Elizabeth Cambre

My journey to executive excellence: How to land a for-profit board seat

Blog Post created by Elizabeth Cambre on Jun 4, 2018

Peter CellaAs I embark on my journey to find executive excellence, I have been picking the brains of those trailblazers who can lend insight into how I might best develop my business acumen, in hopes of shattering the glass ceiling and finding my spot at the executive table. I am inviting you to follow along on my journey with the hopes that this may ignite a passion in other females in the energy industry to join me in chasing this dream.


For those who have read my initial Pink Petro blog, Advice for Young Professionals Seeking a Seat on a Non-Profit Board, you are familiar with my journey. After spending over a decade dedicating many of my waking hours to becoming a technical expert in the world of fracturing and acidizing, I have now turned my focus on enhancing my executive presence. In this article, I have sought advice about how to gain membership on a for-profit board.


Last month, I had the privilege of sitting down with Peter Cella, the former CEO of Chevron Phillips Chemical, one of the world’s top producers of ethylene and polyethylene and a leading supplier of aromatics, styrenics and specialty chemicals. Pete is now serving as a non-executive board member for Saudi Aramco, Inter Pipeline and ServiceMaster.


Before we dive into the conversation I had with Pete, I want to share how the opportunity to have this discussion came about. 


I asked.


It is as simple as that. I asked Pete to give me advice and recommendations on how females can better prepare themselves for seats on for-profit boards. Guess what? He said yes. I then found myself inviting Pete to coffee. Having an understanding of the entire energy value chain helped in our conversation. I put a little skin in the game over the past year and took the online Rice University course, Leadership and Decision Making in the Energy Industry. I also participated in the Rice Engineering & Construction Round Table Forum, a group that addresses different parts of the energy value chain at a monthly forum. These apertures into the industry provided me with fantastic tools to allow me to grasp the energy value chain in its entirety, particularly as it pertains to the petrochemical industry.


Although I am a chemical engineer by training and experience, I really lacked a firm grasp on the petrochemical industry until I participated in these venues.


Dare I say that most folks are unaware to what is happening on the Gulf Coast? There are large investments being made in the U.S. petrochemical industry, particularly in ethylene and polyethylene plants, which is in large part due to the low cost of natural gas and natural gas liquids. Who is investing in such infrastructure along the U.S. Gulf Coast of Mexico? Among others, Saudi Aramco and SABIC. Therefore, Pete Cella's close ties to the petrochemical industry, it makes sense that he was selected as a non-executive board member for Saudi Aramco.


Pete holds a degree in finance from the University of Illinois and an MBA from Northwestern University. He started his career working for Amoco, as a financial analyst. He would spend 17 years working in various business management positions before the merger of equals between Amoco and BP in 1999. 


Pete stayed with BP for six years, which included a position as the business unit leader for Global Olefin Specialties & Derivatives in Chicago. He then joined the executive team at Innovene, which was a $20 billion chemicals & refining company that was formed to be sold by BP through an initial public offering (IPO) of shares. Pete helped lead the efforts to file an S-1 prospectus for the planned IPO before the company was sold to INEOS.  He would then spend the next four months as the CEO of the Nitriles business at INEOS. Pete then joined BASF as the senior vice president – petrochemicals in North America, before being recruited by search firm Russell Reynolds for the position of CEO of Chevron Phillips Chemical Company.


Pete gave me three pieces of advice at this point in our conversation:


  • Never turn down a call when someone comes to you with an opportunity. 
  • If you are approached for recommendations, they are interested in you and how you can fulfill a need.
  • Get to know the executive search firms so that they are familiar with your resume when opportunities arise.


In the six and a half years Pete spent serving as the CEO of Chevron Phillips Chemical Company, he focused on delivering three things:


  • Growth with the development of new ethylene and polyethylene capacity in Baytown and Old Ocean, Texas.
  • Talent development and succession planning
  • Environmental, health and safety excellence.


While Pete served as CEO, he worked hard to improve and achieve a safer work environment for all under the Chevron Phillips Chemical umbrella.


Before Pete and I addressed his advice regarding board membership, we spoke about development plans in some of the companies he worked for. In most of the firms, individuals with high upward potential were identified about one decade into their career and placed into an accelerated development program to help fulfill their potential. Such a program typically included a development plan that ensured the optimal mix of personal and professional experiences to test the identified potential and help prepare the individual for executive responsibilities. In some firms, individuals may not even know they have been selected to be groomed for movement up the ladder. However, Pete believes it is important to let that individual know that they are on an accelerated path.


There are several ways that candidates for executive development may see themselves vetted and groomed. While functioning as a subject-matter expert in one area, they may be taken out of their comfort zone and asked to lead a team in another area to glean how they adapt to change and challenge. Seeking international experience is crucial. It is vital for an individual to understand and be able to work across cultures as more firms become multinational. Not all who are targeted to rise up the corporate structure end up making it, but the invaluable relationships built along the way give worth to the endeavor, regardless of the ultimate outcome. A key takeaway from Pete is that during an interview, board members are assessed for how well they may work with others and build relationships.


Finally, we turned our conversation to advice on attaining board membership. I have bulleted my takeaways below.


  • One cannot apply for a board position. You are invited to the process by the nominating committee. For the Saudi Aramco IPO board, Pete was approached by search firm Spencer Stuart.
  • An individual is often invited to a board because they are filling a gap of expertise desired on the board. In Pete’s case with Saudi Aramco, he was filling a gap for the desired expertise of petrochemicals because of Saudi Aramco’s strategy to significantly grow its petrochemicals business.
  • Boards have key positions that require a skillset such as governance (lawyers), audit (finance, former CFO/CPA), compensation (HR), etc.
  • If you are an engineer like myself with a desire to one day sit on a for-profit board, his advice was to either become an expert in what you do in hopes that that expertise will be needed, or seek to become a generalist where you understand multiple aspects of building a successful enterprise, such as supply chain, sales/marketing, operations/manufacturing, HR/talent management, finance and IT.
  • Reserve a section on your resume dedicated to board experience. Even if you are not on a board you can capture your board engagement as you progress through your career.


I recommend that when you get the chance, ask the CEO of a company for their resume. This is probably one of the best tools one could ask for to learn how to emulate the experience necessary for executive experience.


Next, stay tuned for my upcoming article on an interview I did with Dawn Metcalfe, the author of Hard Talk, and Samuel Passow and Susanna Deverelle, both from the UK-based Negotiation Lab.