Sara Ortwein on where the ‘buck’ stops, grit, and career planning

Written by:

ALLY Energy

This week in our series Profiles in GRIT, we introduce you to Sara Ortwein. Sara is the president of XTO Energy, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil. XTO is a leading oil and natural gas producer in North America with expertise in developing tight gas, shale gas, and unconventional oil resources. The company manages 11 million acres with total resources of about 139 trillion cubic feet.

In addition to her role as president at XTO, Sara is a member of the Academy of Medicine, Engineering, and Science of Texas. She is on the board of directors for the National Cowgirl Museum and is an active alum of the University of Texas.

We recognized Sara at our first-ever GRIT awards, and now we are pleased to share more of her story with you.

ALLY ENERGY: What’s the biggest challenge you have faced and how did you overcome it?

SO: One of my greatest challenges is recognizing that, at the end of the day, the buck stops here. Part of my job is knowing when to move beyond discussion to make difficult decisions.

As a leader, you learn you are not going to make everyone happy. So, you must focus on what is best for the organization. I’ve learned to manage the delicate balance of creating an open, collaborative team environment, taking feedback, and pulling everything together to set a direction for the organization.  Then, I work with the organization to drive the commitment to deliver results and alignment.

AE: What’s one mistake you made, and what did you learn from it?

SO: In my first supervisor role with ExxonMobil, I was managing a team of people who had far more experience than I did.  I spent most of my first year in that role struggling to figure out how I could add value. But then I came to realize that it wasn’t my job to know more than the people around me — it was my job to enable them to apply their strengths to whatever challenges and opportunities we faced. Now, as president, I know I’m not here to have all the answers. I’m here to find and develop the right people and allow them to use their capabilities to move us forward.

AE: What’s been the most rewarding part of your career?

SO:  I’ve been fortunate throughout my career to work with some of the most talented and brightest people in the industry. What’s most rewarding for me as a leader is seeing those people strive for greatness and providing them with the resources they need to succeed in their careers.

AE: Who’s been a “gritty” role model for you, and why?

SO: Early in my career, I had the opportunity to work with a manager who encouraged me to guide my career proactively.  I had been successful to that point, but his guidance and my reaction to it have clearly impacted my career.  He also showed me the value of staying in roles longer, learning the business, and having a quantifiable impact on the people around me, versus moving swiftly upward from opportunity to opportunity.  He asked me at one point, “Would you rather move up quickly or be a person that others think of when they put a team together because they know you will make an impact?” I want to be the latter.

In the early 2000s, I was fortunate to work for a senior executive who became both a mentor and a friend. The oil and gas industry is often seen as a male-dominated field, but he believed that recruiting, retaining, and developing top female talent was a business imperative. And he invested his time and energy to ensure we made progress in this area.  He also took interest in my development and helped me to recognize the business value I could bring by being a role model for others.

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