The average Australian CEO lasts five years but the head of Oil Search has just notched up 25. On the eve of his retirement, Peter Botten shares his leadership secrets.
Former role: Managing director, Oil Search
Tenure: 25 years
Current roles: Non executive chairman, Oil Search Foundation; non executive director, AGL Energy; non executive chairman, Hela Provincial Health Authority
How do you define good leadership?
Defining a vision and a direction for the organisation that people can empathise with. Our vision is very much around delivering for shareholders but also playing a significant role in the development of society in Papua New Guinea. That’s something that strikes a nerve with many of our people.
You’ve taken Oil Search from a $250 million company to an $11 billion one but I suspect many Australians have never heard of you. Was it a conscious effort for you to stay out of the spotlight?
Well, sometimes you have to be in the spotlight and stick your head out but you need to pick and choose those moments carefully. There are more important things to deliver in terms of where the company is going.
The board said it had been preparing for your departure for several years. When did your succession plan start and how did it play out?
I’ve been very keen to see the next phase of growth come to fruition for Oil Search, which is primarily the expansion of our LNG business in PNG, but also to bed down our 2018 acquisition in Alaska. But it’s time to move on. It’s been planned and orchestrated by myself and the board very closely over the past couple of years and I know the new managing director [Keiran Wulff], who’s been with the organisation on and off for about 20 years, has passion and will reset the strategy in the next six months.
Transitioning an MD is difficult at the best of times but when you’ve had someone in the role for 25 years who’s so embedded in the culture of PNG, it’s much more difficult, isn’t it?
It is, which is why the board has taken its time to choose the right person. Parachuting somebody in from outside without that experience would have made it very challenging for the new incumbent.
Image: Agence France-Presse (AFP)
What are you most proud of? What do you think your legacy is?
In 1992, we were totally irrelevant in the oil and gas space in PNG; now we’re a key part today and into the future. But I think it’s not so much about corporate performance. It’s about how you touch people and develop them to their full potential. I think helping develop a world-class health network in Hela Province in PNG is something that’s very special. Hela has got one of the worst incidences of violence against women anywhere in the world. Being able to do something about that is something I feel empowered by because it’s such a horrible, horrible thing. Our facility in Tari Hospital sees more than a hundred new rape cases a month.
A hundred a month?
New cases. So the influence that you have through your workforce and the partners you have in communities is something that’s very special to this organisation and
it’s something I’m proud of.
Was getting involved in the community a deliberate decision from the get-go? Is it good business sense or does it become more about other things?
Engaging with the community is making sure it’s stable. Making sure they’re growing with you and not being left behind is critical for our operating stability into the future in PNG so it’s great business but it’s also morally the right thing to do. We were a lead responder after the earthquake in 2018 – we had the helicopters, the doctors, the community relations people and the facilities to move food and equipment around and we stepped up. We were the only people who could respond in a timely way.
You’ve had some interesting and diverse stakeholders, from the PNG government to tribespeople. Which group is more difficult to manage?
On any given day, they can be very different. I’ve worked with eight prime ministers and 12 governments in PNG. I’ve had challenging times with our communities. I’ve also had some great times with both governments and communities. There have been times when I’ve been at a gathering with the prime minister in Hela Province and rocks are thrown at the stage…
At you or him?
At him, generally. But you’re there. I’ve been in communities where people have charged the stage to try to make their point. But generally speaking, I don’t have any particular concern about wandering into any village at pretty much any time. There is violence – sometimes horrendous violence – in PNG at times in certain areas but unlike many operators there, our fences are designed to keep the dogs and pigs out, not the people.
What have you learnt about negotiation over the years?
Never underestimate the people you’re dealing with. Just because they’re in tribal gear, don’t think they’re not sharp as a tack. I’ve also learnt that different people approach a negotiation very differently. The Hela people think in parables so they tell stories and negotiate in a very different way, usually around a story or parable. Behind that is a message. And it takes time. You or I might want to do a deal in two hours; they’re very happy to do a deal over two or three weeks or as long as it takes to get to the right outcome.
What are the biggest lessons you’ve learnt?
How to manage people and organisations. The relationships with your partners are absolutely critical. I think you’ve also got to be passionate. It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking to a shareholder in New York or a community leader in a small village such as Hides, you have to be able to connect, you have to be grounded and you have to be legitimate. You can’t be a salesperson.
