A Conversation With Gavin Rennick
HR Chief for Schlumberger
As the global business environment grows increasingly complex, CHROs face mounting pressure to design a leadership development program that meets the market's challenges. One approach is a development system just as global and complex as the market itself.
That's how Schlumberger, the $33 billion, 100,000+ employee, global oilfield services company develops its leaders. Deeply committed to borderless careers, Schlumberger gives its talent vast opportunities to develop leadership expertise in every facet of its reservoir characterization, drilling, production and Cameron business lines.
As those business lines have product sales and services in more than 120 countries, Schlumberger's approach allows plenty of room for talent to develop and leaders to perform. And though the system is based on corporate values that date back to the company's founding, as Schlumberger HR Chief Gavin Rennick explains in the following CHRO conversation, Schlumberger's method is exceptionally well-designed to meet today's leadership demands.
Emond: Schlumberger is known for developing global leaders. There are something like 30 nationalities in your top 50 positions, right? How does Schlumberger develop that kind of broad global leadership?
Rennick: We do take global diversity very seriously. And development is very much a part of the culture. That's been in our DNA from the beginning. Our first field engineers, back in the 1920s and 30s, were from France, Russia, the Middle East, the U.S. and many other places. They were hired knowing they would work overseas right from the get-go.
Over the years, we specifically and very thoughtfully communicated our expectations of mobility in our recruiting. We were very candid with certain candidates for our field engineer population, that you were expected to spend probably a third of your career within your country, maybe a third within your region and a third somewhere else in the world.
Managers who don't facilitate mobility and development of their employee base are not considered good managers. So it is quite rare to have any kind of business conversation -- from front-line management levels up -- that does not involve a look at the team or the population.
The ability to develop people, to develop a flow of new ideas and thinking on an ongoing basis, is considered an important part of being a good manager. In fact, moving employees out, bringing new employees in, training and developing people rapidly such that they are effective, and the business runs well -- we look at that very seriously when we make decisions on management progression and development. And when we talk about how individuals are performing, we're also looking at what we need to do next to make this person better.
So, I don't think you will find very many people in our top levels who have had, I would say, less than six or seven international moves. Some have had more. I've had significantly more, others might have had a few less, but we believe it's necessary for you to be multidimensional in order to be a successful leader in a global role.
The ability to develop people, to develop a flow of new ideas and thinking on an ongoing basis, is considered an important part of being a good manager.
Emond: When you move people, is it geographically, operationally or both?
Rennick: It could be either or both. We have this understanding that from front-line management levels, your next step is not necessarily going to promote you one level up and within your area of expertise or area of operations. More likely, you'll be exposed to something different as part of your development.
A lot of us have been through HR. Our CTO originally comes from operations, our COO started in engineering, our CFO ran an offshore rig business. It's difficult to make a decision for a business in a place you've never experienced, or even supervise or oversee a business, if you haven't had exposure to business there.
Emond: Tell me a little bit about your own globalization, as an example.
Rennick: I'm from Perth, Australia, was hired in Barcelona, Spain, and immediately sent to Dhahran in Saudi Arabia. I spent my first Christmas with the company out in the desert in Saudi Arabia, on a little rig in 50° C [122° F] heat. Then I held a variety of positions in New Zealand and different parts of Australia as part of our development cycle for engineers.
A few years later, I moved to Malaysia when we were introducing some (at the time) pretty revolutionary technology that allowed operators to steer oil wells based on geology and was made responsible for that deployment across the Middle East and Asia. Two years after that, I moved to the north slope of Alaska where I ran a base up inside the Arctic Circle for a few years. That's where I met my wife, in Anchorage.
Emond: Very few people could say that.
Rennick: [laughs] There are under a million Alaskans in total, so that's a little unique. But the whole situation was unique for a guy from the south of Western Australia, to be working in the Arctic, looking up at the Northern Lights every night -- it is not the sort of thing that I would have expected. But from a company point of view, it's exactly the sort of experience you should expect. And then I was plucked out of Alaska and moved to Paris, where I went from having a team of 15 in Prudhoe Bay to working in an executive office in Paris supporting an executive team, working on internal communications.
I then managed a drilling business in the Gulf of Mexico (through Hurricane Katrina and Rita) and subsequently led another one in Norway. Each of those assignments was about two years long. Then, after Norway, I was fortunate to be transferred to Houston for my first HR job. HR experience in our company is considered quite critical to development; it's key experience for senior leaders, so many of our senior management have had an HR role.
Emond: Agreed. When was that first HR stint?
Rennick: 2008. At the time, I was assigned to leading HR for one of the biggest and fastest-growing businesses we had, through the 2008 financial crisis and the start of the rebound. The job was fascinating, dealing with a crisis on one hand and planning long-term development simultaneously.
Following that, I was asked to go home as the general manager responsible for Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea from 2009 until the end of 2013. That was an amazing experience, to lead a complex business in your home country. It was also very useful for understanding industry and government relations and strategic business thinking.
I had not been deeply involved in engineering and product development up until that point, so in early 2014 I moved to Houston, where I was essentially responsible for one-third of the R&D budget for the company, looking after many different engineering centers from Stonehouse in the U.K., to Japan, to Houston, interfacing with research teams in Cambridge, U.K., to Boston and responsible for a whole bunch of manufacturing plants from China to the U.S. to the U.K., building everything from drilling bits and equipment, to complex electronic tools, to high-temperature batteries. While I was there, I got involved in quite a lot of M&A activity, and assessing technology companies, acquiring them, executing deals and integrating them.
When we bought Cameron International, my previous exposure in HR was invaluable for understanding corporate cultures in a large-scale integration. I absolutely loved that job. At the end of that, in early 2017, I was fortunate to be made responsible for an amazing software business (SIS) that I really loved running. And now, I'm super excited to be back in HR.
