“I built my career on a portfolio of skills. Not ambition, because I’ve landed here by no planned path, it was more about just taking on more and more new things that expanded my horizons of knowledge.”
BY CHANTAL BRAGANZA
Lorraine Mitchelmore has the heart of an engineer; she’s passionate about figuring out how things are built and what makes systems tick. As a teen, she helped her father rewire the house he built for their family of seven. Later, before she had kids of her own, she’d buy her nieces and nephews Lego for Christmas, partially as an excuse to put together the blocks herself.
“It was something that I truly loved, building and connecting the dots,” says the current president and country chair of Shell Canada, and executive vice-president of its heavy oil division. It’s this desire to get to the heart of how things work that not only informed her early choice to pursue a profession in geophysics, but helped map out a 25-year career in the energy industry that’s seen her working across the globe and in a range of senior managerial roles. As of this May, that will also include an appointment as chair of The Governor General’s 2015 Canadian Leadership Conference in Newfoundland and Labrador—her hometown province.
That taught me pretty early on how to succeed in a male environment and learn how to hold your own. It was probably my biggest learning experience.”
Mitchelmore’s early years growing up in Green Island Cove, Nfld., were formative in a few ways. The middle child and only daughter in a family of four boys, she often found herself insisting to take on whatever chores or activities her brothers did. “I think that taught me pretty early on how to succeed in a male environment and learn how to hold your own. It was probably my biggest learning experience,” she says. Learning was also something of a group project growing up, with her mother consistently involved in homework, and math and physics the family fortés.
It was these subjects that acted as an inner compass in Mitchelmore’s undergrad years. “I almost finished a degree in computer science, and I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t want to do this,’” she says of her years at Memorial University in St. John’s in the mid 1980s. “I stopped immediately and moved over into geophysics. It was what I loved.”
The choice proved to be the right one: after a few years as a geophysicist with Petro-Canada and Chevron in Calgary, she moved to Australia in 1990 to work for mining and energy company BHP. In that time, she also pursued a master’s degree in geophysics in Melbourne and later an MBA while working in London. She describes those years, particularly in Australia, as the most enjoyable of her early career—travelling to exploration and production sites in the North Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, the Middle East, and Africa.
That travel-heavy time period is also when she found her background to be a useful tool for navigating new work cultures and social contexts. “The key advice I’d give to anyone travelling globally is to learn to listen well,” she says. “I’m a Newfoundlander with a strong accent. And I’ve found that sometimes, just because you talk differently, people will go, ‘What? What?’ I’ve made it a point to never do that.” This approach also extends beyond conversations, she says. For example? “I hate cricket with a passion. But after moving to Australia, I immediately joined teams to learn about the sport.”
“You have to set up a system where you not only rely on the empowerment of your staff, but trust them.”
In 2002, Mitchelmore moved back to Calgary to join Shell Canada in management for development and exploration—part of an ongoing transition to more business and strategy-oriented roles. “I was passionate about geophysics for a decade and never thought I’d do anything else,” she says, but eventually found herself uncomfortably comfortable after years of technical work. “I didn’t feel as if I was learning all the time. I like to be in the 7 out of 10 range; where I know 70 per cent, but the other 30 per cent is really out there.” At Shell, she channelled that desire to learn into a succession of roles that, brick-by-brick, built an impressive managerial portfolio: general manager of unconventional gas in 2005, development manager of North American on-shore properties in 2007, VP of exploration Americas North in 2009, Canada country chair in 2009, and in 2012, VP of heavy oil for upstream Americas.
“I think one of the key things when you have thousands of people working for you is that you really have to trust a lot of people,” says Mitchelmore of her management style. “You have to set up a system where you not only rely on the empowerment of your staff, but trust them.”
All the while, Mitchelmore has spent nearly every weekend off outdoors with her two daughters and husband, Kevin. “Skiing is our family activity. Or hiking, biking, boating—we are such an active family, and we grew up together into that. That human connection with nature is so powerful and I don’t want my kids to lose that.”
This love of nature also informs Mitchelmore’s career goals. In both conference speeches and in the media, she has been sparking larger discussions on how to depolarize energy issues in Canada, and vocal in her support for long-term environmental strategies such as a national carbon price. “I want to look back, many years from now, and see Canada as truly being a leader in energy and the environment. I hope I will have had a role to play in that.”