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A Conversation With Teresa Waddington

Coinciding with International Women in Engineering Day 2020, today we share a recent conversation with role model Teresa Waddington, hearing from her on career pivots, mentoring, motherhood, and animations of child-eating giant squids!


You relocated to Scotland from your native Canada in 2017 with your family. Do you have any advice you could share with others who may be considering relocating?


It’s probably worth sharing the story of how that decision went. I got a phone call early one morning, from someone I’d never met, asking if I’d like to run a gas plant in Scotland. And if I did, I had 2 days to decide. After I’d figured out that it wasn’t a prank, I sat down and spoke to my husband about it. The only other time I’d ever considered going abroad was after finishing university, when I was desperate for adventure. Since then, we had had 3 kids and firmly settled in to our life in Canada. But when that phone call came in, we talked it through, and with a million questions still unanswered (like, where would my husband work? What would it be like for our kids to grow up away from family?) we decided to just say yes and figure the rest out.


But it wasn’t easy. I had the long nights awake wondering if we’d done the right thing, tears sliding from my eyes when thinking of our family back home. And the profound loneliness that comes when you leave the emergency contact on your kid’s school forms blank because you don’t know anyone.


So I think my biggest piece of advice to anyone considering relocating would simply be – don’t overthink it. You either want to step into an adventure, with the discomfort and struggle that is an inherent part of it, or you don’t. I didn’t take the move specifically to grow my career (although that was part of the allure of this adventure), or to specifically live overseas. We went because we wanted an adventure. And the whole point of adventure is that the outcome is unknow-able, and you will face dragons on the way!


I love the animated videos you are creating (The Energy Economy Post COVID, Human Performance). You have a natural skill for being able to explain complex subjects, in a simple way. Where did you get the ideas for these, and do you have more planned?


My 11 year old daughter wants to be an animator when she grows up, and through lockdown she’s been making videos using all kinds of software. She made a video where I get eaten by a dinosaur, and so I retaliated by making a video of her turning into an octopus and getting caught by a fisherman. This escalated and I’ve been making short animations of my kids getting eaten by various sea monsters (which they love).


I’ve been into sketching for a while, and often sketch my notes for work or when I’m wrestling to understand concepts as it helps me digest the information and internalize it. I was getting ready to speak on a panel about the current energy crisis (through the BAME network) and had taken a bunch of picture-notes, when I decided it might be fun to use my new animation ‘skills’ (using that term loosely!) to put it all together. That was how the first one on the Energy Economy Post COVID came about.


The Human Performance videos were inspired by some research and reading I’ve done over the past year as I’ve wrestled with how we can truly change safety performance in the oil and gas sector. I was really challenging myself to understand the structure and purpose of my site’s existing safety systems, and what needs to change to fundamentally shift our performance. I’m still trying to figure it out (aren’t we all!) but there is something at the edge of my thinking that I’m trying to grasp about inspiring curiosity in order to create an incentive to deeply learn, and about the barriers to learning that exist in blame or even in the performance indicators we track and reward for safety. My next video will be something about how we might systemize the relationship between psychological safety, curiosity, learning, and safer workplaces.


Or I might do another one on a giant squid eating my youngest. He’s been asking for that.


Congratulations on winning OGUK’s Mentor of the Year award. What top tips can you give to others who think they would like to become or already are a mentor?


The best mentors I’ve had in my life have had a few things in common:


First, they recognize that ‘success’ and ‘happiness’ are words that encompass a million different end goals, and that the real job of a mentor is to help the mentee define that for themselves. Great mentors in my life have been able to park (or just admit) their biases or their autobiographical edits on what success looks like to help clear the way for the mentee to define their own without judging that personal vision.


Second, great mentors have lived hard moments and have really taken the time to understand their own emotional reaction to events; they have a depth and a wisdom that has come from wrestling with dark, sad feelings and accepting these moments. Glossing over, dismissing, or hiding from the hard bits makes us less capable of helping others wrestle with their challenges. Sometimes as a mentor our role is to stand beside someone in the shadow of huge disappointment and not try to look for a silver lining; it’s just to stand there and agree, this sucks.


Third, as my mom often reminds me, great mentors don’t always listen to the words. Sometimes when we are upset, we can go on a tirade against our boss, our company, our industry, or our family. Usually, what’s underneath this is a real fear. A fear that we really aren’t good enough, or that we won’t matter in our work, or that we don’t know how to choose our family over our career. A great mentor will not get caught up in the words and help ‘solve’ the problem of the boss or the industry or whatever. A great mentor will help expose that sliver of fear and help us to find words to talk about it, to understand it, and maybe even to remove it – which will make us stronger and more capable, regardless of the external world.


