From the Laundry Room to the C-Suite | Straight Talk

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What does it take to work your way up from a position washing offshore oil drillers’ work clothes to CIO?

I vividly remember the day 25 years ago when I stepped into a bright orange survival suit and boarded the helicopter bound for my new job on Gullfaks B, an offshore oil platform in the North Sea.

Twenty-six years later, I’m Equinor’s CIO. I didn’t really have a master plan for my career; I just worked to balance having some ambition with trying to do a really good job at whatever I was doing. Even so, I did learn a few things in the process that I think might be useful for young women launching their careers today.

All Jobs Matter

My education began right away. That first job – as an “offshore catering assistant” – was hardly glamorous. Responsibilities included cleaning up in the kitchen and doing the laundry of the workers on the rig. But my six years in that job taught me two important lessons. First, regardless of where your job is in the hierarchy, you can and should do it well. And second, all jobs – big and small – matter. If there were no catering personnel, for instance, there would be no food, no clean beds or towels – and eventually no workers on board!

Female role models were also important to me, not so much at the top level but further down. The corporate executive committee was far beyond my wildest dreams, but I could look at the women working a level or two above me and think, “Yeah, they’re good, but maybe I could do that too.” Peer coaching also helped me. I've been lucky enough to have both female and male sponsors and mentors throughout my career who have encouraged me to say yes to things that I myself might not have felt I was ready for.

I stayed in that offshore job for almost six years, commuting back and forth to Germany, where I finished my university degree. After I graduated, I decided that there was probably more to life than being a catering assistant and that when you have a master’s degree, you should try and put it to good use. I applied for a two-year graduate traineeship at the corporate level of Equinor (which was then Statoil) and I was accepted, one of six recent graduates sent to business and organization development.

Saying Yes

After that training and a few years of working in various departments, I was offered a role in IT, which I accepted even though I didn't have a technical degree. I didn’t stay in IT for long – I went to HR after a few years – but in retrospect, accepting that job was a career-defining moment for me. While the job was really tough, it made me realize that if people believe in you, and if you believe in yourself, you can do things that on paper you are not qualified for.

That opportunity happened because I had a mentor who promoted me, and because I said yes to the challenge. Don’t be afraid to say yes to challenges. Women often need to feel that they can do every single aspect of a job before they’re qualified for it, and I think that’s a mistake. If you already know how to do the whole job, how are you going to grow?

Another reason you should feel confident, if it’s a situation where a sponsor nominated you to take on something new, is that they probably wouldn’t have recommended you if they thought you would fail. They do it because they think that you can succeed, and they know they’ll be there for you if the going gets rough.

You should also keep an eye out not just for mentors but for bosses who will help you make the most of yourself. One key lesson for me was to not always focus on the job I was applying for, but on the leader, I wanted to work for. Ask yourself: who can motivate and inspire you and get the best out of you? I’ve always had the fastest growth and the most learning when I had an exceptional boss.

Moving On

You also need to know when to leave that person. I had one boss I loved working for; she gave me opportunities to lead projects that I would otherwise not have been picked for. But one of the best things she did for me was to tell me when it was time to leave her and take on a new job.

She suggested that I should move to a position that I didn’t really want. I had just had my second child, I was very happy in the role I was in, and I had a comfortable relationship with her. When she first approached me, I said, “No, I’m not going to do it.” A week went by, and she came to me again and she said, “Are you absolutely sure?” And I said, “Yes, please don’t bother me with this again.”

Another week went by and I was called into her office once more, this time with the head of the department who had the new position. I got really mad because she had promised she wouldn’t push me on this. But she said, “We’re going to make one last attempt because we think this would be good for you. We think you could excel in this role.” At that point, I looked beyond my own personal preferences and thought, if these two women, who I respect so highly, think I can learn something from this job, maybe it’s time for me to think about it. So I decided to take the role, and my old boss was right: I ended up loving it and it gave me the experience I needed to reach the executive level in the company. I’m really grateful to them for that.

Stretching Yourself

Eventually, these experiences led to me being offered another post back in IT, one I had never in my wildest dreams imagined: CIO.

When they offered me the position, I wanted everyone to understand that I didn’t have an IT degree. I had some IT experience and two master’s degrees, but I wasn’t a technical expert. And people seemed okay with that.

I didn't really understand why at the time, but now I’m beginning to. These days, technology is such an important enabler for business that if you’re going to lead a technology function, you need to understand both sides. That is, it’s not necessarily a good place for a specialist.

The moral, I guess, is that although professional knowledge is the foundation for everything, it’s only when you combine it with a degree of healthy stubbornness and a strong will to make a difference that you get noticed.


Engineering the Transformation

When I became CIO three years ago, I began looking for ways to add value right away.

One of the first things my team and I did was to establish a new IT strategy, one that focused less on technology, on bits and bytes, and more on describing the business outcomes and value creation that we hoped to achieve. This created interest and engagement in the business.

I also started discussing our IT architecture with my team. My question was, were the portfolio of systems that had served us well in the past going to work in the digital era? Would they scale? Would they be able to meet the demand to deliver technology faster?

The answer to all those questions was a very clear no. So then we asked ourselves, what should we do to change that?

Our answer was to start building a cloud-based IT platform to liberate the data locked away in our 3000+ IT systems. The project took some time, but we did it.

The third thing we did was to conduct a few pilot projects that signaled to the entire organization we were moving in a new direction – simple things like a branded travel expense app, and solutions to other relatively small problems.

We also began to experiment a little with some new technologies. For example, we began testing HoloLens “mixed reality” smart-glasses during construction, commissioning and hook-up at one of our mega projects in Korea. The glasses enabled the sharing of 3-D models across geographies, which increased efficiency and reduced costs. They made possible visualization of planned modifications, which reduced errors and the need for changes. They allowed us to overlay 3D models on top of the physical reality, to ensure that everything had been properly installed. The glasses’ navigation functionality cut the time a worker needed to track down a pipe system in the plant from an hour to four minutes. And their Skype functionality enabled virtual consultations with experts, leading to fewer flights to the rig and thus improved safety. Today, this technology is getting spread far and wide as part of our Digital Field Worker program.

But the thing I am probably most proud of is architecting our partnership with Microsoft, which has led to the establishment of two data center regions in Norway. This has ripple effects way beyond Equinor and paves the way for growth and transformation of the many other small and large businesses and organizations that constitute the lifeblood of Norway’s thriving economy.

The Takeaways 

Don’t be afraid to take a job you don’t feel absolutely qualified for yet. You’ll learn.

People generally won’t ask you to do things unless they think you can succeed.

Don’t think only about the next job you want, think about the boss you want.

If you’re just getting started as a CIO, start with small but visible projects.