In the oil and gas industry, women continue to be a minority, with hiring and promotions being two big reasons for it. Today, I’m talking with the CEO of a company that is a fantastic rarity in this industry. The women-centric leadership at Houston-based Merichem Company is impressive, and it’s the topic of this interview with Kendra Lee.
Disclosure: In this sponsored interview, let’s explore the unique success story of a women-led company in the male-dominated oil and gas industry.
Interview with Kendra Lee, CEO of Merichem Company
In this interview, we discuss the proven benefits of gender diversity and Kendra offers insights on overcoming barriers for a more inclusive workplace. It’s great to get an inside look at an organization that is thriving under the leadership of strong women.
Welcome, Kendra. To start, can please share a bit about your current position?
Merichem Company was founded by my grandfather John T. Files and two business partners 78 years ago with the vision of taking a by-product and / or potential waste product and creating a needed product for industry. The three bought M&M Chemical in Houston along Greens Bayou, an offshoot of the ship channel. It was originally a soap and industrial cleaning company which they relaunched for the cresylic acid business. Merichem Company took cresylate, which is spent caustic containing cresylic acids, from refineries and recovered the naturally occurring cresylic acid which they refined and purified to sell into the industrial chemicals market.
After finishing my bachelor’s in Science at Texas A&M, I started working as a technician in the research lab at Merichem. Realizing I wasn’t suited for lab work, I moved into sales while pursuing my MBA. I became the corporate treasurer when the company leadership changed after my grandfather’s passing. In 2010, I was appointed to serve on the Board of Directors. In 2012, I became Chairman of the Board, and then in 2014, I became CEO.
At Merichem, women leaders are not an exception but a norm. I’d love to hear more!
Although the oil and gas industry is not traditionally led by women, research shows that companies with women in leadership positions outperform those without by a significant margin, and organizations with greater gender diversity among senior leaders are more profitable. Academic studies show that women tend to lead through inspiration, transforming attitudes and beliefs, and aligning people with meaning and purpose.
I have always been keenly aware that women bring different leadership skills and behaviors to the workplace. However, it’s not just about diversity of gender. It’s about diversity of thought and balance for better decision-making and fostering an innovative workforce.
Because of my willingness to embrace differences in skills, experiences, and talent, there are no structural obstacles nor is there systemic bias at Merichem. I have taken steps to ensure the company has more diversity across a vast spectrum of roles within the company with room to grow both vertically and horizontally. And we’re stronger for it.
I’m incredibly grateful for the women who join me in leadership at Merichem. They are smart, courageous, influential, transparent, innovative, and decisive. They bring structural and cultural differences to the table, which drives innovation, and they continually demonstrate passion, enthusiasm, and a capability to take command of situations when necessary.
Can you tell us more about the benefits of strong women leaders at Merichem?
As I pointed out earlier, companies with gender diversity, whether in leading or supporting roles, are prepared to achieve better results and higher revenues. Merichem is a great example of this phenomenon.
When women are empowered, everyone benefits. Decades of studies show women leaders bring a more complete range of the qualities leadership teams require, including self-awareness, emotional attunement, humility, and authenticity.
For Merichem, the women on our leadership team are skilled team players who work collaboratively with others to achieve the company’s common goals, especially in today’s fast-paced and complex work environments where teamwork and communication are critical to success. By fostering collaboration and inclusivity, our women leaders bring out the best in our team members and help them achieve greater successes.
Interview with Merichem Company’s CEO Kendra Lee cont’d.
What do you wish for other companies in the oil & gas sector that have few women at the helm?
Although increases in gender diversity in oil and gas are encouraging, there is still a sizable gender gap in the industry. Women currently make up about one-quarter of oil and gas employees worldwide – and only 17% hold senior and executive-level positions.
The problem of untapped female talent is not unique to the oil and gas industry, but it’s more pronounced than other industries. Specific to oil and gas, there is a hollow middle, which means there are not many women in middle management to promote to leadership positions and those suitable for senior promotions have chosen to leave the industry. It created a smaller pool of women available for advancement.
To address the disparities, the industry should be encouraged to hire or promote the best candidate for every position, rather than making choices based on statistics or percentages or (gasp) gender. For this to happen, women need to have a seat at the table.
Absolutely. And yet there continue to be issues with hiring that hamper gender diversity. How might companies overcome these challenges?
There are a host of things companies can do to address diversity in the workplace. First and foremost, the company culture must embrace inclusivity to attract and retain a diverse workforce. This can be done by continuously assessing and reassessing best practices for gender diversity and, by extension, diversity and inclusion.
Statically, men will apply for a position if they’re 60% qualified, whereas women typically only apply if they meet 100% of the job requirements. This means all gender biases must be removed from job descriptions.
Everyone has some level of unconscious bias, whether it’s realized or not. Recognizing them is a wonderful first step in overcoming them in the recruiting and hiring process. Companies will be well served to provide training to mitigate unconscious bias, be it race, sexual orientation, religion, or other reasons, and encourage inclusive hiring.
