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Kathy Hirschfeld

02 June 2011

“When are you going to give up the executive life and become a professional company director? We need people like you on boards,” with this thought from a colleague and mentor on the New Zealand Refining Company (NZRC) board, came the germ of an idea for Kathy Hirschfeld.

Having worked at BP in various roles and at various executive levels for 20 years, and been appointed a nominee director to the NZRC board for BP in 2005, Kathy decided in 2010 it was time to do what her mentor and colleague had recognised in her, and devote herself to the strategic thinking and risk management that forms the better part of the governance role of a board member.

Packing her aptitude, experience and knowledge in her kit bag, Kathy (who had also been a long time member of the Army Reserve, where she reached the rank of Major), took the plunge and left the day-to-day of executive life.
She rolled her super into her own self-managed fund, which she sees as looking after her future and her best personal financial decision to date, and set off – with gusto – on her next life phase.

Describing herself as somewhat of a loner in high school, a recent encounter with an old primary school acquaintance, who pointed out Kathy had ‘never been a leader at school’, has prompted her to think about when things began to gel and change for her.

There are clearly defined moments she can distinguish as life changing. Other more subtle catalysts have proved to be equally as important over time, and with hindsight.

“I did a one-day introduction in Chemical Engineering at the University [of Queensland] in my last year at school as part of a group of high school science students picked for their potential,” says Kathy of her career choice Chemical Engineering.

The orientation course was one of those WOW moments: “I loved maths, chemistry, physics… and ancient history. But I really couldn’t see myself as an archeologist. It seems like something you’d do if you were in a novel rather than real life. Chemical engineers, on the other hand, are involved in just about any manufacturing process you can name. If there is a need to react one thing with another to make a product and to design the plants to process those products, then you will find chemical engineers. Oil refining is one of the traditional paths for chemical engineers. Beer making is another.”

One of 20 girls in an engineering year of 200 (and one of 2 in a class of 22 chemical engineers), Kathy soon found herself deeply involved in faculty and student life. That involvement led to taking on leadership roles and before Kathy herself realised: the genie was out of the bottle.

Running in parallel with her working life has been Kathy’s involvement with the Army Reserve. It is a place she believes has provided her with some of the best leadership training she can imagine. The Army, she says, is really about people: “The Hollywood picture of what it is to be an Army officer… some sort of totalitarian, dictatorial caricature is just wrong. You can’t be like that with people. You can’t say to someone: ‘do it… go over that hill to your potential death’. No one is going to do that. You have to instill trust and motivate people and you have to support.”
Graduating from university in the 1980s, employment for a female chemical engineer and during what were poor economic times, posed a double whammy.

“I’ve always had a plan but often it doesn’t work out the way you think. The important point is having one. I knew where I wanted to go and by remaining open to opportunities and working and manoeuvering within them I was able to get where I wanted to be,” says Kathy.

This sense of purpose has also stood her in good stead through years of career discussions in which her managers (always male) insisted on either pushing her toward HR or Occupational Health and Safety roles.
“From the first week at BP in the refinery I knew I wanted to be refinery manager. I can see now it was probably unconscious bias on the part of my bosses but they were thinking one way and I was saying, ‘No, I want to be in operations, I want to run this place.’ After a while, no matter how strong you are your ambitions take a battering.”
Going on an internal leadership course provided a positive catalyst. When two of the course conveners from other parts of BP recognized Kathy’s potential and tried to poach her, her boss at the refinery swung into action unwilling to lose his investment.

But her career progression hiccups weren’t over. There’s been conscious bias to navigate as well. Kathy has found herself in the all too familiar position of being in a role that has developed into something much larger and while her peers (always men) would be promoted she would find herself forgotten.

“I came to Sydney for three years and managed terminals and distribution. I worked with 11 union delegates and, I swear, my first year was spent meeting and negotiating to keep everyone at work. The reason I took the job was because it was a grade higher and I should have received a promotion with that but I had to fight and fight for it.”
I was doing more with greater responsibility than many of my peers and still not being promoted.”

