists, earth scientists and engineers. However, Wisch says Chevron is taking steps to make mentoring available to employees outside of North America.

No matter where it's taking place, technical mentoring actually constitutes a tiny part of the learning, Wisch says.

"People in technical jobs frequently think ‘The more learning and experience I have, the more valuable I am to the company,' " he says. "We're trying to change that to get people to learn the value of things like networking."

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