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Interview

Baker Hughes is bringing innovation to overcome the increasing odds of keeping pipelines flowing, with the huge challenge of mitigating insatiable demand against environmental impact. If oil ran out today, the infrastructure of the world would collapse tomorrow. For all the controversy, there is no greater contribution to keeping the world moving and advancing human reach, but the pressure on the industry from all sides, could not be greater.

Beatriz, tell us about your early life and how you found the path to a career in HR?  

I was born in Madrid, and my childhood and upbringing were very traditional and typical of any normal Spanish family. Both my parents were in healthcare, but even at school I wasn’t interested in following directly in their footsteps. I was, however, fascinated by psychology and the more I researched the more I was convinced that it held exciting career potential. I decided to study psychology at university and when I wasn’t studying, I worked in sales and I started to see the correlation between psychology and how it related to people in my workplace. Human behaviour is such an influencing and impactful element in employment and I was convinced that this was the subject for me and would be very useful in “the real world”. My other fascination was travel and although no one in my family had ever left Spain, I really wanted to explore the world. In fact, I was the first one in my family to travel abroad. It was a regular discussion with my parents that, when I graduated, I wanted to work in another country, but when I announced that I was trading places with a student in France, they were a bit shocked. I wasn’t prepared for what happened next – my father said: “I’m coming with you”. So, with my surprise chaperone, I travelled to the north of Paris, where I took up residence in student accommodation. Shortly after, when he knew I was safe and settled, my dad went back home.

I completed a masters’ degree in industrial psychology, sponsored by Carrefour, on the proviso that I join them post-graduation, which I subsequently did. However, before long I was headhunted by General Electric (GE) and ironically, moved back to Spain. GE Capital had recently gone through a period of significant growth, but then the financial crisis hit and a rapid restructuring of the organisation followed. Immediately, my HR role became very broad and general and for the next four years, I experienced just about every facet of the profession, on a very large scale. It was a tough time, there was a lot of emotion, but having gone through both an up cycle and down cycle, I gained amazing insight and experience, such as merging two businesses, divesting a couple of other business areas and building strategy around how to retain some key capabilities. One day, the head of HR for GE International visited Madrid to bring together the HR Council for the Iberia region. I gave a presentation about our business journey and following that meeting, I was offered a place in GE’s HR leadership programme, for “high potential”.

This programme consisted of three international rotations, each in different disciplines, with the objective being to accelerate future leaders. My first assignment was in Brussels, as an Organisation and Talent Development Leader working for the corporate arm of GE. To give some perspective, at this time, GE’s presence was primarily in the US and the company wanted to develop into new territories across Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, Russia, the Middle East, India, China and Asia-Pacific. The role introduced new disciplines to me such as; marketing, local law and government relations and the platform we set up enabled GE to scale its resourcing much more effectively and efficiently. The territory with the biggest challenge was Russia. Its extreme temperature was one thing, but it was so different culturally. It was an amazing experience though, and I became the HR Leader for the whole of Russia and CIS countries including; Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine. When I arrived, there were only two recruiters, but by the time I left, we had built a fully-functioning HR team.

It sounds like a sort of extreme endurance test for HR practitioners.  

It was tough but exhilarating. Of course, there was the diversity in culture, but the environment was unremitting also. It took months to build trust and gain any connectivity, especially for a non-Russian, but I thought, ‘if I can make this work, anything I want to achieve career-wise is possible’. My psychology background and studies in human behaviour helped me understand how to change perceptions. Once I had set up the HR team in Russia, I hired a local HR Director for Russia as my next role had already been mapped out for me. I was to have my first taste of the oil and gas industry.

What happened next in your journey?  

My next role as an HR integration leader, based in Brazil, put me in the middle of no-less-than four major acquisitions in different parts of the oil and gas industry. I boarded the plane at Moscow and it was minus 40 degrees Celsius and landed in Rio de Janeiro in the height of summer where it was forty-five degrees. Talk about a change in living conditions! The oil and gas industry is made up of three different sectors; downstream, midstream and upstream and within those sectors; you could work in sub-sectors such as; subsea, which is underwater oil and gas fields and facilities, LNG and compressors or surface exploration. Our business plan was to move into all these sub-sectors and expand quickly so we needed to acquire different companies rather than grow organically, over time. I developed an HR integration strategy to integrate those businesses into our GE Oil & Gas portfolio. It was a hectic, but amazing year, there were a lot of plates spinning, but we were successful in bringing the plan to fruition. During this, I was flying to all different countries within Latin America, bringing people together on our integration journey, ensuring they understood the impact on their operations. Bringing companies together through acquisition means you have to work with many different workplace cultures and I learned so much. Once our business plan was delivered, I then moved into a role in the drilling and surface division of the business.