Finally, my best mentors don’t hesitate to challenge me. We’ve taken the time to build trust, and when they point out that I’ve behaved in a way that’s beneath my capability, or made a choice that was careless, they don’t back down from holding me accountable to my best self.


So in summary – the best mentors:


- Recognize that success comes in many forms, and help you define yours

- Will stand with you in the hard moments of life, to understand them, and not try to gloss over or rush out of bad feelings

- Help us understand and address the real fears underneath the bluster

- Challenge us to be better than we are, even when we don’t really want to


Your original discipline was Chemical Engineering and during your career you have worked in a number of different roles across Shell. The current economic environment may give opportunities for others to ‘Career Pivot’. What guidance would you give to ensure it’s a successful move?


Every time I’ve done a ‘career pivot’ (great term, I haven’t heard that before!), I look for every opportunity to learn more about that area. When I moved from a role doing Project Management to Commercial, I joined an external society (the Petroleum Joint Venture Association). I sat in on their seminars, got to know the people by asking all kinds of questions, volunteered with them and ended up serving on their board of directors for several years in my mid twenties.


Sometimes I get asked where I find the time to do something like that – but the honest answer is that I wouldn’t have done a career pivot to an area that didn’t fundamentally interest me. Curiosity is the underpinning condition for learning, and I was thirsty to know as much as I could about commercial, so it didn’t FEEL like I was committing time. I was energized by the act of learning, and my favourite way to learn is from people.


When I want to learn something that doesn’t fundamentally interest me, I draw on my fundamental interest in people. I will remember someone’s allergies or how they take their tea, or the name of their kid’s goldfish, for eternity, without trying. But I can’t for the LIFE of me remember the tag number of the three inlet valves to my plant (which my boss can reel off, along with torque settings for the bolts, no problem). If I can find someone who loves that topic, and get them to tell me about it with that spark that lights someone up who really cares, I will retain more of it just from their enthusiasm, and because I’m so interested in what motivates them to care about that topic.


One of the most stressful times in a woman’s career can be returning to the workplace after a break (maternity, adoption, carers leave). Do you have any words of wisdom having done this several times?


I wish I had something simple to offer here. I know from hard experience that coming back early because ‘it would be better for your career’ put me into a place where I struggled to be happy at both work and at home. With my second child, it was implied that if I didn’t come back to work earlier than I had planned, the job I so desperately wanted would not be offered to me. I think there was probably a valid business reason for this (they needed someone sooner), and I committed to return early. I struggled with breastfeeding my son and getting to work on time, and when I got home I would hold my little baby and just cry about being away from him all day. I still look back on that time and I am disappointed in myself for not being stronger in doing what was right for me.


At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is our own opinion of ourselves. The values that I hold my behaviour against are courage, connection, and humility. I didn’t have the courage to do what I knew was right for me, because I was worried that my career might suffer. I didn’t have the humility to admit I was wrong when I went back early and change my path. And I didn’t trust that others who knew me would give me a future chance at great jobs.


In my other two maternity leaves, I held my values firmly and I’m very proud of how I conducted myself at work and with my family. And following my third child I became rigorous on leaving work at 4pm every day, on the dot, no matter what for a few years. Building that accountability in to my day for myself, and being uncompromising, meant I could trust myself to be reliable both in work and family. And when I did decide that I would work late, or attend an after hours event, my family was supportive because they knew I was in control of those decisions, not being dictated to by my work. And that control kept me happy – because I owned my decisions.


My hard earned wisdom on this question is to put yourself firmly in control of your decisions about when, how, and why you will return from a career break. No one can ‘make’ you do anything, although sometimes hard choices will need to be made. And a structure or rigour that’s needed when your kids are young, or when your parents are unwell, is temporary, and real, and part of life. Career can grow at ANY time. I am a better boss for embracing my own humanity.


With three school age children how are you managing to balance work and family in the current lockdown?


Poorly!!!!!!


My husband and I try to take off some time each week to dedicate to homeschooling, and I’ve blocked off time in my calendar to sit with my kids and do some structured learning. We’ve also built an elaborate points system where certain activities and schoolwork are worth ‘points’ that can be redeemed for screen time, treats and other items to try and keep them a bit self motivated. We are very lucky that we live in the countryside and there is lots of room for my three monsters to run around in the garden. At 7, 8 and 11 years old they are at least a bit more independent!


One thing that really worries me is how dual career families are going to cope with the proposal to go to ‘blended learning’ where kids do not return to schooling on a regular basis. The implication is that someone stays home with the kids, either moving to part time work or giving up career completely. I am very hopeful that the government’s plans will consider how we best support families where the parents work outside the home, and especially for families where income limits the choices around childcare and school support.

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