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Occidental's Vicki Hollub - the woman driving one of America’s top oil companies - on Meet the Leader

Vicki Hollub, CEO, Occidental Petroleum Corporation, shares thoughts on energy market disruption, bridging gender gaps and more.

Vicki Hollub, CEO, Occidental Petroleum Corporation, shares thoughts on energy market disruption, bridging gender gaps and more. Image: World Economic Forum / Ciaran McCrickard

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Vicki Hollub is the CEO of Occidental Petroleum, running the energy company at a critical time - during the disruption caused by the Ukraine conflict and the ongoing push for the energy transition.

She is one of the first women to run a major American oil and gas company. In fact, women hold just 12 percent of leadership roles in oil and gas and a fraction of top roles in the energy sector as a whole.

To bridge the gender gap in the energy sector and beyond, Hollub told podcast Meet The Leader that we need:

1. Mandatory unconscious bias training. Good people have to understand that they have unconscious bias, said Hollub. The right frameworks can be key for both women and men to overcome a range of blindspots.

The entire C-suite should take this training, said Hollub. "Every CEO - you need to take it."

2. Advocacy programmes. To build careers, you need to ensure advocacy programmes are prompting conversations that create opportunity for a range of diverse employees.

All successful people -- including every CEO -- had someone advocating for them, Hollub said.

Meet the Leader caught up with Hollub during the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting in Davos where she shared her thoughts on what's next for energy markets and how we'll fund a fossil-free future.

Learn all this - including the the trait she depends on most as CEO, and the one she's learned to leave behind -- on the latest Meet The Leader. A transcript is below.


What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

Meet the Leader: Vicki Hollub

Podcast transcription

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: The Ukraine invasion has brought a number of disruptions to energy markets. How do you thinks those markets will shift as a result?

Vicki Hollub: I think that certainly, all countries around the world are going to be looking for ways to diversify their energy sources and to be very cautious and do a lot more evaluation about where they're getting their sources of energy as well.

I think the fact that energy independence has come up a lot here recently, and especially now that this is happening, I think countries are going to shift to alliances that they can develop in a bigger, broader way so that they're not locked in and finding themselves, somewhere down the road, too dependent on someone.


Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: When you talk about these alliances, can you tell me a little bit more about how those might walk and talk? What would those look like?

Vicki Hollub: I would say that for a long time the U.S. had a really strong alliance with the Middle East and then what disrupted that to some degree was the development of what we call the shale revolution, and what happened there is we were actually able to find enough resource and develop the capability to become energy independent.

That doesn't mean that we don't want to still be allies with the Middle East because, you know, we operate in the Middle East and have great operations and great partnerships there, but it really put the United States in a different position with respect to leverage around the world. And that was important.

Now in some ways I feel like sometimes we're not as grateful for that as we should be in the U.S. But seeing what's happening now in the world, I think that we need to be careful about who our allies are and we need to nourish those relationships and grow those relationships over time.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: And how can leaders navigate that? What should they be keeping in mind as they look to moving towards these better relationships and alliances?

Vicki Hollub: I think the same way countries need to do it, companies need to do it too, and we've done it. We helped Colombia become a net exporter back in the early eighties. And since then, we've had a relationship with Ecopetrol and the country that's lasted for decades now. And so now they've come and partnered with us in the Permian [Basin] and we're partnering with them to do some things off shore in Columbia after having developed Cano Limon, which transformed that country back then, back in the eighties. We have a great partnership with ADNOC in the Middle East and with Oman Oil.

Those partnerships have led to us being able to look at things differently and to grow as a company and to help them to grow their energy sources in their countries. And so company to company can actually help to strengthen a country to country relationship. Once we get in there and we develop these long-lasting relationships that bring us knowledge of how they like to operate, the things they need as a country, and how we can work to make that happen.

"Always be who you are, no matter what the situation."

Vicki Hollub, CEO, Occidental Petroleum Corporation

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: Leaders need to explore partnerships that have never really been needed before and rethink how they work with each other. How will that play out?

