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Equinor’s Chief Operating Officer Shares Key Takeaways From Current Crisis

A litmus test of leadership is the ability to seize upon the positive outcomes of a crisis when everyone around you – individuals, corporations, and markets – is focusing on the negative. Under the current circumstances – a worldwide pandemic, oil prices falling into negative numbers for the first time ever, and global stock markets crashing – Jannicke Nilsson, executive vice president and chief operating officer (COO) at Equinor, is passing with flying colors.

Spending five years offshore early in her professional life was “quite an important part of my career [and] probably shaped me as a leader also because I learned the power of understanding each individual, and what’s motivating them.”

In addition to those soft skills, Nilsson has always been fascinated by technology. About three years ago, Equinor (then Statoil) decided to step up its digital efforts and look into how it could utilize digitalization to deliver on its strategy: “Always safe, high value, and low carbon.” It established the Digital Centre of Excellence, which falls under Nilsson’s purview as COO.

“If you look at Equinor, we’ve been a technology-driven company for a long time. We have been willing to test and utilize new technology. We are very often the first user compared to other companies that would like to wait and see that somebody else is testing. So we have a good history of being early up, using new technology.”

While the company has seen how technology can be applied to improve both its bottom line, as well as safety, it’s also being utilized to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. “In this COVID situation that we have now, we created quite a big dashboard, where we’re also collating all the needed information. It’s something that we [can] use across the company. It’s helping us to see the same picture, and to have the same understanding of the risk, and how to manage that risk.” 

Nilsson says she’s proud and impressed by the agility of the company and its people, enabling them to respond quickly even in a situation no one has ever experienced before, while continuing to have safe and efficient production the entire time.

“There are some key takeaways from this period. People are able to adjust very quickly and are working from home and spending time with their families quite efficiently. There is less commuting and long-distance travel, and the time and money related to it. There are positive [lessons] – leaders are even closer to the people and we are also able to collaborate probably even better than before. There is that kind of solidarity because we’re in this together.”

“In my position, it’s very important to stay close to the entire organization, so [prior to the restrictions] I travel[ed] quite a lot, visiting offshore and onshore, in Norway and internationally. That’s the important part, to have dialogue with the people, not only the top leadership team, but also people across the organization.”

The only female COO of a major energy company, Nilsson sees female COOs in other industries in Norway and believes that young women are eager to fulfill that role in energy companies as well. “We should not miss out on 50 percent of the people. It would be a shame if operational roles were covered only by men. In Equinor, we try quite systematically to motivate younger females to enter operational roles.”

Because she was the only female in the cybernetics course of study at university and there were very few females in operational roles when she started her career, instead of focusing on narrow parameters about what a mentor should be and engaging specifically with a female mentor, Nilsson says she has had “dialogue partners,” both male and female, with whom she could discuss her career. She believes many younger women appreciate having female role models in senior leadership positions and, in addition to mentoring internally at Equinor as well as externally, she also takes the somewhat unique approach of “reverse mentoring,” where a young female mentors her.

“It’s quite interesting because I was studying cybernetics at university more than 30 years ago and what was advanced and high-tech at that time is not high-tech anymore. She’s teaching me a lot – face recognition, text recognition – but, most of all, we reflect on our impact as leaders and the different [perspectives] between young females and senior females in Equinor.”

After 21 years with the organization, Nilsson says, “I still believe in creating energy for the world. Equinor is very firm on shaping the future of energy – there will be a mixture of oil and gas, and renewables. The world needs greener energy. The vision that we have for the company is very motivating for me.”

She calls it a privilege to have held so many different roles at Equinor from engineering to research to technology. “Whatever position I have, I actually feel it’s the most exciting job that I’ve ever done. My last one was this great improvement work we call STEP (Statoil Technical Efficiency Program). In the last downturn, ’14 to ’16, we were actually creating robustness for the company, changing the way we’re working, so that together as a company we were strengthening our competitiveness [and] shaping the company for the future.”

“[Recently], I was talking to a colleague and she reminded me of something I said a long time ago that was actually a quote from my father. I think it’s something that’s also quite valid for Equinor because I’ve learned that you should always look for the good in people because most people would like to contribute in a positive manner.”

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