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  • Writer's pictureDave Veale

Irving Oil CEO: The ‘rust-belter from the U.S.’ says it’s important to listen

Updated: Sep 23, 2021


Paul Browning, CEO & President of Irving Oil Photo by Kâté Braydon/Telegraph Journal

As published in the Telegraph-Journal, Saturday, February 15, 2014

Born in Detroit, raised in Cleveland, and a grad of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, the new CEO and president of Irving Oil tells people he’s a “rust-belter from the US.”

Paul Browning started at General Electric right out of university, working in their corporate research and development lab in Schenectady, New York. He worked on everything from light bulbs to washing machines to medical imaging devices. While he enjoyed being an engineer, the corporate world had other ideas and pulled him from being an engineer at GE and into various leadership positions in Mexico and Europe within the Caterpillar organization.

Paul had traveled to every corner of the world multiple times before joining Irving Oil. He describes it as a fantastic life experience but when he got the opportunity to join Irving Oil, it was an attractive offer, in that it would allow him to scale-back his travel yet continue at the helm of a multi-national company. He told me that another reason he took the job was to have the opportunity to learn from a successful entrepreneur like Arthur Irving.

I began our conversation by asking Paul what he thought were the key qualities he possessed that led to him being offered leadership positions throughout his career.

A: I’m an engineer but from the very beginning I had people telling me that I was headed for management. I never understood why. I was pretty happy being an engineer. I think people saw that I like to collaborate. For me, what’s really exciting is when I’m working as part of a team and we’re bringing multiple talents from multiple people together to do something bigger than any of us could do on our own. I’ve always enjoyed working with people from other cultures, from other countries, people who are different from me.

Q: Culturally, what were the strengths that GE and Caterpillar had?

A: GE has this execution culture that’s just incredible. If you have something that needs to be project managed, or executed, you just throw it to the team and it’s done. That whole Jack Welch culture that they built 20 years ago is still alive and well. At Caterpillar, they did the people side of things really well. It felt like I was part of a family business. It’s one of the things that attracted me to Irving Oil – I like that family business kind of feeling. You feel like you are part of a close-knit team headed somewhere together. Of course Irving Oil has its own culture – it’s an incredible family business. Our team members are proud to work here. They really feel like they are part of a family.

Q: What other attributes do you see at Irving Oil?

A: The other thing here that struck me is the entrepreneurial culture. There’s a feeling here that there’s nothing we can’t do. It’s a very entrepreneurial culture and I think it comes directly from K.C. Irving and Arthur Irving.

Q: I understand you are currently focused on people development at Irving Oil. Can you shed some light on the process of developing leaders?

A: We’ve defined three pillar processes originally from GE – strategic planning, financial planning and people development – that we’re going to use as part of our annual planning cycle for our business. Right now at Irving Oil we’re building our people development plan. We involve everybody from our company in a very collaborative process – everybody’s contributing their ideas and part of the debate. We’re working on a strategy together that’s uniquely ours. I’m a believer that your company is your people and that we’re only as good as the team that we build.

Q: What are you learning about the leaders you want at Irving Oil?

A: Our focus is finding people who have a better understanding of the export of commodities from North America to emerging markets. We are developing our own people and going out and looking for people who have that expertise and that can help us.

Q: What is contributing to the focus on this type of leader?

A: Some big changes are happening, like this renaissance of the production of oil and natural gas in North America. Also in our region we are seeing some traditional competitors leaving, meaning we are one of the sole survivors. We’re also seeing emerging markets around the world becoming more energy hungry, and these opportunities and challenges that are being created are what are defining the strategies.

Q: How do you respond to emerging markets most effectively from a leadership perspective?

A: Having an ability and a willingness to embrace diversity is critically important. Embracing those things that are different and finding out how you can come together with a customer, a partner, an employee who is from a different culture than you are. It’s a really important part of being successful in an international business. The leadership trait that we’re looking for is leaders who have the ability to embrace diversity and view it as an opportunity rather than a challenge – something to be excited about rather than something to be fearful of.

Q: What’s the best advice you were given around developing as a leader?

A: Some of the best advice I got was being told that there is a point in your career where you transition from being the front line ‘doer’ to being ‘the leader’ – the more you move up in leadership, the less and less you’re a doer and the more and more you’re a coach, a mentor and a facilitator. That’s something I had to relearn every time I moved up.

Q: What are you noticing is an under-utilized soft skill in leadership?

A: I think it’s really important to start with some domain expertise. Have something that you know deeply. It can be a hard skill or a soft skill. Develop something you’re really good at early in your career. Listening is an incredibly important soft skill as a leader. I would also say being able to hear yourself. Leaders who can’t hear themselves are difficult to work for and they’re difficult to listen to.

Q: Did you get a chance to meet Jack Welch when you were at GE?

A: He was the CEO the first time I worked at GE. I’ve met him. He’s a very intense guy. When you rode in an elevator with Jack, you went in ready. He was an incredible person to be around. Very intense, very focused. He knew what he wanted to get done and was really focused on making sure he understood where he was headed. As an entry-level employee, someone hired just out of university, Jack Welch impacted what I did on a daily basis at work. 

Q: How would you finish the following sentence? A leader’s job is to…

A: Inspire. Mentor. Listen.

Q: What would be the perfect outcome of your people development plan?

A: Our business is doing things that people care about. So, I think we have an opportunity at Irving Oil to develop a generation of leaders that are going to do some things that really matter in the world.

Dave Veale

A leadership coach and founder of Vision Coaching Inc. in Saint John

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