All that battling would be enough to wear down the best of us and yet it remains Kathy’s greatest passion to provide paths for women into leadership and to develop strategies around retaining them. Strategies including developing flexible work practices and opening up discussions on the labyrinth-like nature many women’s career paths can take; the obstacles they encounter in the form of the unconscious biases held by both sexes when it comes to who and what attributes make a good leader.

In 2002 Kathy was involved in a leadership program she believes changed her life. Over four residential weeks spaced two months apart, 26 BP people were introduced to “confronting and amazing practices” which they then had to make use of in their roles on a day to day basis, as well as doing homework in the periods between the residential weeks. JMW’s Leader of the Future program developed the skills and strategies that helped Kathy to achieve extraordinary outcomes and eventually  lead to her  promotion to refinery manager. Using JMW’s program as a base, and supported by a JMW coach, she developed a similar leadership program at Bulwer.

Some of the skills Kathy found particularly useful included ditching the usual response to meetings, in favour of consciously preparing to enter as ‘constructive’, or ‘creative’ or ‘respected’. Aside from creating the characteristic(s) she would be in the meeting, she would also work on changing relationships with people by thinking about them differently. Instead of approaching people with the same expectations built over time, she would look for evidence of ‘the leader’ in them, or ‘the problem solver’, changing the way she and they related to one another.

The leadership development project at Bulwer followed some of the paths she was introduced to by JMW. Such a program hadn’t been done before on the same scale and it changed the place from ‘siloed’ to communal. People began to realize their part in the ownership of the whole process and that the refinery only worked because all their roles played a part. It was about communication.

“I spent a lot of time on leadership development of the immediate team and they then moved that down to the next level and the next. We called it: I Choose. It was about choosing the future instead of letting the circumstances do it for you – be proactive rather than a victim of circumstance. Making the choice means leading - stepping out 10 years or perhaps two, imaging what might be possible and then coming back and working out how you can get there.
“Instead of looking uphill and thinking, so how do we do everything we need to do to meet our plan (too much to do and not enough time),” explains Kathy, “you begin at the end with ‘we’ve had the good year, now how did we get here’, and fill in the gaps.”

Getting women into leadership, food and wine and travel. I’m hoping to get boards with meetings overseas because having worked for a global company I am used to working on a global scale and I want to continue to do that for myself and as a way of feeding back into any work I do – local or international.

Becoming managing Director of the Bulwer refinery, something I achieved after creating the vision for myself when doing a ‘Merlin exercise’in 2002 where I had to imagine where and what I would be doing in 10 years time. I achieved that in 2005 ahead of the 2012 schedule.

Managing the closure of a refinery in Turkey and ensuring that people were looked after in a way that was not typical in that country – we provided counseling, financial advice, careers advice and other help.
The creation of the leadership development program, I Choose, at Bulwer and its outcomes for the refinery and its people.

Pet hate
The term big polluter in conjunction with carbon tax: ‘big polluters’ only exists because you and I want to switch on a light, turn on a tap, drive a car. It’s up to us all to change our behaviours to reduce climate change.

“BP believes climate change is real and has been doing carbon trading internally since the 1990s. A carbon price is necessary to enable alternative energies to compete.”




  • Ryan Ryan

    Ryan Ryan 10 years ago

    I have always admired you and your work Kathy - it is inspiring to read more about you and the learnings and experiences which have shaped you as a leader. I particularly like 'changing relationships with people by thinking about them differently' and the Merlin Exercise.

  • Trisha Carter

    Trisha Carter 10 years ago

    Thank you for this inspiring example of grit in the face of challenges. So proud of Kathy for not being diverted out of her goal of heading operations and eventually gaining the respect and the position worthy of her skills.And as a coach and facilitator it is so encouraging to hear that some of Kathy's key development moments came from L&D programs. Woo hoo we do change lives!!!