Robertson: A career built on desire to excel
IADC’s 2020 Chair: Those willing to work hard, stay flexible and step out of their comfort zones will find rewarding career opportunities
By Linda Hsieh, Editor & Publisher
When a person is faced with adversity in the workplace, they can either toss in the towel and move on to another job, or they can choose to work harder, do whatever it takes to overcome the challenges and become successful.
In December 1977, Julie Johnson Robertson graduated from The University of Texas at Austin and subsequently moved to Houston in May 1979, where she accepted a role with Bawden Drilling, writing maintenance and drill pipe manuals.
Her first boss at Bawden was an oilfield veteran with a gruff demeanor, who clearly had serious doubts that this young woman from a small, rural town in North Texas – having absolutely no experience in or knowledge of the oilfield or drilling rigs – would be successful in her job.
But she didn’t let his skepticism intimidate or deter her. In fact, it actually gave her the desire to prove him wrong.
“This industry was new to me at the time. I knew nothing about it,” Ms Robertson recalled. “So I started driving out to our land rigs on the weekends. I hung around the toolpushers, the operations people and maintenance crews, and I asked a lot of questions.”
Not a lot of 23-year-olds would want to give up their spare time on a Saturday or Sunday to go the extra mile for a job, but Ms Robertson didn’t just want to do her job – she wanted to excel at it.
This type of work ethic – and this type of internal drive to be good at what she does – is what has characterized her career over the past four decades. It’s also what has taken her into her current role at Noble Corp – as Chairman of the Board, President and CEO – and now her role at IADC, as the association’s first female Chair.
Growing her oilfield career
Just a few years after joining Bawden Drilling, the industry fell into a deep downturn. Due to numerous layoffs at the company, Ms Robertson found herself being entrusted with more and more responsibilities. In addition to manual writing, she started taking on tasks in risk management, human resources, and eventually marketing.
“Looking back now, that was a really good way to learn the business,” she said. “I’m not sure I would’ve had the opportunities I had if not for the downturn.”
“Every day I know I have 3,000 employees depending on me for their livelihood and that of their families. That’s a responsibility that I take very seriously.”
It also helped that she stayed flexible, never turning down what she was asked to do just because “that’s not my job.”
“I think people need to be open to taking on new responsibilities. It will help you to better understand the company for which you work and to better understand the industry,” she said. “Don’t stay inside your ‘box’ because you’re fearful of the unknown. Instead, step outside of your comfort zone, show interest in any opportunities presented to you and get involved. It can be very rewarding.”
Leaving that comfort zone
When Noble acquired Bawden Drilling in November 1988, Ms Robertson began working for then-Noble CEO James C. Day and found her work scope beginning to expand once again. At that time, Noble was embarking on a number of strategic moves that would completely change the direction of the company, taking it from primarily a domestic land drilling company to a global offshore driller.
Between 1988 and 1996, Noble acquired numerous companies that expanded its offshore presence and global footprint. During that time, the company exited the land drilling business with the sale of the global land fleet and divested the mat-supported jackup business.
“The experience gained during this extended period of M&A activity was instrumental for the future that lay ahead,” Ms Robertson said. “Being on the front lines of that change in our company was fast paced, fascinating and career changing. Assimilating the various companies into ours was not for the faint of heart, and during those years we all felt like we were attending the Jim Day MBA program.” This experience laid the foundation for her later undertaking and completing the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard School of Business.
In 1993, Ms Robertson had become Noble’s Corporate Secretary, a role she would hold for 20-plus years. From 1994 to 2006, she additionally served as Vice President and then Senior Vice President of Administration. Then in 2006, she was named Executive Vice President and would spend the next decade supporting Noble as it undertook another strategic transformation.
The company’s multibillion-dollar newbuild campaign has yielded one of the industry’s most modern, highest-spec deepwater fleets. “We’re always trying to stay on the cutting edge and be responsive to what our customers need and want,” she said.
Customers, stakeholders, employees
When Ms Robertson assumed her current position of Chairman of the Board, President, CEO in January 2018, the industry was already three years into the deepest downturn it had ever experienced. But she notes that her mission – and the company’s mission – has never wavered. “Our goal is to provide the best service that we can to our customers, and to run the safest, most environmentally friendly and efficient operation that we can.”
Her motivations go beyond that, too. “Every day I know I have 3,000 employees depending on me for their livelihood and that of their families. That’s a responsibility that I take very seriously,” Ms Robertson said. “Each day I’m focused on our customers, our stakeholders and our employees. It’s the first thing I think about every morning and the last thing I think about at night.”
Looking to the future, as Noble gets ready to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2021, Ms Robertson said that she is optimistic that the industry has turned in the right direction on the road to recovery. “We’re not where we need to be yet, but I do feel like we’ve turned a corner.” DC