What do you think is core to M&A success and what is the role of HR in these volatile situations?  

Every company that is acquired has core values which are integral to how it operates with its stakeholders, be it employees, investors or customers. During an acquisition it is integral to preserve these core values and establish a healthy and profitable workplace for all involved. In pure HR terms, we hold the key to connecting the dots in quite complex situations and anticipate trends and patterns when dealing with very different stakeholders. You have to adapt to cultures, situations and synergies because sometimes it’s hard to bring people on board to a new concept. While we are looking at an acquisition from a business perspective our people are, quite rightly, looking at it from a very human perspective where they’re asking, ‘will I lose my job’? You have to put yourself in people’s shoes and really consider what it means to them, if you want to gain any respect or momentum.

Tell us what happened next?  

At the end of 2014, one of our businesses within the subsea space was under stress and I like a challenge, so I wanted to see if I could turn around an ailing business and make it sustainable. I moved from Rio de Janeiro to Newcastle, in the UK. Not quite as cold as Russia, but compared to Brazil, it was a little chilly. Nevertheless, I quickly established myself and fell in love with the city. As soon as I arrived, I purposefully positioned myself a little bit outside from the HR function and began with some very simple, but blunt questions, ‘what is the business model?’ and ‘how do we make money in the business’? The answer was obvious; through the successful execution of projects. It was clear to me that the business wasn’t quite set up to successfully execute projects and that had to change quickly. Asking questions is one of the most powerful tools I have when assessing a situation, instead of jumping straight to conclusions. The change, I quickly realised, had to begin internally.

Now I have an image of a bunch of engineers in Newcastle receiving this news from you, who has just flown in from Rio. You really must have seemed like the disruptor from hell.

Well, fortunately, the evidence was compelling. To succeed, and to be sustainable, the business had to be reconfigured and things had to change. We had to take a cold, hard look into the existing competencies of the organisation and those that were missing in order to accomplish the transformation required. I think in any transformation project, it is important to bring people on the journey with you, outlining what you are trying to achieve and help them see the positive path forward. Disruption and change must be part of that journey.

What gave you the impetus to propose this?  

It was a business on life support, with hundreds of employees. It was one of the biggest employers in the northeast – if the business was to fold, it would have a huge impact on the community. I had no doubt that something radical had to happen. I had never been so sure about what needed to be done to turn the tide for the business, because, it was not about turning a profit, it was about the people and community it would affect. As you can imagine, there was challenge and resistance from many, but change affects people differently. This goes back to my studies in human behaviour, which helped me understand how to bring this transformation together Fortunately, I had the backing of senior leaders and they trusted my integrity and intentions, otherwise I would not have survived. We pulled it off and brought the business into profit. I am equally proud that, not only did we manage to keep the business alive, but we also supported our employees in the continuity of their forward careers.

So, what was your next role? Surely a bit of a rest was in order?  

Not likely! I was given the European regional HR role which typically operates in a very horizontal spectrum, being the link across the matrix organisation, so you can imagine the fun. Most of the time, it is in the horizontal intersection, where you see opportunities for synergies.

What was the biggest challenge you could see in managing across Europe?  

This region had the longest history and legacy within GE Oil&Gas and it was also one of the biggest regions and so very complex. In this region, countries such as Germany, the UK, France and Italy, all worked independently from one another and control their own entities so collaboration isn’t second nature and legacy issues can be quite disruptive. My role was to bring together all the businesses across Europe, all with their own ways of operating and differing technology and create harmony in terms of culture, systems and HR processes. It was quite a challenge, any change like this brings huge implications for consolidation and there was a lot of union activity right across the EU. My role was to bring together a cohesive organisation – which in itself would bring cultural change – so leaders believing in the task and being on board was essential. Strong leadership is always key since we had to ensure we secured and grew our knowledge base, making huge change, while still operating without any disruption and providing the customer with a continued, cohesive approach. This scale of change management across such diverse regions, with set-in-stone cultures and decades of legacy, was indeed very challenging. It was at this time, in July 2017, that our GE Oil & Gas business merged with Baker Hughes.

