Shell Recruitment Podcast | Ceri Griffith-Swain interviews Ceri Powell
CGS: My name is Ceri Griffith-Swain, and I’ve been a Geologist at Shell for six years. I’m here today to interview Ceri Powell.
CP: I’m Ceri Powell and I’m currently the Executive Vice President of Exploration International. I’ve been with Shell for 25 years in exploration, new business development, and strategy. I’m delighted to be here today with the other Ceri.
CGS: So what first inspired you to get into geology? Was there a moment that you decided it was a subject that you wanted to pursue?
CP: Good first question. I’m Welsh, I was brought up in Pembrokeshire in South West Wales and Pembrokeshire is known for its amazing geology along the coast. It’s where geologists from all over the world go to look at the rocks and look at the fossils. I think actually this attracted really great quality geology schoolteachers. The passion for my geological career started then – at school, going on day field trips with these fantastic quality teachers. But in fact there’s another strand there – my father actually worked for an oil refinery down in Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire, but he was a very, very keen environmentalist, so we had this kind of balance in our family of fossil-hunting, geology, keen on the environment, and also the energy industry coming from downstream refining. So I think with the structural geology of the coastline, these great teachers, and then the push from my father that nature was so vital, even as a small kid, I actually think that’s where the passion started. And to be honest that sort of technical geological passion stays with me today.
CGS: It’s funny you should say that because I’m Welsh as well, and one of the reasons I ended up studying geology was that I could never work out exactly how there were these fossils of shells on the top of Mount Snowdon!
Did you ever think about having a plan B for your career?
CP: Well the really funny bit is that this is my plan B, actually. I left school, albeit with this great geological passion, with a really clear vision: to be the first female stockbroker in Britain. So I started university to read accountancy to do that, that was plan A. And that took exactly ten weeks to realise plan A was a dreadful mistake. I wasn’t very good at accountancy and accountancy wasn’t very good for me. So I really hated it, and began to sneak into geology lectures at university and then by the end of the year, I realised I was just in the wrong place. So, I left university, that university, and I started again and I read geology. It was immediately a fit – I just loved it. So, 35 years later, from the time I started that degree, I still have the same passion everyday for the technical and geological hunger for knowledge. I would always say that early in you career, be yourself, never be a second-rate version of somebody else.
CGS: So I guess that leads me on to how did you join Shell? What kept you at Shell throughout your career?
CP: I did my PhD in structural geology at Cardiff University and I was sponsored by Shell UK. As part of that sponsorship I was really privileged to have coaching during my PhD by some of the icons of the energy industry, which work for Shell. And that really gave me a sense of the importance of technical excellence within Shell. I didn’t know very much about the energy industry so what I did know was shaped by the thought that these people were important in the company, so technical excellence was important. And I think actually that’s dominantly what has kept me at Shell, all of these years. But on the broader question of what keeps me in the energy industry and doing my job everyday, being proud of what I do as an explorer, is actually seeing the impact of what we do. The world’s population when I was a toddler was three billion people, now it’s seven billion people, and by 2035 it’s going to be nine billion people. How do we fuel that additional energy that is going to be needed by all these people, as they rightfully try to progress through to having a fridge, having light, having heat. So as a leader of the energy industry, being part of that solution in terms of the whole energy supply and demand balance I think that’s really important.
CGS: What do you think has been the biggest achievement of your career to date?
CP: Very, very good question. I could easily say we or I have found a lot of oil or found a lot of gas – that’s part of it, of course – it makes me feel pretty proud. But I think also something outside of Shell, actually, and I’m privileged to sit on the advisory board of a pretty amazing committee, which is 40 leaders guiding the United Nations Sustainable Energy for All. And I try to bring the experience of emerging markets, and the role of clean and green energy, from my Shell world, in feeding this growing energy demand. It is co-chaired by the UN Secretary General and the President of the World Bank. So these are pretty iconic leaders in the world, who have got really three goals in mind by 2030: universal access to electricity, doubling energy efficiency and doubling the share of renewables, and for me that sort of encapsulates what I really believe in – energy for all people.
CGS: What do you think has been the biggest challenge you have faced in your career and how did you overcome it?