Vicki Hollub: I think that's definitely true. I think that also comes because of the supply chain disruption. Now it's better for companies to try to find ways to help each other with materials and with services. We've done it a little bit offshore, but we haven't ever done it as much in onshore operations. I think we have to develop that mentality that, to be the best that we can and to maintain the margins that we've been able to develop over time — the higher margins — I think it's really important to share services and to help each other with materials as we go through something this disruptive.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: How will the Ukraine conflict impact the energy transition?

Vicki Hollub: I think in the short term, it'll slow it down because again because of the supply chain. 5% of steel, 6% of aluminium and 18% of nickel comes from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. So that's disruptive. But I think what it will do though, is just what happened has given us all another pause to think. You know, the pandemic made us all really think about the energy transition, I think in a different way. And to think that even though it wasn't climate related, it made us stop and reflect a lot more about the world and the state of the world and the health of the world.

I think the pandemic caused us to all get more committed around the energy transition and I think that what's happened now has accelerated that commitment and made it even stronger. But our hands are going to be tied in the near-term because of the supply chain. But I think in the medium and long-term, it's going to be more beneficial because I think we've got more people that are realizing it's got to be all of the above.

It's got to be a lot of things happening. Not just renewables, not just EVs [electric vehicles] and not just oil and gas. But we've got to think of other things too. We've got to get really aggressive with carbon capture. We've got to get aggressive with methane emissions. And so, there's a lot of things to do, but it's really been inspiring to see how at least there are pockets that are starting to form of some collaboration that's happening.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: Since the pandemic happened, what do you think might be one of the most important priorities that you were able to sort of set for yourself and sort of say, “Hey, you know what, we need to be doing this now. The context has sort of changed. Here's what we need to do.”

What comes to mind as like, “yeah, this is what we really needed to, to make us our number one.”

Vicki Hollub: We were already committed to build the largest Direct Air Capture facility in the Permian Basin, and we moved along with that. We're approaching FID [final investment decision], we'll start construction the end of this year. So that was going really, really well for us and everybody's excited about it. I think it'll be game-changing, ultimately.

But the other thing that it's made us want to do more is to push harder for what we think is right. To push harder for the things that need to have happen for the energy transition to be successful.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: For folks who aren't familiar, can you define Direct Air Capture technology?

Vicki Hollub: Yes. Direct Air Capture technology is an exciting thing. With these large industrial fans, we actually pull air from the atmosphere, push it through a contact tower, use a fluid that then extracts the CO2 out of the air and returns the remaining air back to the atmosphere. It takes the CO2 and enables us to either sequester it, use it or put it in an enhanced recovery and sequestered in a different way.

What we're trying to do is view CO2 as a product, a valuable product, and not something that you only have to sequester. There are ways that we can use it for other things that ultimately will help to fund what we need to have funded here, which is not going to be an inexpensive process.


Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: Given all that, what is needed to really scale that technology?

Vicki Hollub: We need to build more of these, faster. And just like wind and solar, which when they started out, by the time they were, I think about 10 years down the road, they had already reduced their costs by at least 80%.

What we feel like is we have to build it before we can make it better. And we have a tool that wind and solar didn't have. We have, now with the computing world where it is today and artificial intelligence and all that, now we can build a digital twin of the direct air capture and we can work on optimizing it in the cloud with this digital twin. So, I think it's not going to take us as long to lower costs as it did wind and solar who didn't have this available to them back when they were starting out. So, I think that we will be able to reduce cost, but we need to get them built. And the way we’ve got to make that happen is to just go out and do it.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: So, with that attitude, what holds it back? What do you think could be a potential slowdown or a potential hurdle?

Vicki Hollub: What is slowing it down is the fact that it does cost money and the way we set our strategy out was what we thought was the best way to help the world — and when I say this, sometimes I lose people, but just bear with me here — our strategy has been to try to leverage our core competence of using CO2 in enhanced oil recoveries or reservoirs. We've done it now for more than 50 years.

