Leading a Globally Diverse Board

By: Leo Roodhart

A genuinely international board means more than just where its members are located. The former president of the Society of Petroleum Engineers shares the challenges and benefits of a board abroad and how the culture of the organization is crucial for success.

Leading a member-driven organization is challenging enough with the time pressures, generational differences, and economic conditions that all affect volunteers' willingness to participate. It becomes even more challenging with added obstacles of language, culture, and time-zone differences that must be addressed when working with an international board of directors.

The Society of Petroleum Engineers is an international professional society with more than 92,000 members in 117 countries. Although SPE was founded in the United States, less than half of SPE's membership is in the United States today, and the international component of our membership has been rapidly growing since the 1990s.

Over the past decade, our board has shifted from merely having international representation to being truly global. The diversity of SPE's membership is matched by the diversity of our board of directors. Fewer than half of our board members are from North America, with the rest from all corners of the globe.

I am from the Netherlands, and I previously served as a regional director on SPE's 27-member board. In my experience leading a global board, I have been a strong advocate of the globalization of our society and the board. I believe that the diversity of our board has made us a stronger organization and led us in interesting new directions. I'm certain that our global growth is a direct result of our global representation. Our international representation on the board has also profoundly changed the way we conduct our business, influencing our selection criteria for board appointments, how we conduct our meetings, and even our strategic direction. It hasn't always been easy, but I must say it has been fun!

Scale for Global Demands

SPE's dues structure is a good example of how our board's diversity has led us to make different decisions than we would have otherwise. During a debate about our dues a few years ago, board members from less-developed countries passionately advocated for more affordable dues. Their advocacy affected our decision to adopt a tiered dues structure based on World Bank country classifications. This was a major shift for SPE.

The international diversity of our board also led to our decision to hold SPE's annual meeting outside the United States for the first time, this year in Florence, Italy. Even though we hold numerous conferences outside the United States, we had never ventured elsewhere with our flagship annual meeting. It took several years of discussion and much debate among board members to take this step. A number of concerns were raised by our U.S. board members about financial implications and the difficulty our North American members might have due to limited travel budgets. But at the end of the debate, we concluded that as a global organization, it makes no sense for us to always hold our annual meeting in the United States. I anticipate that in the future we will hold it in other parts of the world, including the Middle East and Asia, to make it possible for more members in those areas to attend.

Communication Challenges

The Society of Petroleum Engineers' global growth is a direct result of global representation on its board.

The different perspectives our board members bring to the table are invaluable but also create more obstacles in developing a consensus. Language and cultural differences are challenges we must face in our communications with board members.

Although our board meetings are conducted in English, we have a number of board members for whom English is their second language. This makes written reports in advance of meetings critical, so their first exposure to complex issues is not during an oral presentation in a less familiar language.

Some cultures are not as comfortable in expressing themselves in public or openly debating issues. In these cases, it can be more effective to ask board members for their input one on one during meeting breaks or more informally outside the board meeting.

While we always aim get the best contribution from everyone on the board, I am sure that we are not always successful.  Being a blunt Dutchman, I am certain that I may have crossed some boundaries. There is no Dutch word for embarrassment, so I have always been able to continue discussions that others might find awkward!

Cultural Sensitivity

The geographic diversity of our board can make it challenging to bring all of us together. For many years, we have only held one of three board meetings each year in the United States. Holding the meetings in various locations around the world fairly shares the burden of traveling to our meetings. I find it interesting that no matter what part of the world you might be from, you are likely to have misconceptions about other parts of the world. We have had board members from the United States who have been nervous about traveling to the Middle East, and board members from the Middle East who were nervous about traveling to the United States.

Because of the great distances that must be traveled, our board debate is often fueled by large doses of coffee, or in some cases, strong tea, to get us through our jet lag.

Rotating locations for our board meetings exposes our board to the many cultures represented by our membership. We have used board meetings quite effectively as a forum for meeting with local members, which has helped us to develop new services to meet member needs. For example, members who attended a board meeting held in the Middle East said it would be valuable to develop a certification program for engineers in countries that did not have licensing or registration programs like those in Europe and the United States. One of our Middle East board members was also a strong advocate of the program. With this input, SPE did create a certification program, but it would not have happened if we held all of our meetings in the United States and without the strong support of non-U.S. board members.

We plan dates for our board meetings to take into consideration a wide range of religious and national holidays, which dramatically impacts when we can get the board together. In addition, we are careful in planning the events and social aspects of our board meetings, making sure that we accommodate the food and beverage requirements of board members from many cultures, as well as considering what entertainment will be appropriate.

Align Appointments With Cultures

We have learned to think about board appointments and nominations for SPE leadership positions in ways that are appropriate to the country or region's culture. A track record of volunteerism for SPE at the local and regional level is always an important consideration for a board position, but members' positions in their companies are also important in some countries or cultures. The hierarchical nature of some cultures is a fact of life we have to consider when considering board nominations.

Board members also can differ in their opinions of their roles on the board. In some regions of the world, board members see themselves as representing their country and have less of a global viewpoint. Others may see their position as more ceremonial, lending their name and presence to the society in areas that don't have the tradition of "roll up your sleeves" volunteer service. I don't think this is unique to our society. The key to successful board service is to match individual expectations with what we ask board members to do.

More Similarities Than Differences

The oil industry's culture tends to predominate in SPE. This is a global industry, and our members are accustomed to working with people from all over the world. Some of our board members have had less opportunity to travel internationally and without exception have told me that learning about other cultures was one of the most rewarding aspects of their board service.

I agree that the rewards of serving on an international board are great. I have traveled to more than 30 countries during my tenure as president, though only a portion of the places where we have members, and have met with university students, company executives, technical experts, government officials, and fellow board members during my travels. It is eye opening to see first hand the profound cultural differences from region to region. It is also affirming to realize the ways that we are fundamentally similar.

I spent much of my term delivering the message that, as a society, we can only truly become global by acting locally. Our board has done a good job of balancing what is best for the global society while striving to meet individual needs in culturally diverse regions. I believe that is why SPE continues to grow its global membership and why other organizations can expand and benefit from global growth as well. 

Leo Roodhart, manager of strategic innovation for Shell International, is the former president of the Society of Petroleum Engineers, with offices in Dallas, Houston, Calgary, Dubai, London, Moscow, and Kuala Lumpur. Email: [email protected]