CP: The first one I would say it was probably in my early career. I think it was a challenge, but also an opportunity. When I joined Shell I started in the central North Sea team, and I’d had five months of geophysics training in the Netherlands, because I was a geologist so I didn’t know so much about geophysics. I was based in London, and I tried to apply the detailed research my PhD thesis on inversion tectonics to de-risk the chance of finding oil offshore. I may have been either quite pushy or quite successful or applied some concepts nobody had ever seen, but after only ten weeks I find myself, having done my HUET training, out on a rig in the North Sea actually drilling a well which I’d proposed. If I look back I was probably only three to four months in the company. That was a phenomenal responsibility, and I didn’t actually realise it at the time. In being able to see whether my geological concepts were right, in terms of actually drilling a well, I think if we look at it now I think we’d call it a technical success. So, not entirely correct, but the accountability I learnt then really early on is something I try to encourage graduates and young people coming into Shell – to grasp that accountability really early.
CGS: It’s funny what you say about your early career challenge, because I think the biggest challenge I faced was drilling a well that I’d planned: the nerves, wanting it to come off, and feeling really responsible for what you’ve planned. But looking from the other side, it’s probably the highlight so far of my career, drilling that well. I was a bit luckier; we found gas!
CP: Well done you, that’s brilliant! And then there was something much later as a senior leader, when I was Vice President of the Middle East and Russia at the time. We had just gone into a joint venture with Saudi Aramco, in Saudi Arabia – the first ever exploration by companies outside Saudi Aramco for many, many years, decades in fact. I had to give a keynote speech to kick off this joint venture, and I was the first western woman on a board in Saudi Arabia. I had to stand up in the government auditorium in Dhahran, in northeast Saudi, and in my abaya, in front of an audience, which was 1,000 Saudi male professionals in the audience with incredibly important VIPs sitting in the front row, and I had to give a keynote address. I have to say that was a really nerve-wrecking moment. Could I just pull this off? Or was I too nervous? Or would I even be accepted as a first western woman to be doing business there? I was accepted, with huge respect from everybody. I got through the speech and we then went on to have a really long-term relationship, and still do, with Saudi Arabia. If we’re talking about that one moment of challenge in my career, that’s pretty high on the list.
CGS: What do you think is the most exciting thing happening in the energy industry and maybe specifically geoscience at the moment?
CP: I always wonder if every generation who’s in the energy industry thinks that their generation is the most innovative. But I look back at some of the history – where you work now in the North Sea and where I did work – in the 1970s, when the first geologists were proposing the very first prospects to be drilled in the North Sea, they were proposing prospects in 150 metres of water. There was no rig that could drill in 150 metres of water. And then secondly, there was no rig that could drill outside July, August and September; this was in the North Sea. That was only the 1970s and now we’d say that’s completely standard. What is normal today was completely abnormal 20 or 30 years ago. What we say is completely not possible today will potentially be standard in 20 years’ time, and it’s that continuous innovation which is really interesting. What I do think are some of the most exciting aspects of technological changes that are happening today are actually about reducing the above-ground footprint. So if you take fishbone wells – drilling 32 lateral wells, like a fishbone, from one surface location – that’s a real minimising of the footprint above the ground and that sort of innovation is really vital, especially combining technical and non-technical risk management. I also think, as we go into these more remote locations, we’re seeing more and more technological advances in what we call early de-risking, so before you need to drill. Satellite imagery – it’s just astounding what we’re seeing now with satellite imagery; the use of drones for early de-risking, rather than manned aircraft; the use of wireless seismics, so you don’t need crews of a hundred men going out into the desert, it can all be done wirelessly, you don’t have to have them rolling out the geophone lines. So I think there’s something around early de-risking and how we can do that with less footprint, but also less cost.
CGS: What do you see as the big innovations in exploration that will push it to the next level?
CP: I think the innovations will come not only from exploration and isolation. If I look at one of our biggest challenges today, it’s actually when we discover oil or gas, we only recover about 30, 40, maybe 50 per cent out of the ground of what we’ve actually found. So for me it feels the most efficient barrel or molecule is actually the one you’ve already discovered but haven’t managed to get out of the ground. That, in technical speak, is an increase in recovery factor. So I think there’s something around innovation with respect to recovery factor which will really help exploration. Because in the end, every molecule and every barrel counts. We spoke earlier about the real challenge of the supply/demand balance for energy in the world with increased population growth. It is about every source of energy, but for our piece of the business – exploration – it will be about every molecule, every barrel counts.
CGS: So do you think that they’re some of the biggest challenges that are facing exploration geoscience at the moment?
