Chevron corporate secretary and chief governance officer Mary Francis is a quiet leader whose career speaks volumes about the value of charting your own course.
CCBJ: What led you to your role with Chevron?
Mary Francis: I come from a family of engineers. My dad wanted me to be one. I took plenty of math, but it wasn’t for me. My tools were words – I enjoy writing and expressing things precisely. This led me to law school. I was drawn to intellectual property. I worked at firms in Chicago and San Francisco doing trademark and copyright law, and I was on track to make partner at a large firm as Chevron was recruiting me.
Things changed for me on 9/11. I was in New York and couldn’t get home to my family after the attacks. I reflect- ed on my life and career – trademark and copyright law is a low-margin, high-volume business. There’s constant pressure to bring in new clients to meet billing expectations. Although there was a big pay cut, it was an easy decision to join Chevron. But I soon realized that trademarks are not core to the business, the way they are at Disney or P&G. I wanted to get closer to the heart of our business.
I pursued an MBA at night and took a developmental assignment in our shipping business. It was a new area of law for me, and I was quite outside my comfort zone. This was my most consequential career decision. It led to other opportunities such as leading our Asia-Pacific upstream group in Singapore. When I was asked to succeed our retiring corporate secretary, governance was new to me. But my work in different practices and places had prepared me for this challenge.
Tell us about your leadership style and your influences.
No single person was my mentor. I’ve learned from all my law and business managers. Some things I’ve added to my tool kit, and some I’ve avoided. I try to understand the trade-offs of different leadership styles.
Being authentic is most important. There’s an archetype of an effective leader commanding the room and barking orders. That’s not me. I’m a quiet leader – approachable, a good listener. I define the objective and empower my team to figure out how to get there. Defining objectives is not al- ways easy. There can be many stakeholders – the immediate team, other management, the board of directors, investors, the NGOs that track us. I rely on good peripheral vision and forward thinking: a “good” decision today might not serve us well down the road.
I love connecting personally with my team. I have one- on-one chats to discuss their concerns, challenges and motivations. I’m big on mission. Chevron’s mission is to provide affordable, reliable and ever-cleaner energy. I want my team strongly connected to that so the work on their desks translates into a higher purpose.
Some of our projects can take many years to complete, so don’t always have an immediate sense of accomplishment. Pro bono service – I founded our program five years ago – is wonderful for providing that. You can help a veteran having trouble securing benefits turn that corner. That satisfaction is profound and motivating.
What qualities do you look for in hiring for your team?
Most important is integrity. Warren Buffet talks about core employee attributes: intelligence, motivation, integrity. It’s dangerous to have intelligence and motivation without integrity! Without underlying trust, you can’t expect your team to work together effectively.
I also look for passion and optimism – a growth mindset. People motivated by helping others succeed are our force multipliers. They’re hard to find. That’s the person I want.
What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?
It’s important to go deep in some area. I like it when issues are simple and distilled, but I pay attention to the details because I understand that they can determine the decision or outcome.
Courage also counts. The higher up you go, the fewer easy questions you get. With tough questions, you get pushback. Having courage, trusting my instincts, and speaking up for what I believe is right was good career advice. Bad news doesn’t get better with age. The longer you sit on bad news, the fewer options you have. You need the courage to act.
How about the best life advice?
I’m reading a book called “Why We Sleep.” It’s about the dangers of sleep deprivation. We value productive people, but we tend to admire hyper-responsiveness. That can be dangerous. It drives people to have partial attention with their antennae always up. That results in sleep deprivation, which can have a profoundly negative impact on mental and emotional health. It can degrade productivity by eroding attention span, memory and creative thinking.
I recently had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Wanda Austin, a member of our board, at a Chevron leadership forum. I asked for her advice to the group. She said: “Don’t be a dull knife.” That’s spot on. Take time for yourself and sharpen the blade so when you’re on, you’re sharp and at your best. Let the world understand that you need to recharge and it’s ok. It’s a long game.
I work at an energy company. Energy enables everything.
We have different sources of individual energy – community
service, family, reading, yoga. My work for an energy company has made me mindful of the sources of my own energy
and the importance of keeping those batteries charged.
Published February 3, 2020.