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Clear and present leadership in a time of tumult

Perspectives

Clear and present leadership in a time of tumult

August 10, 2020

Russell Wilkerson, Chief Corporate Affairs Officer explains the value of being a purpose-driven company in times of uncertainty.

“As a student of history, I am someone who’s always appreciated what’s happened in the past and tried to learn from it,” says Russell Wilkerson, who has been with Baker Hughes since 2017 and was promoted to his current role of Chief Corporate Affairs Officer shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic was declared.

“There are patterns that have played out through history – from pandemics to financial crises – so when you’re in the middle of one you can draw on these and see that circumstances will inevitably improve. I read a tremendous amount, and I’ve been seeking out experts on pandemics and financial history to try to glean insights and ideas on which signals will show that we’re beginning to move in a positive direction.”

Wilkerson doesn’t deny the enormity of the issues arising from the pandemic, which has also put pressure on the oil and gas industry through falling prices for resources in line with decreased demand. Despite the “acute contraction of demand right now”, he remains optimistic for the “longer-term growth in demand for energy, knowing it may take different shapes and come from new sources”. brand picture

Less than a year ago, Wilkerson oversaw Baker Hughes’ company rebrand, in which the 100-year old oilfield service company announced its repositioning to an energy technology company – complete with a new logo, company purpose and values. One of the fundamental drivers behind the change was to underscore the company’s commitment to “meet the demand for energy in the most economical and the most carbon-emissions conscious way,” says Wilkerson. “And we’re helping our customers deliver on these goals.”     

Wilkerson’s role also includes communicating that aspirational transformation, which targets net-zero CO2 equivalent emissions by 2050. “Our brand is defined by a number of attributes,” says Wilkerson. “It’s our products and services, but unequivocally the most important part of the Baker Hughes brand is our people. We’re built on a strong foundation of technology, leadership and business success and we want to lead, but we want to do it humbly.”

In a world that’s changing “rapidly and dramatically”, he says, Baker Hughes serves not only its customers, but recognizes societal responsibility as a key commitment. “Energy and society are intertwined – energy drives society and society drives the need for energy,” says Wilkerson. “Our industry is deeply embedded in the communities where we operate and we’re always respectful of that.”

“Our industry is deeply embedded in the communities where we operate and we’re always respectful of that.”

Balancing aspiration, humility and expertise is key to both the brand and the mission.

That’s the long game. During the pandemic, there have been immediate challenges to tackle, from taking care of the health and welfare of staff and finding innovative ways to ensure business continuity for customers, to contributing to the urgent needs of frontline healthcare workers.

“One of the Baker Hughes values is care, and time and again we’ve been able to show that,” he says. “We’re a publicly traded company, so we know that our bottom line is critical to shareholders, but we also have additional stakeholders and in these unprecedented times we’ve found ways to help them.”

additive printed ppe
3-D printed parts for personal protective equipment during COVID crisis

That includes turning over Baker Hughes’ additive manufacturing expertise and equipment to 3D print personal protective equipment (PPE) for hospitals and healthcare providers around the world.

“To me, this is what a modern company is and should be,” says Wilkerson. “Yes, we are profit-driven but we are also purpose-driven and intense times like these prove that out. We focus on how we can bring our skills and resources to best serve all our stakeholders.”

We focus on how we can bring our skills and resources to best serve all our stakeholders.

When the needs are so urgent and important, the executive leadership team has to operate differently and at an unprecedented pace. “We didn’t have the luxury of running a two-week financial analysis to determine supply costs and opportunity costs of using our additive manufacturing to produce this PPE,” says Wilkerson. “We just knew we had to do our part, and to do it with the resources we had. The driving edict to make the initiative work came from our CFO, who is of course the most disciplined about costs. As an organization, when people hear that the CFO is encouraging this, that sends an incredibly strong message and helps accelerate our efforts.”

Wilkerson is the conduit to ensure that such information is communicated and made crystal clear. The mental and physical wellbeing of the more than 60,000 Baker Hughes employees has also been a key responsibility for leaders. Wilkerson says employees have come to the company for guidance at a level he’s never experienced. “We’ve had incredibly open discussions about the challenges, particularly around mental health and fatigue. It’s been so important to respond with real information that can help, and that goes back to trust and recognizing the needs of our employees.”

For the globally dispersed Baker Hughes team now working remotely where possible, the challenges have been multifarious. “We are facing common challenges, but there are lots of unique needs,” says Wilkerson. “In some places, working from home is very manageable, there is space and there’s infrastructure – someone might ask for help with their ergonomics. In other parts of the world, the house may be occupied by many people with no dedicated workspace or internet access. It’s been a learning journey for us. We haven’t figured it all out but we are listening and we’re in touch and fostering an environment of trust and care.”

Wilkerson says for him, personal check-ins from his boss and doing that for his team have been vital. “I’ve found that inspiring for myself and hopefully for my team,” he reflects. “This pandemic has meant we’ve been unable to be together in-person, so you can really feel isolated. So we’re regularly checking in and asking how people are, just to say, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about you and I want to know how you are and what you need from me.’ I might have access to resources or information that they don’t, so it’s really important to keep asking.”

A positive from the pandemic – and everyone is looking for them – is seeing how “we’ve needed and relied on each other”, says Wilkerson. “I think you grow as a culture and a company through something like this, and the core of Baker Hughes has got stronger from it.”

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