When you inject CO2 into a reservoir, it does increase the recovery from the reservoir. But the way it increases that recovery is that that molecule, a CO2, goes in and gets that molecule that's trapped in these micropores. It's what we call residual oil saturation, where the oil in those tiny pores is never going to move unless you put CO2 in there and it reduces the viscosity of the molecule and kind of pops it out, and then the CO2 replaces it in there.

That's how you sequester CO2 as you're increasing oil production. The reason that's important is because, ultimately, the CO2 that's emitted from the barrels that are used, and that you get from that CO2 that you put in the reservoir, that CO2 that's emitted is lower than the CO2 that you've injected to get it out.

So, what you end up with is a carbon neutral or carbon negative barrel of oil.

Now, there are those that feel like that CO2 should never be used to increase more oil production because oil production should go away today. The reality is that, from the estimates I've heard recently from reliable sources, the energy transition could cost two-to-three hundred trillion dollars — and there's no way the world can afford it. There's no way we can afford to do that. So, we need to do it in the way we're doing it, because that will help fund the transition and it provides carbon negative or neutral oil for aviation and maritime industries to use. And when you can get more hydrocarbons, oil or gas or whatever it is, when you can get more oil out of the reservoir, out of existing reservoirs, that means that you're not having to buy infrastructure to put somewhere else to develop a new area to meet demand.

So, all of that steel in the facility that you had to use, metals to build the facilities, that then has no additional carbon footprint — because it's already there. And so, all the way around this is a much better way to develop the remaining reserves in the world.

Oil is going to be needed for decades to come. So, if we do it this way and you focus only on emissions, not the source of the fuel, but the emissions, which is what we need to attack, then this is the best way to do it.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: I think a lot of people forget that there needs to be this transition in these plans. Why do you think that is?

Vicki Hollub: There are those people with an agenda and I'll just set them aside. But there are some people who just don't know, because they listened to the people with the agenda.

Sometimes we will look to toward former politicians and those who maybe have some celebrity and we believe everything they say, and there's too many people saying the wrong things. There's too many people putting information out that's not helpful for the energy transition.

There are a lot of good people who don't know the truth, because we haven't been able to get the message out there in a broad enough way.

As we've talked to companies about this, who are considering investing with us and we help them understand it, we're getting a lot more interest in doing this. And so, I think it matters to me to help people understand it, but it's going to matter to the world for them to get it, because if they don't, then we're going to leave people behind and we're going to leave people doing the things that they're doing today, which is cooking inside their homes, with things that are causing emissions inside their home that's going straight into their lungs. We can't have that happen. We've got to address that. So, we have to bring everybody with us in this transition and we believe we have the perfect solution to make that happen. In fact, I believe the last barrel of oil produced in the world should be from an enhanced oil recovery reservoir, because it would be a carbon neutral barrel at that point.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: How do you think the world would be different? Describe to us the before and after in 20 years. What kind of change will we see?

Vicki Hollub: I think if we can make it happen, if we can get everybody working together on this, I think that in 20 years we could see a dramatic change in how aviation is going, how maritime is going. Right now, United has partnered with us to build the first facility. Airbus has signed up a contract to offset theirs.

The reason United is partnering with us to build it, is because they don't want to buy carbon offsets for their jet fuel. They want their jet fuel produced from carbon neutral or negative oil. Either way you want to do it, as long as you're doing something. Airbus wants to buy the CO2 offsets for their fuel.

So Direct Air Capture and/or other forms of carbon capture can provide that source of CO2 credits to make it happen. I believe what we're seeing in the companies we're talking to today gives me a lot of hope and a lot of encouragement that corporations are getting way ahead of regulation and policy, and they're making the decisions to do this and to put a plan in place to get to carbon neutrality, because they think it's the right thing to do.