When you bought BP out of PNG in 1998, did that decision dramatically change the direction of Oil Search?
Sure. We started off with seven per cent in a single producing field and three exploration licenses so we had to get bigger if we were going to become relevant. The BP acquisition was that turning point. We effectively bought it for $450 million. Oil Search’s value then was about $450 million so we essentially bet the farm by buying them out.
And you were quite new to the role then.
I was three years into it but I had a supportive board and a supportive, entrepreneurial chair in Trevor Kennedy, which helped. It was a real struggle in the few years after that because the oil price tanked and we had a tough time supporting the debt we had.
Were you scared?
I don’t think I’d ever say I was scared but I was concerned. Sometimes you’re in the pouring rain and things are really tough; sometimes it’s overcast; sometimes you’ll be in the sun.
And when it’s raining, what’s your umbrella strategy?
Well, you just put your head down and concentrate on the bits you can actually influence and control. Get them absolutely as right as you can, work on how you can influence outcomes and don’t spend too much time worrying about the things you can’t control. Put in place processes and systems to manage the downside. I think we’ve done that pretty well over the years.
As one of the longest-standing leaders of a large ASX-listed company in Australia, what have been the pros and cons?
PNG is a different environment to Australia; it’s dynamic and constantly changing. Having experience in and understanding how the politics, communities and processes in the country work is very helpful. So continuity both at board level and in management is a positive. I’ve regularly refreshed. Every three or so years, you have to stand back and say, “Is this the right thing to do? Do you need more ideas?”
Does that mean changing your management team often?
Every three or four years the management team has been refreshed. Part of being successful is to ensure, as the business has grown and the responsibilities in the company have increased, that we augment the management team and bring in new people with new ideas.
You spent most of your time in PNG, some time in Sydney and most weekends in Perth. What sort of work-life balance was that?
Well, I don’t think I can say it was anything like a proper work-life balance. I have an unbelievable family and a wife hugely supportive of what I do and how I’ve done it. When I joined Oil Search, my son was 11 and my daughter was six. For the first nine or 10 years of my career with Oil Search I lived alone in PNG. Later, I became more of a commuter and tried to get home for two weekends a month. That meant flying out of PNG or Sydney on a Friday night and getting in to Perth at about midnight and then flying out Sunday lunchtime.
Wow. You do have an amazing wife.
I have an unbelievable wife. She says we’ve been married for 43 years but we’ve actually only been together for seven [laughs]. She said we went for quality, not quantity. There have been some good times and some bad times, challenging times when you have teenagers at school. When everything is going well, it’s fine but whenever you have the odd hiccup...
We often talk about mother guilt. Did you have father guilt?
That’s something you live with all the time. I was never at a school event during the week so if my son was in a swimming competition or my daughter was doing ballet
or gymnastics, I wasn’t there. But they’ve travelled alot with me and they’re good friends now so it can’t have been that bad. You always have some view that it would’ve been better to be there but hey, look, you make your calls. There’s not much point looking back. It’s done.
Speaking of travelling extensively, you have 300,000 Qantas status credits and in 2018, you took more than 300 flights. Is that right?
Yes, something like that. I’m a professional traveller. I’ve got the registration of every aircraft I fly on, I’ve got my seat number for every aircraft I fly in and now I also record the age of the aircraft. I’m a bit of a nerd in terms of travelling.
Have you given a lot of thought to what it’ll be like to step away from a company that you’ve led for 25 years?
Of course, you can’t not. I’m a reasonably busy person so stepping away from the undoubted stimulation of a busy schedule and program of activities is something I’ve been thinking about for some time. I’ve got a growing and challenging dance card but that’s not to say I won’t miss the adrenaline that I’ve had because I will. But you can’t do this forever.
What advice would you give a new CEO?
Have passion and demonstrate that passion and commitment to your staff. If you’ve become a CEO then you’re obviously not dumb. What makes the difference is demonstrating what you believe in and really want to achieve. Communicate that process to your staff and give them the same vibe and same enthusiasm to deliver on the vision. If you can do that you’ve got every chance of being successful. You’ll certainly get the best out of your people and that, as a leader, is about as much as you can do.