As Colorado officials were debating legislation on fracking in charged town hall meetings across the state, high potential professionals from South-western Energy (SWN) were doing the same in a classroom in Texas. This final project in a Rice University Executive Education module was designed as an educational intervention for participants to explore non-traditional partnerships between the competing perspectives of citizens, local government officials, corporation reps and community groups. Cheers of “no fracking way” and “who pays your salary” rang out during the simulation, disrupting the delivery of prepared scripts presented to a mock city council panel.

Adding to the chaos, company executives showed up unannounced to put pressure on their high potentials and, more importantly, to experience the learning in action. If these high potentials are going to assume executive roles one day, they needed to learn the agility required to adjust messaging and optimize engagement. SWN executives liked what they saw.

Creating Value

Four months earlier, the CEO of SWN challenged the HR team to find a way to meet the demands of rapid business growth and the need for succession planning in the senior management population at the company. Having already enlisted battlefield promotions to address the company’s formula for value creation, SWN needed to take a step beyond “The Right People Doing the Right Things” to push managers to take a broader, holistic perspective on the organization and break out of their silos to prepare for the future.

How would the HR team create the scope and pressure of an executive position by challenging personal awareness and the status quo? And how would the frameworks be pushed down the ranks and measured?

After review, the HR team concentrated critical leadership skill sets into three actionable components: head, heart and guts. They wanted to choose the ideal leaders who would match current expertise with future opportunity, treat others with empathy and respect, and make courageous decisions — head, heart and guts.

Senior leadership development would be mapped against this simple but powerful structure, and a mix of methodologies was targeted to address the three elements. Jenny McCauley, SVP of Human Resources, describes the integration of “three of the best resources available for a more hands-on approach: SWN knowledge, direct executive leadership involvement and academic expertise.” Classroom training and learning projects would make up the head, coaching and executive interaction would contribute to the heart, and field trips and simulations could teach the gut.

A Compelling Experience

With support from the executive team, HR enlisted Rice Executive Education to design modules that addressed elements individually and integrated them into capstone activities. During the module entitled “Engaging the World,” two recurring concepts were public policy as a strategic challenge to the organization and the executive’s role in representing SWN publically. Underpinning faculty presentations and case discussions were speakers from governmental and non-governmental organizations, including the president of America’s Natural Gas Alliance and a former Federal Energy Regulatory Commissioner. After seeing issues from many perspectives, the town hall asked participants to walk in the shoes of the patchwork of stakeholders who could contribute to any energy issue.

This non-linear format covered producing and influencing the flow of information, advocating a position, collaboration with those in a contrary position and identifying joint interests in a coalition. McCauley adds, “We wanted the thinking of our participants to expand beyond the oil and gas industry. Working with a university gave participants the opportunity to learn from [those with] a perspective different from their own.” The campus setting allowed candid conversation for a glimpse into the motivation and tactics of players engaged in issues.

Lasting Change

After the session on campus, the “executive tryout” continued, with senior leadership giving several participants the opportunity to present to the board. They are “addressing business issues on a higher level than before,” says McCauley. “Their increased confidence and energy has already been noted throughout the company.” As of the programme completion, about two-thirds of the participants received a promotion or increased responsibility. With an experience where learning was as much cultural as it was cerebral, participants are well positioned to take on executive positions and balance the head, heart, and guts required of a Southwestern Energy leader.

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