I see it happening. All across the U.S. it's up. It already happened in a big way in Europe. So, it's encouraging to see that companies are making that commitment.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: There's so many different climate targets that have been set by so many different people, organizations, companies. In the next year, what is one thing that absolutely do we need to make progress on in order to make sure that we can make some of these marks?

Vicki Hollub: I'm going to dive into something that's more tactical, but I think 45Q [an expanded tax credit for carbon sequestration] in the United States needs to be enhanced. And while that might seem like a small thing, the reason it's important is because, if we could get that enhanced, we could accelerate the development of these. The more we can accelerate in the U.S., the more we can expand it worldwide.

There's 50% more CO2 in the atmosphere than in pre-industrial times. Even if we stopped all the emissions today, we would still need to remove it from the air. So, I think the technology that's got to happen is Direct Air Capture.

We have plans to build 70, but the world needs a lot more than that. So, if we can get that technology cost down, others will come along with us and build these all around the world.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: You had a technical degree but did you envision yourself running a company like this one day?

Vicki Hollub: Absolutely not ever. I was happy being an engineer. I had the good fortune to be able to work not only in the United States, but in Russia, Venezuela, Ecuador. I got to see other cultures and I love our industry. I'm very passionate about it. I think I'm always proud of the fact that we have fuelled the world and we still continue to do it. We just need to do it differently now, and we need to make that change faster. But, I'm excited about what our industry has done and achieved and want to continue to be a part of it. When I was told that I was a candidate to be CEO I was shocked. In fact, I thought our former CEO was joking with me. Then, as I was leaving the building, I started realizing he wouldn't joke about that. So, it took me a while to let that sink in.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: What capabilities do you think that they really felt they wanted at that moment?

Vicki Hollub: What I feel that I've been able to do that has been helpful to me my whole career is bringing people with me. I've always felt like if you can make the people around you better, if you can facilitate their development and their growth, then you're going to have a better team. So, a focus on people. I'm very passionate and I persevere. Perseverance is one of the Ps: passion, people, perseverance. And if you’ve got all three of those, then you have got a chance to be really successful.

Women in senior management roles by energy sector, 2019
Women in senior management roles by energy sector, 2019 Image: IEA

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: There's not a lot of women in the energy industry, period. There are great efforts being done to bridge that gap, but in your opinion, what can be done? What can companies do? What can universities do? What can women do as they're exploring opportunities?

Vicki Hollub: I'm a part of a group, a women's group, in Houston, that was formed by McKinsey. I'm on the advisory board and we have now grown our network of cohorts, and started expanding out of Houston into other areas. And I think part of it is women helping women, and trying to ensure that we provide for women today what we didn't have before, because others blaze the trail for us. I wasn't the first to ever be CEO, there were CEOs in other industries who spent some time to talk to me, and they were helpful to me. So, I want to be helpful to others. And so, this group is trying to make that happen and to give encouragement and give some tools and to mentor people and women in our industry.

I think it doesn't happen without two things happening in a big way: one is that we have to get people who are really good people to understand they do have some unconscious bias. So, I think every CEO of every company in the world should take unconscious bias tests — even women. Every CEO - you need to take it. You should make the C-suite take that training.

Beyond that, you need to have advocates for your diverse employees, not just women, but all your diverse employees. You need to put advocacy programmes in place, because I think just about every CEO that you would talk to probably says, at some point they had someone advocating for them. I certainly did for me in my role. So that needs to happen. I think all of those things have to happen in a big way. I can think of people today who were with some of my peer companies and they ended up retiring, never getting to that role. And I think they would have been amazing had they had that opportunity.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: I think a lot of people, if you asked “Do do you create opportunity for others?” everybody would say yes. But people have blind spots. They may not realize things that they aren't doing. What's an example of a way that you have helped bring people along and make opportunity?

Vicki Hollub: I think you have to make sure that you're creating the discussion about it. For example, in our company, we every year go through succession planning. One time we did it, and as we were talking about candidates, a couple of us in the room thought about a person and thought: ‘well, why is she not on this list?’

