Jeannie Gardner of Shell Oil Company: “Be a champion of inclusion”

Take the time to build relationships with each team member to show that you’re invested in their work and career, and that you understand their role. I have weekly meetings with each of my team members where I empower them to make their own decisions. As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational […]

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Take the time to build relationships with each team member to show that you’re invested in their work and career, and that you understand their role. I have weekly meetings with each of my team members where I empower them to make their own decisions.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeannie Gardner.

Jeannie is the General Manager of the Center of Excellence within the Business Excellence organization of Shell Oil Company Trading & Supply. She is responsible for leading a team of highly skilled professionals to deliver transformative cost reduction initiatives for key cross business processes.

As a seasoned professional with more than 15 years of experience in supply chain and process optimization, Jeannie is known for maximizing operational excellence and delivering value, enabled through process, data and information consistency across the organization. Jeannie has mounted digital strategies to modernize and automate processes including, Counterparty Lifecycle Management, Master Data Management, Records & Information Management, Business Risk and Controls.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I went to North Carolina A&T State University (NCA&T) and majored in Chemical Engineering. I always wanted to work in the food industry, and Kraft and General Mills were my target companies. As a senior in college, I happened to be wandering around the chemical engineering office the day UOP (a technology licensor to the oil & gas, petrochemicals industry) was on campus, looking to schedule interviews. I showed up to the interview in shorts and t-shirt, and I knew nothing about the industry. Less than two hours later, I received a job offer and I was sold. If not for being in the engineering office that day, my career path would have been very different.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

I was on a business trip with a few other colleagues, and there was around a seven-hour time difference from home. As I was getting ready for bed, I decided to send my husband a text message to say goodnight. I wrote a long message and hit send only to realize I delivered it to one of my male colleagues — not my husband. Needless to say, my colleague was a good sport and we laughed about the midnight “I love you” text for weeks.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I made plenty of mistakes as a young engineer — too many to spell out here — but there are two key lessons I learned early on.

First, do not pretend unconscious bias does not exist. I learned this the hard way, showing up at a refinery site as the expert in the field and leader of a team with men three times my age. I was there to help the team improve efficiency and effectiveness, but they directed questions at my male colleague instead. While not an ideal situation, I learned that I must take the time to build trust-based relationships and prove my credibility.

Secondly, do not measure your success by comparisons or the criteria of others. Stay true to who you really are, appreciate your experiences, grow and learn. Otherwise, you will never genuinely appreciate who you are and where you are.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

For me, Shell stands out for its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I), especially through its sponsorship of programs and events that serve marginalized communities. Shell provides its employees with opportunities to engage with the community and create pathways for diverse candidates to find careers with the company. This commitment starts with our CEO and trickles down to every employee and stakeholder.

With Shell, I’ve been able to truly pursue my passion for helping others by participating in its DE&I programs/initiatives. For example, I have led recruitment efforts with the Society of Women Engineers and actively participated and led Shell’s efforts with the Women’s Energy Network. Additionally, I acted as a campus ambassador for NCA&T (a Historically Black College/University), along with being the site sponsor for the Shell Asia Pacific employee resource group and each year I volunteer time and raise funds for the United Negro College Fund.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Shell is doing great work around the energy transition and is set to reduce its net carbon intensity 100% by the year 2050. Climate change is one of the most pressing issues challenging our society, and Shell has emerged as a pioneer and leader in the world’s transition to renewable energies. The company aims to provide cleaner fuels to its customers and reduce carbon emissions, supporting the goal of the Paris Agreement on climate change to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5° Celsius by 2060.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

While I am not satisfied, I think society and especially global companies like Shell are making a concerted effort to address diversity, equity and inclusion within STEM. After all, increasing diversity in STEM is the key to unlocking innovation in science and engineering. People with diverse backgrounds have different perspectives and offer fresh opinions and ideas on how to solve problems.

