Why the oil patch needs more mentors

Hal Kvisle is big on mentoring. Too bad other CEOs aren’t following his lead

March 19, 2012

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Hal Kvisle, who retired as Trans-Canada Corp.’s CEO in the summer of 2010, doesn’t particularly like the word “mentoring.” Yet ask around the corporate Calgary hierarchy about those who have, so to speak, an executive thumb, and it’s clear Kvisle has a reputation as a CEO who freely and generously sprinkled his wisdom amongst rising and established executives in this country.


Illustration Sébastien Thibault

Maybe he’s just being humble, but Kvisle, 58, says he received more than he gave. And he’s inclined to strip down the word − mentoring − to a more congenial and egalitarian one: “Discussion.”

“I don’t spend a lot of time engaged in formal structured mentoring,” says Kvisle, who took over TransCanada in 2001 and shepherded it far beyond its leading role in pipelines into one of the continent’s largest independent energy producers. In 2008 he was named Canada’s Outstanding CEO of the Year.

“To me, the connotation of that word ‘mentoring’ is that some wise man comes into the room and sits down with the victim and presents them with a whole bunch of penetrating questions and then gives them advice at the end of that session.

“I don’t know that that’s a particularly useful process. I think a lot more valuable one is for different people in the industry − perhaps one is more senior than the other − to have conversations about the complex issues that we have in business today, or that we face in terms of leadership.”

When it comes to leadership, in fact, some recent studies have both highlighted the importance of mentoring and bemoaned the dearth of senior executives willing to put time into growing future CEOs in their own companies or industries.

The results of a 2011 LinkedIn survey revealed that 82 per cent of respondents believed mentoring was vital to their career advancement. Yet only 19 per cent of them, just one in five, ever had a mentor. That survey concentrated on professional women (the stats for men are somewhat better.)

But the good news on the mentoring front is that 51 per cent of “Gen Y” female professionals (those aged 19 to 24) have had mentors, compared to just 34 per cent of female boomers (aged 45 to 66). If young males are echoing that trend as well, then the next crop of future CEOs will hopefully sprout fewer weeds than the generation that gave us Jeffrey Skilling and Bernie Ebbers.

Not that the oil patch couldn’t use a few more gushers of wisdom. “I really don’t believe there is a lot of mentoring going on in this industry between one CEO and another, other than when people serve on boards,” Kvisle says.

For the Innisfail, Alberta native, sharing knowledge and experience with others came naturally. “At TransCanada I spent a lot of time going around town and talking to lots of CEOs because TransCanada is very involved with the producing sector and the relations haven’t always been that good. So it was an important part of my job.”

When Kvisle looks around the oil patch, he points to the late Bob Dixon as a great example of a mentor. In 2005, the Globe and Mail called Dixon, who was CEO of Calgary-based Merland Explorations Ltd. from 1976 to 1982, “one of the 10 greatest CEOs of all time.” Says Kvisle, “In the 1990s, many of the new companies that flourished were run by people that had worked for Bob Dixon and had come to know the industry through him.”

That includes such oil patch luminaries as Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.’s Alan Markin; Clayton Woitas, currently president and CEO of Range Royalty Management Ltd., and Bonavista Energy CEO Keith MacPhail.

So who mentored Kvisle? About 4,200 people. “I always tell people that, in the last 10 or 15 years, who I learned a lot from were the thousands of people at TransCanada. The people who apparently work for me, but they are all very capable, and all have insight and expertise in different areas.

“In my experience, most of the really brilliant ideas and brainwaves bubble up. So a part about what you might call mentoring is how you go about exploring an idea with the person who brought it to you. And how do you, on the one hand, not embrace an idea that is not very developed or very good, but not demotivate someone if there is something missing in the idea.”

In other words, he doesn’t embrace the Kevin O’Leary approach.

Anthony Davis is a Calgary-based freelance writer who has a written on a range of subjects around the world.
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  • Pacific

    The new budget proposal phasing out the Offshore Employment Tax Credit is going to cost many hard working individuals a lot of cash and hurt business involved in the offshore sector. It will also mean the loss of many potential mentors on the ground level. People who have gained international experience and can share their knowledge.

    “The OETC is an important tax measure introduced to improve the international competitiveness of Canadian companies bidding on certain types of offshore contracts by enhancing their ability to recruit skilled workers. Canadian businesses in the oil and gas and mineral resource sectors rely heavily on the credit.” Ernst and Young

    ( http://www.ey.com/Publication/vwLUAssets/Tax_Alert_2012_No_15/$FILE/TaxAlert2012No15.pdf )

    Many Canadians have a well earned reputation offshore, but will no longer be able to compete against other Nationalities who have either a lower cost of living than Canada or their Countries employ a tax credit like the one Canada is eliminating.

    Personally it will cost me $20,000 per year, money that is usually spent at local businesses etc, contributing to the economy.

    Please see petition at:

    http://www.change.org/petitions/canada-budget-2012-proposal-to-phase-out-oetc-allow-the-current-oetc-rules-to-remain-in-place

    and read the comments of individuals affected by this, most from the East Coast. If you care please sign.