HR went to her manager and had a chat with him, not about that because she didn't want to have the discussion go right away to that person, but she sort of talked about some of the things, got up to leave and she said: ‘oh, what about, Rachel, how she's doing?’ — just using a name — and he responded to say ‘Oh, she's great. She's just doing amazing things.’ And just started rattling off all the things that she was doing well. And so, the HR person says, ‘wow, do you think she should be on the succession planning list?’ He said: ‘Oh my God. Yes, she should be.’ He hadn't thought about it. I know him and he's a good guy. It wasn't intentional at all. It was just that he didn't think about it. And so we have to make those discussions happen.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: Is there a piece of advice that you've always valued that you thought, ‘gosh, I'm so glad I heard that, that's been great for me.’

Vicki Hollub: I have a long list of advice. I've had some people who who've really helped me along the way, giving me advice. I think that the one that kind of stuck with me for a while was, I was at this women's conference giving a presentation, and when I came off the stage, there was a lady standing there. She came over to me and she said: ‘Vicky, that was great. I enjoyed it. But please don't ever become a man.’

It wasn't to be offensive to the men, but the way I interpreted it was - what got you here, don't lose those skillsets. Don't think you have to adapt. Don't think you have to do things the way men do it just because it's been mostly men that have been CEOs. You don't have to do it their way. You have to do it your way. You have to do it the way that makes sense for you and the way you've been able to get to where you are. Some things you have to leave behind, but always be who you are, no matter what the situation.

"You don't have to do it their way. You have to do it your way."

Vicki Hollub, CEO, Occidental Petroleum

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: What's something that is a trademark 'Vicky'?

Vicki Hollub: Trademark Vicky? I would say that the way I feel and think about day-to-day was formed by my mother who passed away tragically during a heart surgery. What I discovered about her, as I was talking with her friends, is she had this ability to brighten people's day.

She had this ability when she was around people to just make them happier and to feel better. And so, I feel like my trademark within Oxy would be that I try to connect and I try to every day make somebody's day better. And sometimes it's just a smile, sometimes it's talking with them, sometimes spending a little time with them.

But now I've found that some of our employees do the same with me, especially during some of the challenging times of one employee who every day, every morning sends me an inspirational message. And it's a person that's a couple of levels or a few levels down in the organization, but she and I had worked together at one point. And so when she saw how difficult things were, she started sending me these texts, and she's kept it going now for about four years.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: That's amazing.

Vicki Hollub: So if we would think that way and try to do that, I think you get more connected to people. Then you also get to a point where, you know when something's not right with them, and you know when there's something that needs to be done,

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: You mentioned a trait that you think you leaned into because it's natural for you. Is there a trait that you needed to leave behind that?

Vicki Hollub: For a long time, I felt like I needed to be involved in the whole organization. Even though I trusted those who reported to me, I felt like there were times that I could help. Now I do a lot more delegation and do a lot more letting people just try their own thing and see how it works.

I can tell you, during the pandemic, we just made a major acquisition six months before the pandemic, and when we realized what was happening — you know, the price war started before the pandemic — so we had a double whammy there.

So we needed to, very quickly, dramatically change our spend profile and try to survive, try to preserve cash. So that's what we told our employees. We said: ‘we don't know where this is going. We don't know how low it’s going to go or how long it's going to last. What we need to do is preserve cash.' We didn't tell them what they needed to do. We just said that.

Next thing I knew, all kinds of great decisions were being made. The organization was moving forward with no bureaucracy, people were just making decisions and doing the things they do best and it worked out beautifully.

That's a model now we are trying to replicate, now that we're way past survival and into thriving again. Sometimes you see those bureaucracies almost trying to creep back in and you go on and hope we can do it better. They'll do it better. Just leave them alone.

Linda Lacina: A little bit of simplicity and straight talk.

Vicki Hollub: Exactly.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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