Moving women forward in STEM will take active leadership and participation from everyone at both the organizational and individual level. Companies need to be visible in their support of STEM programs and implementation of DE&I programs at every level. We also need the support of parents, teachers and nonprofit organizations, especially from male leaders who can serve as champions and advocates. To bridge the gap, everyone needs to be aware of the unconscious biases and stereotypes.

This starts before you even begin your career. As a student, I was fortunate to receive a scholarship and internship from the Cargill Foundation. Working at the Cargill Soybean Processing facility in Raleigh, NC gave me confidence and helped me transition from student to professional. I was able to apply my book learnings to real life manufacturing problems, helping me build practical technical skills. Cargill encouraged me to think out of the box, acquire new skills and bring creative solutions to solve ongoing problems. I learned workplace culture and was able to network and develop mentor-mentee relationships with engineering professionals, which left me more competent and qualified for the job market. I wish more female aspiring STEM professionals had access to opportunities like mine through the Cargill Foundation.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

As a woman of color, I’ve faced several challenges that fall at the intersectionality of race and gender. In fact, I spend a lot of time demystifying stereotypes and biases, which include things such as salary disparity, under representation and gender stereotyping, just to name a few. Women of color are often stereotyped as aggressive, sassy, outspoken and unambitious. Then there is tokenism, and in some instances, double tokenism for women of color. Being the only Black person and the only woman in a room makes you highly visible and exacerbates every mistake you might make. As a society, we have placed more emphasis into addressing these disparities and issues, however, I believe more work needs to be done.

After all, these challenges can lead to a feeling that you are living two lives; one at work and another in your community. Nobody wants to feel isolated and nobody wants to be an outsider.

I believe part of the solution is that companies need to improve hiring, retention and promotion practices for women and be intentional in recruiting candidates from inclusive cultures. All employees need to feel equal in their access to advancement opportunities, professional development and leadership training. Companies can start by promoting a welcoming, respect-driven and learning-centric environment, closing the gender pay gap (especially for women of color) and providing training on inclusion and microaggressions.

Many global companies are already promoting these practices, but it will be important for more organizations to join the movement and increase collaboration to make a truly equitable and inclusive society. Understanding this, it is great to see influential companies like Shell actively advocating diversity, equity and inclusion. As organizations have placed a greater priority on these efforts, we are already seeing a marked difference and I look forward to seeing this continue.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

I’d like to dispel the myth that “you have to be a superwoman to succeed in STEM.” The reality is that you do not even have to be the perfect student or employee. You do not have to spend every waking hour working, and you do not have to take on every project that no one else wants to take. We, women, are intelligent, we are ambitious, and we belong. Professionally, this means bringing your true, authentic self to work and showing your passion for what you do. Embrace that you are the “only one,” be it the only woman, the only person of color or both. Take advantage of the opportunities that come to you and use them to create pathways for other women.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. The importance of confidence. Be confident in yourself, your abilities and what you bring to the table. I once asked a senior leader for the one attribute he sought in female candidates, and the answer was confidence. Confidence will let you see an opportunity behind a risk, then take the risk. Remember that if you don’t ask for something, you will never get it.
  2. Be a champion of inclusion. When you see something that is not right, speak up and encourage others to do the same. Mentor, champion and advocate for other women and people of color.
  3. Self-promote. Don’t assume that everyone knows what you are doing and what you are delivering. Tell everyone — if you don’t promote yourself, no one else will.
  4. Listen. Actively listen to others and make their suggestions part of the final solution.
  5. Build trust-based relationships. Take the time to build trust-based relationships with people both internal and external to your organization.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Not all leaders are aware of the stresses that COVID has induced on employees. It’s important for leaders to support a healthy work-life balance. I have an employee, for example, who works for two hours, gets her kids settled and returns online around lunch. Flexibility is the key. Employees need a sense of meaning behind their work, so have frequent conversations about priorities — especially if working from home. It’s important to set clear and realistic deadlines and remember it’s okay to deprioritize if more urgent work comes up.