HR experience in our company is considered quite critical to development; it's key experience for senior leaders, so many of our senior management have had an HR role.
Emond: What does HR teach you that you need to know in other functions?
Rennick: HR teaches you about the processes that are important around talent development, performance, diversity, your pipeline for the future, a lot of things. As a manager, you can look at a business and yes, you understand that you need a certain amount of diversity. You understand that you need a certain set of skills. And you understand you need to make sure your team develops and you deliver performance.
What you don't necessarily understand [as a manager] are all of the other things that have to happen for that to occur in a global company. You don't necessarily understand the relationships you need to have with universities for recruiting on a global scale. You don't necessarily understand how to model forward five to 10 years or know how to predict which development decisions you make today will affect the business years down the road.
HR gives you that perspective. It teaches you how to think about tomorrow's impact and also, strategically, on a very large business scope over a very long time horizon. And that thinking is really important. We don't often have to rush out and hire 150 people for technical or management positions because we've already developed our pipeline.
Emond: Any kind of precision strategic workforce planning is challenging. CHROs are looking for some kind of algorithm and a lot have given up, just focusing on agile instead.
Rennick: When your business is structured to recruit from outside, dealing with change is quite difficult, right? When you're a model like ours -- I mean, we are running training centers in Russia, the Middle East, Europe and North America that can handle thousands of people. But to do that, you have to plan that activity around the business. And as you plan that activity, it helps you build out your strategic workforce plans, because training and development becomes a fundamental business component.
We have a history of doing things that way, which helps us. But focusing on agile, that's a really interesting angle. It's a completely valid model and I'm sure it is super successful for some companies, in the markets that they work. In our market, where we are always introducing new sets of technologies, there's often a skillset gap in the labor market. So, we have to have a talent base that's able to learn and develop very quickly. Which means we have to have a mechanism to develop that talent very quickly, because we just can't go and get it ready made from the market.
Emond: What's the organizational mechanism that allows a manager to know which people should move and where?
Rennick: Initially, that was done with phone conversations between managers, facilitated a little bit by the fact that oil and gas is a cyclical and quite volatile business. So, say you have a very skilled, really bright employee working in Peru and the business there goes down, but there's a lot of activity in Saudi Arabia -- clearly that person goes to Saudi Arabia, bringing the knowledge they obtained in Peru. But as we grew, we started to become much more systematic.
We're a company of engineers, predominantly, so we were able to develop very, very early business systems -- we were one of the first companies in the world to have an intranet, one of the first development customers of Palo Alto Networks working on cybersecurity. Any manager can see any employee's complete career networking profile, their aspirations and career history, as well as all of their performance information.
Managers can search for talent by business, by nationality, by seniority, by language capability, whatever, to see who's available. We put these systems in place circa 20 years ago, some even earlier, and we back them up with constant, ongoing, real-time discussions about who's moving where and why, what this is going to mean and how we can make sure that it's orchestrated so things go the right way. Every three or four years, we introduce new or upgraded development programs for functions or different businesses. The fact that we're always trying to do something different creates opportunities for people. And those opportunities create a dynamic flow of people in the organization.
Emond: Even though you go out of your way to recruit people who want to move a lot, what about their spouses? Do dual careers make hiring more difficult?
Rennick: That problem does exist in certain geographies and in certain markets. Where the market's large and hot and there are lots of opportunities, people don't really need to leave to have a great career as well as a great lifestyle.
But when we recruit from universities in Algeria or in the Eastern Bloc or in Russia, or even in Australia, we get extraordinarily talented young people who know they can get an international opportunity, experience, career and development that's just unmatched locally.
The fact that we're always trying to do something different creates opportunities for people. And those opportunities create a dynamic flow of people in the organization.
Obviously if you try to recruit in, say, California, then yes, there's weighting in that. But it's not impacting the way we run our business.
Emond: Do you go out of your way to recruit from markets where people are much more likely to want to be mobile?
Rennick: No. Not at all. Philosophically, we recruit geographically according to the balance of our business. So if 30% of our business is in one part of the world, we try to recruit roughly 30% of our people from that part of the world to the level it is possible. That's how we maintain a truly balanced geographic diversity. That's been a philosophy we've had for a long time and it helps at all levels.
That said, we do have a lot of dual careers, where both spouses work at Schlumberger. We've become systematically better at creating pathways for couples to have a career in the company where both can progress. It takes work and planning within the HR function. But we've gotten a lot better at it over time.
Emond: Schlumberger is known for taking risks on people early in their careers. What's the reason for that?
Rennick: We're very genuine about being a meritocracy. If you deliver and perform better than someone 20 years older than you, you move up quicker. Our ability to move very, very fast and deliver extraordinary experiences very, very quickly is important.
When I was less than 18 months into the company, I was delivering technology on the critical path of an offshore rig operation with a running cost of about $1.5 million a day. Taking that kind of risk with young people, and really testing people who have potential, that's an important part of our culture. But we actually have a very strong informal coaching culture too, and that helps. The relationships that you have with people are important -- you don't forget who helped you develop along the way or, indeed, who you've helped develop. I can walk into an office almost anywhere in the world, in any of the countries we work in, and I can almost guarantee that I've worked with some of the people there.
The relationships that you have with people are important -- you don't forget who helped you develop along the way or, indeed, who you've helped develop.
A lot of people remark that it doesn't matter if a Schlumberger person is from Poland or Nigeria, they are culturally quite similar. Globalization makes that happen. Employees who succeed within the company absorb that culture very early on. Those of us who have been developed within the company take it for granted. It's normal to us.
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Jennifer Robison contributed to this article, which was based on an interview conducted by Larry Emond.