Driving a change-agent culture in BP’s Lower 48

May 8, 2017

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When Nadia Lopez decided to open a public middle school in the heart of Brooklyn’s toughest neighborhood, she knew it wasn’t going to be easy.

Even after her first proposal was rejected by the New York City Department of Education, she continued to push. Fighting against perceptions that young people in low-income urban communities are destined for a life of poverty and crime, Lopez was determined to give her students a safe place to learn and to help them see the world beyond Brownsville through science, technology, engineering, art and math education.

Facing skepticism from parents, the community and even her fellow teachers, Lopez opened Mott Hall Bridges Academy in 2010. Today, the school of about 200 sixth-through-eighth graders is thriving.

Lopez recently shared her story at a town hall in Houston with employees from BP’s Lower 48 onshore business.

“Ms. Lopez is the definition of a change agent, and although she is in the field of education, she represents the type of mindset we want in the Lower 48,” CEO Dave Lawler told employees at the town hall. “She observed a real-life problem related to education, and she decided to do something about it. If we can all embody what she does, we will become a premier organization.”

Lawler applauded Lopez’s resilience and self-started leadership, and he pointed out the parallels between the obstacles she faced in founding the school and the challenges BP is experiencing amid the low energy price environment.

“We must apply the same level of innovative thinking and determination in our own work,” he said.

Bringing in Lopez to speak at the town hall was the brainchild of Laura Leffler, Lower 48 chief of staff, and part of a larger initiative aimed at inspiring and motivating staff to build a premier business through the leadership frame of being a change agent and taking personal ownership of results.

With operations that span five states — Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and Wyoming — and seven oil and gas basins, the Lower 48 business produces natural gas, oil, condensate and gas liquids from both conventional and unconventional rock formations. While wholly owned by BP, it began operating as a separate entity in 2015 in order to become more competitive in a rapidly changing exploration and production environment.

The move has worked. In the past two years, the business has achieved significant financial and operational improvements, largely through the use of innovative drilling and completions techniques, and custom operational data analytics systems. It has also increased production and added acreage through acquisitions — all while maintaining an unwavering commitment to safety and the environment.

“An important part of our progress is linked to the culture we are building,” says Lawler. “We recognized early that we needed a special culture to be competitive, and that we needed to establish a leadership role focused on creating and implementing those key initiatives that would connect our team to the mission of the organization. That’s the primary objective of Laura’s responsibilities as chief of staff.”

Leffler leads the initiatives that shape Lower 48’s organizational culture, which emphasizes safety, commercial acumen, accountability, collegiality, grit, community, innovation and trust — all supported by a modern working environment and underpinned by a real commitment to work-life balance.

“We want to create a sense of community across the business, along with delivering strong financial results,” says Leffler. “People always remember the way you make them feel. We want everyone to be proud of their business accomplishments, but we also want them to feel valued by their peers and enjoy their work environment.”

Leffler says that training and development remains a priority for the business, even as the industry suffers a downturn. Lower 48’s leaders are required to attend advanced leadership training, and the entire staff is required to take a three-and-a-half-day commercial acumen course. Leffler worked directly with Southern Methodist University and members of the Lower 48 finance team to build a course designed to help employees better understand their personal finances in addition to valuing oil and gas deals.

“I believe that if you can manage your personal finances, then you’ll do a great job taking care of the company’s finances as well,” says Leffler. “It’s a win-win situation for us to teach our employees about personal and professional financial applications. The feedback on the course to date has been very positive.”

Beyond designing development programs and bringing in change agents to speak to the organization, Leffler — whose background is in human resources and psychology — led the design and construction of Lower 48’s regional office in Oklahoma City, which opened in 2015. Following that project, she is leading the design and construction of its new headquarters in Denver, which is expected to open in 2018.

The Denver build-out includes 143,000 square feet of office space in the Lower Highlands district near downtown. It will open with at least 200 employees, including Lawler and the executive leadership team, with more staff to be added later.

“I think with establishing our new headquarters in Denver, you’re going to see a significant shift to an even more innovative and entrepreneurial culture,” says Leffler. “We have some interesting concepts planned for the new office, and I think our team will be enriched and inspired by this modern work environment.”

In the meantime, Leffler is working with Lopez to plan “BP Day” at Mott Hall Bridges Academy. Leffler says the program will focus on exposing students to the many career opportunities within the energy industry, through both hands-on activities and long-distance mentorship.

“For many of these students, they’ve never been exposed to the types of careers we offer within our business,” she says. “Now we can show them what those jobs are, what they entail and how rewarding they can be. We are excited to help these scholars see what their future could hold.”

Lawler and Leffler agree that the cultural changes within Lower 48 have yielded positive results that underscore the organization’s strong business performance.

“People are enjoying this environment,” Lawler says. “They feel enriched and empowered, and their best efforts are coming out. I’m very proud of what our team has accomplished and what they are delivering to the broader organization.”