Finally, help your team see how taking risks can lead to opportunities. Good leaders help employees move out of their comfort zones and into learning zones. Fear can be productive as it leads to action.

What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

My experience as the leader of a large team has led me to the five best practices below:

  1. Take the time to build relationships with each team member to show that you’re invested in their work and career, and that you understand their role. I have weekly meetings with each of my team members where I empower them to make their own decisions.
  2. Communicate frequently and be honest in your communication. Use a clear communication channel like Microsoft Teams or Slack to share information quickly. Transparency is an important leadership quality. My philosophy is that unless the information is confidential, when I know something, my team knows it.
  3. Encourage your team members to collaborate with one another. My team completed a skills and capabilities assessment to understand our individual strengths and weaknesses, and we encourage team members to reach out and learn from each other. All levels of Shell hold weekly collaboration sessions to discuss how various divisions can support each other’s work.
  4. Delegate. This will help employees grow and free your time for the most important work.
  5. Lastly, be open to feedback. Constructive criticism from colleagues can improve your workflows and help you deliver better results.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Coming to Shell as an experienced hire from a “big four” consultancy, I thought I could apply my type “A” personality to implement process improvements and drive operational efficiency. Even though I was delivering value, I struggled to build a shared vision with many of my stakeholders. My manager at the time gave me one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received. She had been with Shell for over 30 years and moved up the ranks into a senior executive role. She was a confident, master communicator and empowered me to take risks and fail to succeed. During an annual review, she said I was doing a fantastic job but needed to “put a little water in my wine.” Puzzled, I thought about the statement and realized I had to bring my stakeholders along with me on the journey rather than merely share the end results. Following that conversation, I took a different approach to stakeholder engagements. Now I explain the initiative, ask for feedback and encourage a dialogue. My manager helped me realize that influencing an outcome and understanding my stakeholders’ needs is paramount to deliver results.

Therefore, my role models are leaders who develop leaders — people who take the time and effort to develop others. My organization inside of Shell is very much like an internal consultancy — helping drive the business to operational excellence. In many instances, strong analytical, technical, leadership and change management skills are needed to “sell” business improvements to stakeholders.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I donate my time and money to worthy causes that impact women, girls, and under-represented communities. I want to change lives and provide these individuals with opportunities to succeed. As a woman of color, it’s particularly important for me to be visible and accessible. I set an example that serves as inspiration for others to overcome their adversity and find success.

I currently serve on several foundation and nonprofit boards, helping to set strategies for organizations like the Foundation for the Women’s Energy Network and the Houston Chapter Advisory Council. I believe that supporting the needs of women and girls is necessary to create a more equitable society. Doing so will create opportunities for females, their families and their communities.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would inspire more men to give their time and money to charitable organizations that support women and girls. In 2020, women donated between 60–70% of all money that benefited women’s and girls’ causes. However, only 2% of total charitable giving in the US benefits nonprofits supporting women and girls. This is sad and perplexing; women make less money due to the gender pay gap we face in the US, but we tend to give more.

I currently sit on a nonprofit board that supports girls and there is only one man on the board. To change this narrative, make lives better for women and girls, drive innovation at work and close the gender pay gap, men need to be actively involved and advocates for change.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

If you’ve ever received an email from me, you’d notice the quote in my email signature is by Franklin D. Roosevelt. “Men are not prisoners of fate, but prisoners of our own minds.”

For me, this quote means I can take control of what happens to me, and I can choose the actions I take. There is no condition that can prevent me from succeeding. As a woman of color, I’m more comfortable with being uncomfortable because that’s how I navigate every day. This quote reminds me that it’s okay to be confident, take risks and fail.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Mellody Hobson. Mellody inspires everyone with her work. She was raised by a single mother and learned the value of hard work early. She is a philanthropist who started nonprofits and supports organizations that benefit women, under-represented minorities and their communities. She understands what it’s like to live at the intersection of race and gender, often being the only black person and woman in the room. She has been a “warrior” fighting for equity and apologizing to nobody for who she is and what she’s fighting for.

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