What were the immediate implications and challenges of this deal?  

The most urgent challenge was that we became a publicly traded company in our own right, overnight, which came with a new set of responsibilities. The other challenge was that we knew we would continue to be part of the GE brand for the time being, but the clear strategy was to incrementally reduce the GE shareholder-ship. This would eventually allow us to transition into a new phase, creating our own identity as an independent company. This next stage meant preparing for separation from GE and it was a completely new and exciting landscape. Our industry was changing, we had a new horizon and we had to press the reset button and buckle up for a new journey.

Against this is a backdrop of disruption and change in the industry and immediate existential questions being asked of the energy industry.  

Change and disruption always bring different perspectives and opportunities to evolve. Many other industries, including our own, are evolving from where they started, which is good news because that means that we are moving forward and embracing innovation and technology. The way we look at our industry today is with a huge focus on energy technology and being forward-looking, agile, disruptive and diverse.

With corporate and social responsibility and urgent environmental priorities, how do you prepare for that as a business?  

We launched our new brand and strategy as Baker Hughes last October and we have repositioned our company as an energy technology company, with clear commitments to all our stakeholders. We are taking energy forward – making it safer, cleaner and more efficient for people and for the planet and we have committed to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, as we invest in new technologies, to help customers reduce their emissions also.

There is much talk about engineering being an ageing demographic and a shortage of young people, what is your experience?  

If I look at the business through my HR lens, the way that we look at talent and skill is inevitably changing. This is a great industry for people with diverse backgrounds, who are simply attracted by challenge and the possibility of working on exciting problems and solving them. Engineering has always been about known technical capability, but increasingly, the success of any business is about diversity of thought to keep pace with change and to be agile in a disrupted world. With diversity of thought top of mind, during the past year or so, rather than focusing our attraction and recruitment activities in our immediate field, increasingly we’re looking across technology sectors, including aviation and non-metallic industries. It’s early days but the greater variety of skills and experiences that we are coming across is compelling and exciting.

From your experience, what are the key skills and attributes you need to succeed in a senior management role?  

I would say that operational excellence and the right ‘say-do’ ratio is the basis of the recipe for success. But the ‘what’ is not enough – you can deliver great results and make progress, but it comes to a point in a senior management role that the ‘what’ is not enough, unless it comes with a ‘how’, which is about caring for our people, building positive relationships, showing true passion, setting clear expectations. Plus it’s about being as transparent and honest as you can with people, your peers, your bosses and your own team. I have seen many senior leaders just focusing on the ‘what’ and sooner or later, if the ‘how’ is not solid, everything crumbles.

How is Baker Hughes and the industry adapting and evolving?  

As a company we are leading our industry into a new era; moving from the traditional to a more innovative and technologically-minded industry that is harnessing new ways of energising our world. We are encouraging our employees to think differently and be disruptive themselves. We want to evolve our processes and practices and incorporate new ways of thinking about systems and technology. Creating impact in this industry is the key. Our efforts in diversity must be at the centre of everything we do, as we bring new capabilities and skillset to penetrate energy spaces that we never played in before. This means leveraging my cultural integration experience to assimilate different generations, where not only core technical expertise is rewarded, but also contemporary leadership. In the past, technical expertise almost defined your career and success within an organisation. But in today’s world, that paradigm is not as valid anymore, because uncertainty and complexity is bigger than ever. Collaborating to solve problems is, unquestionably, the key to success.

So, leadership is key to change. What else is required?  

I spend most of my time with our Executive Vice President and executive leaders discussing what we need to do differently as an organisation to adapt to the new expectations in this new environment and business context – the way we work and how we collaborate and show up as leaders is so radically different. You don’t lead anymore by power or technical expertise competence. Leaders lead by being role models of behaviours and by orchestrating and enabling teams to flourish and connect. Leading by influence is one of the hardest skills to teach and we are trying to crack that code, so that we can create a more diverse and inclusive workplace. Also, we are taking a hard look at the way we develop talent. This has evolved as a result of new learning practices and new conceptions about career management. It is becoming more owner-led than the traditional HR knock at your door.

What makes a good leader today?  

In my experience, the best leaders are lifelong learners, never accepting the status quo, questioning, remain curious, always widen their scope and knowing when to listen.

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