By providing extensive and comprehensive training courses, employees can be educated on eliminating unconscious bias when pre-screening and interviewing candidates. They can then be trained to seek and find diverse talent, create inclusive job descriptions, and engage in inclusive interviewing practices.
In addition to unconscious bias, are there other reasons for few women leaders in oil & gas?
According to research conducted by McKinsey & Company, the problem is in the pipeline. Only a third of entry-level employees in the oil and gas industry are female, which puts the industry last in female participation at entry level compared to other sectors.
Should they be lucky enough to get hired, entry-level young women look for role models in positions to which they aspire, but the participation of women in those positions is limited. It’s an indirect message that those positions are not for them. In addition, senior leaders tend to mentor those who remind them of themselves.
Young women have a more challenging time finding mentors and champions at higher levels in their organizations, which leads to them being passed over for those critical moves into roles of greater responsibility. Ironically, this drain is referred to as the “leaky pipeline.”
When women hit mid-career, they face entirely different roadblocks. Career paths are rigid and relatively predetermined, with milestones measured by a specific sequence of professional experience and skill development. In working to break through the mid-career barrier, some executive positions are not presented to women because men assume they lack the required flexibility due to presumed family demands – yet they’re often not asked. Women who push through are tasked with broadening their mindset and challenging the assumptions of male colleagues making hiring and promotion decisions.
Wow, the leak in the pipeline is awful. Looking back, what was a significant barrier in your career, and how did you overcome it?
I have never seen my gender as a challenge, even in this male-dominated industry. I have always been straightforward in my approach to the next steps in my career and always asked for what I wanted. In establishing my place as the leader of Merichem and in the boardroom, I was my own advocate. I am completely confident in my aptitude and abilities to run this business.
The bigger challenges are staying on top of the business landscape, managing teams, and making strategic decisions that drive growth. Fortunately, I adapt quickly to changes in customer requirements while balancing long-term goals with short-term gains.
These are not challenges based on my gender. They are no different than those presented to any CEO.
More with Kendra Lee
What do you suggest for a woman wanting to move up in the oil and gas sector?
Don’t be daunted or dissuaded. Assess your skills, knowledge, and expertise that may be transferable to the oil and gas industry. If you need to gain engineering experience for the position you want, consider an apprenticeship at a major oil and gas company. Many supermajors, including Shell, Chevron, BP, ExxonMobil, and others, have apprentice schemes that provide a taste of what it’s like to work in the industry.
To be considered, though, you’ll need to have studied in a relevant STEM field. Another option is to speak with someone you know that works in the industry. An oil and gas mentor can help navigate the industry and run gauntlets.
Excellent advice. How does Merichem better meet clients’ needs as a gender-diverse workforce?
A 2022 study co-authored by a University of Mississippi marketing professor indicates that women in executive corporate leadership positions have a positive impact on customer orientation, which can lead to heightened financial gains. We definitely fall into that bucket. We prioritize customer relationships and encourage customer-oriented discussions on every level of the company. Being customer-centric has resulted in a positive effect on the company’s long-term financial performance.
What else can organizations expect from working with Merichem?
Merichem has an extensive history of providing spent caustic services, process technology, engineering, and equipment to the oil and gas industry. We are also a leader in the beneficial reuse and recycling of spent caustics, whereby we turn would-be waste into valuable and viable commodities for our customers.
I’m not sure if it’s germane to female leadership or not, but we treat every customer’s challenge as unique as we strive to provide each one with optimal solutions. We listen, think, and innovate in a responsive manner with the intent of building relationships that endure.
We are proud to have global repeat customers, especially on the caustic side of our business. It gives me great satisfaction to know that, as a smaller company, we compete solidly against large competitors in the industry.
Wonderful. How do you motivate your team?
One of the achievements I am most proud of as CEO of Merichem is the company’s corporate culture. The oil and gas industry is laden with execution or authoritarian culture. I placed an unrelenting focus on developing and maintaining an innovative culture where unorthodox thinking is encouraged, and there are tools and processes in place to capture and progress ideas.
We foster an environment of trust with leadership and with one another. Merichem employees are motivated to get involved knowing that everyone else in the company is doing the same.
We embrace a collaborative decision-making process… Not that everyone makes the decision, but that all have input to the ultimate decision maker. The best possible decisions are made by having access to a greater range of talent, rather than any one restricting definition.
It helps provide insights into the needs and motivations of our employees and our customers, rather than just a small part of it. The more diversity on the team, the more fully thought-out the answer.
That’s a great collaborative process. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
American Petroleum Institute (API) predicts there will be nearly 1.9 million direct job opportunities in the oil & gas industry through 2035, which indicates lots of room for women interested in working in the sector. Recruiting and promoting will take diverse thinking and positive action, including identifying and addressing cognitive and cultural bias patterns.
Bridging gender disparity gaps must be approached with a broader framework and an aim to foster inclusive workspaces and diverse resources. Change is led from the top down, so leadership must support, commit, and drive the change.
Thank you for being here, Kendra!
Has this interview affected your perceptions of women leaders in oil and gas? Given Merichem’s success, what do you think organizations can implement to bridge gender gaps in other sectors?