CP: I think it’s about the remote locations. I think it’s also about cost efficiency. And also some of the biggest challenges I’ve seen are a little bit more behavioural actually. I think one of the biggest challenges is: Are we integrating our learning across the globe rapidly and efficiently? Unlike in the days when I joined Shell, I hesitate to say I think mine was the last year in which telexes was still going around, email was definitely not available, but you worked on your basin and on your exploration prospect in relative isolation. There wasn’t the opportunity to learn from basin to basin, from geological setting to geological setting very easily. Now that’s possible 24/7, with an entirely interconnected world, through the internet and through IT. So I think the challenges are actually, how do we maximise the learning to save money, to save time, but also to keep people even safer than they are?
CGS: I’m still in the early stages of my career – do you have any advice for me?
CP: Be as enthusiastic as you are today in this podcast, that would be the first thing! I would also say take some risks as you move through you career. Clearly never take a risk with anyone’s safety, but we know that. But ask your boss, and ask other senior leaders in your organisation to take a risk on you. At a certain point in my career I was a team leader; I had been about ten years or so in the company, and I really stepped out and asked the personnel department to find me a leader who I could learn the most from, even if it wasn’t the perfect job for me. I really wanted to learn about excellent leadership and I felt it was the right time to ask. So I ended up in a job which wasn’t the obvious match for my skillset, running competitive intelligence for Shell, not doing geology for a few years, but what I learned was an enormous amount about the breadth of leadership. But I took the risk by saying to personnel, ‘could you please find me a job that doesn’t necessarily fit my skillset, but actually teaches me something different?’ And that’s just my one little example about taking a risk. Always seek out difficult roles, to take some risks. I spoke earlier about being on a board in Saudi Arabia as the first western woman, that also wasn’t easy, but every single time I’ve asked a boss or a leader to take a risk on me, and they have done, I’d like to think I haven’t disappointed them. But equally I think it’s just really important to be able to stretch yourself.
CGS: I probably say to young graduates who are just starting their career a similar thing – to make sure that you take every opportunity. We are very lucky that we get given a huge number of opportunities, being on the Shell Graduate Programme, and it is really about making the most of those opportunities. If you were going back to the very beginning again, is there any advice that you think you would give yourself?
CP: I was reading a book – it’s a very well known book at the moment by the COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, and she talks about ‘lean in’. It’s written for women, but I actually think it applies to everybody, especially young people in the industry. What she means by ‘lean in’ is how to make sure that your talents are recognised and also rewarded, by being in the centre of the action. She talks about leaning in to find solutions, leaning in to participate, leaning in to solve problems, and be the person your colleagues naturally come to. If I were starting out again I’d try to make sure I’d use her words, ‘leaning in’, in every moment of my career.
CGS: Think I might have to read that book!
CP: I’ll send you a copy!
CGS: If you had an opportunity to interview anybody, who would you choose?
CP: There is one person I would’ve loved to interview, and she’s my absolute heroine. Her name is Dame May Ogilvie Gordon, and she was a geologist, a Scottish geologist, in 1890. At that time, she was not allowed to do a PhD in geology in Scotland because it wasn’t allowed that women studied a PhD in the UK. So she moved to Germany, learnt German, studied mountaineering and started working on her fieldwork in the Tirol. About 17 years later, she found herself a supervisor and got some supervision for her fieldwork, and she went on to be the first woman fellow of the Geological Society of Britain. She wrote 30 scientific papers and became one of the most eminent geologists of her time. I’m sure you know of her, and probably you, too, I would’ve loved to have the opportunity. It’s everything we’ve talked about.
CGS: This question is pretty close to my heart – what answer would you give a class of 15-year-olds if they asked you what a career in the energy industry could offer?
CP: People have an image when you say ‘energy industry’ and I think it’s to take it even more broadly than that and to inspire them through saying that scientists and engineers throughout history have revolutionised our world, and do they want to be part of whatever the next revolutions will be from scientific and engineering breakthroughs? What would my advice be for 15-year-olds? I would say get involved, like this ‘lean in’ thing. I loved this expression the other day, when I had the privilege of being awarded an honorary fellowship from Cardiff University at the University of Wales. The other honorary fellow was much more interesting than me; it was Sam Warburton, the captain of the Welsh rugby team. So although I may have got some applause, he got a really big applause and he said something brilliant to me. He said, “My advice to all of these graduates is if your kit isn’t dirty, you haven’t been in the game.” I think that’s tremendous advice from one of the all-time greats in rugby, coming back to Wales. So my advice would be, to 15-year-olds, is if your kit isn’t dirty you haven’t been in the game – get your kit dirty and get in the game!