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Top 5 Refinery Management Regrets

By Ralph Laurel

Mar 28, 2016

Regretful opportunities from real refinery leadership members.


I had the recent opportunity to interview refinery leadership members of two major global oil corporations.  For the sake of anonymity I will refer to them as “Manager X” and “Manager Y”.  In this article I will share their thoughts on items that they have regretted the most during their career.



1.  Not Spending Enough Time in the Field


Manager X:  “As a refinery leader, I will have to say that I spend 95% of my day interacting with people.  One would expect a refinery leader to have a packed meeting schedule.   However, the issue that I take is that majority of my meets are in meeting rooms, and often with the same damn people over and over.  Every time that I conclude my assignment at one refinery and move to the next, I always look back and feel that I did not get the opportunity to spend as much time with each refinery employee that I wished”.


Manager Y:  “I do not think that I can state my regret any better than Manager X has – I fully agree with his sentiment”



2. Not Developing Organizational Capability


Manager X:  “Every organization has to adapt to the changing environment.  Whether it is employee retirement, new technology deployment or even changing market dynamics, all organizations much grow.    As I typically spend less than 2 years in any one job, the opportunity that I never get my hands on is developing an organization. 


I look at the current state of a half dozen organizations that I have gone through in the last decade of my career, and I can see how key opportunities are being missed today because of organizational deficiencies uncaptured by prior leadership teams.  Key gaps that take time to develop include:



  • Adequate employee succession planning
  • Robust operational and technical work processes
  • Proper focus of staff resources on value-added activities”



Manager Y:  “My largest regret for Org Capability relates to missing the opportunity to re-tool my mid-level managers with the proper skillsets.  Many leaders overlook the importance of the mid-level managers and take these resources for granted. 


Mid-level managers can be perceived as lacking ambition to pursue the top jobs, or lacking the competencies to get promoted to the next level.  These misperceptions can kill an organization as mid-level managers are arguably the most important level of management in any organization. 


Mid-level managers interface with the employee base the most, and truly understand the pulse of any refinery organization.  They have the history of the refinery, they control the culture of a refinery, and most importantly – they will be the ones who remain in place after the top leaders move on.  My suggestion to future refinery leaders is to ensure you spend the time developing exemplary leadership qualities in your middle management".   



3. Not Learning the Business Well Enough


Manager Y:  “Depending on your background, every refinery leader takes a different path to the top.  Some start as process engineers that develop through a traditional career progression, while others start in other areas of the refinery, such as operations or maintenance.  Although the daily focus of running a refinery places emphasis on the gear and process, refinery operation is still a business nonetheless. 


Many refinery leaders, including myself, do not have the best understanding of the business environment.  When I reflect on past decisions, the ones that did not end favorably were the ones that lacked key business input. 


A prime example is risk-ranking several initiatives for budget prioritization.  No refinery ever has enough money to fix every risk, so some items get differed.  Where I have seen risk-ranking get skewed is improperly valuing business impact.  Decision makers focus too much on initial outcome, rather than long term impact. 


For example, what sounds worse:  CUI failure of a product rundown line to storage or high vibrations on a hydrogen booster compressor?  Most people will fix the compressor first to prevent disruption of hydrogen availability.  In my scenario, critical information on the tenuous relationship with environmental regulators was left out. The team lacked information to properly evaluate reputation and government relationship impact of an environmental spill.


As refinery leadership teams often have a mix of experience from different geographic locations, it is important to not carry location-specific paradigms from one place to the next.   How many times have you heard the expression “We used to do this at my previous refinery”? 


Learn the business environment of every location where you work – it is critical to your success”.



4. Not Establishing the Proper Balance with Metrics


Manager X:  “While I work for a large oil corporation, most of my experience has been at smaller sites with lower complexity organizations.  Regardless of organization size, consistent metrics across the corporation required the same amount of metrics at the smaller sites as the larger ones. 


My experience has been that leaders do not right-size business stewardship to match the size of the organization”. 


Manager Y:  “Every organization strives to implement every Best Practice or performance metric developed since industry has deemed it value-added.  The fact is, we live in a resource-constrained business and we will never have enough resources to accomplish every feat.


I fully agree that all metrics add value.  However, refinery leaders need to find the right metrics to steward, because stewarding everything will only consume time and detract from focusing on the right ones”.  



5. Not Passing on Some Career Opportunities


Manager Y:  “This flies in the face of what opportunists will tell you, but I have come to fully believe that not every career growth opportunity merits the price that you pay for it.  In the oil industry, career mobility options are a dime a dozen, especially today.  There are more job openings than qualified individuals available, and this appears to continue well into the future.


When you combine a talent pool shortage with increasing job demands, you essentially have an industry positioned to provide stable opportunities for the talent base at all levels.  This does not mean that you can become complacent, but it does mean that you do not have to sacrifice all personal factors to achieve a rewarding career. 


Like many leaders of my tenure, I have changed roles every 2 years, and I have lived in many different cities and countries throughout my career.  While that has been exciting for me personally, I can say that my family does not share the same excitement. 


Most individuals no longer value self-worth solely based on personal achievements, but rather on a number of factors that are tied to family experience and satisfaction.  It goes without saying that moving up the career ladder will come with many trade-offs, and people today have a greater flexibility to optimize between their career and personal goals". 



After hearing the Top 5 Regrets of the refinery leaders above, do these resonate with you?  Are there regrets that others would like to share?


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  • :   While I am intrigued by these admissions, I have to wonder if they amount to more than mere sentiment. If not, then where is the "call to action" by these industry leaders to inspire (or provoke) change?

    Aug 05, 2014

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