Shell Canada’s last CEO opines on leadership, faith and values in today’s business climate

Editor-in-Chief Mark Wolfe and AO contributor Paul Nelson spoke to Mr. Mather on his last day at Shell Canada Limited

July 03, 2007

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With the fate of Conrad Black at the time hanging in the balance, Alberta Oil thought it timely to sit down with a highly-regarded CEO. Our agenda? Simply to see what makes a standout leader tick, and if there are lessons of potential value to some of our more colourful corporate captains.

AO: It seems to me that the strong emphasis in your time as Shell Canada’s president and CEO was on communication, and that employees especially saw this in your town hall meetings, in speeches and how you just treated people. How do you regard communication in business?

CM: I’ll start by talking about communication in terms of context. When I arrived at Shell Canada, the context of Alberta was twofold. (Shell) struck me as a Canadian public company that was not punching its weight – my words. I felt there was a lot more potential in the company than had been realized. Of course, Shell Canada, like many companies, had had ups and downs, and at one point had survived only by some remarkable refocusing around fundamentals and cost cutting. I admire the leaders who did that – they got through it and created a very efficient company. But in the process, the company lost perhaps some of its vision and capacity because its recent experience was on the downside.

My second take on context is Alberta itself. If there’s one place in the whole world you want to invest, it’s Alberta. This place has gone through being an admirable but not particularly sexy province to being Top of the Pops. I mean, everybody’s now heard of Alberta, they know it to be beautiful, they’ve heard of its Western values and the Calgary Stampede. People may had even heard of the Athabasca Oil Sands but very few suddenly thought, ‘Crikey, in Alberta, we have in effect as many hydrocarbons as does Saudi Arabia.’

And the third shift was: we need the hydrocarbons because conventional supplies are beginning to run out or proving difficult to recover. Then prices have risen on the back of the demand/supply imbalance to make these resources economic to produce. And perhaps most importantly, people have begun to rank security of supply almost ahead of everything else, and so if you go to the States or Europe, people there frankly have become very worried about relying on their partners for energy. By contrast, Alberta is secure: litigations here are remarkably low, your word is your bond, there’s a great infrastructure of roads and schools and hospitals and airports, etc. By my business standards, it doesn’t get much better than this.

On the other hand, I also felt Shell Canada was capable of more. For me, it was, ‘Hey, man, let’s go.’ I’ve always made the point that downsizing is emotionally difficult but intellectually easy. It’s pretty damn easy to figure out what you have to do. You cut the budgets, you refocus. Growth, on the other hand, is emotionally uplifting but intellectually much more difficult because you’ve got to be careful you don’t grow faster than your ability to control the outcome. You can’t get reckless with capital. Clearly, a major way to effect this growth is through communication – that was the lever to pull.

I’m an extrovert – I enjoy talking to people. I try hard to relate to people all through an organization and I’ve done that in all situations where I’ve been. The big difference here when I came was I used a lot of ‘outside in.’ Shell Canada people may associate me with our town halls and visiting all of our folks at the various operations. But what I really tried to do was to be more visible to the public externally so the message came from the outside in. When most people pick up their morning newspaper, they believe what they read there far more than what they believe through internal communications in their company.

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