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A positive business outlook

THE freeway snaking its way down from Joondalup to Perth is not the longest haul on earth, at least not as far as life-changing journeys go.

But it was during a drive down that stretch of road that Woodside chief John Akehurst had something of an epiphany last year following a performance leadership workshop held in the satellite city.

After a weekend of confronting how he managed his business, Mr Akehurst admits changing his style on the spot.

It was a dramatic transformation, from an autocratic “nervous over-achiever” to someone who could devolve responsibility.

“I have learned that my way is not necessarily the best way,” he said.

“It was very liberating. I was always scared of failure. (Now) I don’t get so upset when things go wrong – as they invariably do.

By all accounts, the change within the company also has been profound. Meditation rooms have been introduced, staff have become more accountable to themselves and each other, and a few older executives bowed out.

But the new style, which seeks to make a working environment attractive to talented people, fits well with Business News’ 40 Under 40 project, of which Woodside is a joint major sponsor.

In fact, discussion on the subject of finding 40 top West Australians under 40 prompts Mr Akehurst to name a prominent Perth investment banker as someone the company should nominate.

Meeting Business News in his spacious wood panelled office, Mr Akehurst was as relaxed as a corporate leader could appear to be in formal surrounds. Sporting casual attire matched by staff throughout 1 Adelaide Terrace, he said the change in focus within the oil and gas player – which he refers to as bringing love back into business – resulted from Woodside’s success.

“In the seven years since I had been with the company, Woodside had gone through a period where it was not well recognised to a company that was meeting international benchmarks,” he said.

“But then there was a sense in the management team of where to from here? We found we spent little time on our people, far less than we devoted to maintenance or exploration.”

To set up Woodside’s performance leadership program, management consultants McKinsey & Company were brought in with specialist Gita Bellin who Mr Akehurst described as part management consultant and part mystic. It was Ms Bellin who ran the session in Joondalup, which had such a pro-found effect on the Woodside chief.

The core principle is to treat all relationships with integrity.

“We’ve gone to using 360 degree feedback so everyone knows how both their subordinates and their boss feel about them,” Mr Akehurst said.

“By clearly defining account-ability, it gives people greater autonomy. I’ve seen a lot of barriers between people in the organisation being broken down.

“The fundamental of this is being yourself and bringing your whole self to work. You have to be proud of your family and not just your work.

“It brings a belief in our own power – something in Australia we’re taught to avoid.

“The program has reduced a lot of stress in the company but there have been no signs that it has reduced the discipline and rigour of the business.”

Even the company’s vision statement has changed. It has gone from being based around profits and engineering excellence to “… enhance the quality of life through meeting society’s energy needs in ways of which we are proud”.

Mr Akehurst said the company found the program had enormous synergies with its health, safety and environmental programs.

Questioned about whether he had had to deal with any lapses in integrity since the introduction of the new policies, Mr Akehurst recalled a site visit to Woodside’s Karratha operations last year.

Invited to step over a bunting preventing access to part of a site in order to get a better look at work that was being carried out, he did so, lacking the “courage” to confront the tour leader.

Two days later a piece of scaffolding fell directly into the area.

“That was a very bad example to set for the staff there by ignoring the safety procedures that were in place,” Mr Akehurst said.

This big culture shift began around the same time as major shareholder Shell mounted a takeover.

Mr Akehurst said the program helped him and his staff to deal with the challenge. By requiring everyone to act with integrity, it provided a solid foundation from which all staff could approach decision making without needing to look up the chain of command at every instance.

This provided the flexibility and responsiveness required for such a long-running corporate battle.

“One tenet of this program is that you don’t become too attached to the outcome. That starting point became very valuable in the takeover battle,” Mr Akehurst said.

“A few people started off saying we had to win this thing, but towards the end a ‘win’ was making sure we kept our shareholders informed and their share value intact, rather than fighting to hold onto the company.”

Woodside has done a lot of work in parallel with its performance leadership program on “humanising” its human resources process.

“We have a more comprehensive approach to planning and trying to develop people. We want to be a highly profitable company and our people to be the best they can be.”

He said the company was putting in skill-pool managers to develop the talent within the company to ensure talented staff are not trapped in one division and possibly lost.

But losing talent is not a disaster.

“If we don’t have the jobs for a person’s development and they leave to pursue opportunities elsewhere, in my view that is good.

“These people can go on and become ambassadors for us.

“I want to have people queuing up to join us.”

Not that Mr Akehurst will be joining the ranks of Woodside’s alumni – his board has signed him up for another four years.

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Total Shareholder Return as at 29/06/18

1 year TSR5 year TSR
310thWoodside Petroleum25%6%
722 WA (and selected non WA) listed companies ranked by 1 year TSR relative to other companies with similar revenue
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