From Janitor To Oil and Gas Engineer To U.S. Secretary of State
Scientists and engineers are rarely involved in politics. In the United States, they are vastly underrepresented in the Congress and in other elected offices. And this becomes a problem because majority of the critical challenges today have a scientific or engineering component, and that half of all economic growth over the past century can be attributed to technological advancement.
For many reasons, men and women of science and engineering do not seek for public office despite how their fields of knowledge can influence government policies and decisions. But perhaps when there is an opportunity, like the President with his power of appointing government officials, they would consider.
Such is the case of Rex Tillerson. An ex-CEO of oil and gas company ExxonMobil, he was nominated by U.S. President Donald Trump as secretary of state in 2016, saying that he would be “a forceful and clear-eyed advocate for America’s vital national interests.”
Tillerson was confirmed to the post in February 2017. He willfully accepted the job, becoming the first secretary of state in modern history who had no experience in any public office before being appointed.
Prior to Greatness
Born in Texas in March 1952, Tillerson is an active member of the Boy Scouts in his formative years. He was one of its devoted young members, getting the Eagle Scout rank, the highest achievement attainable in the Boy Scouts program, as early as 13 years old.
The Tillersons struggled financially when Rex was a teenager. To help in his studies, Rex became a bus boy in the student union building at Oklahama State University at age 14. Two years later, he worked as a janitor – sweeping floors, dumping trash, polishing the linoleum floors, and cleaning the bathrooms – in one of the engineering buildings of the same institution. This is where he got his first exposure to engineers doing research and solving problems.
It wasn’t until 1975 that Tillerson finished his civil engineering degree at The University of Texas at Austin. With Oklahoma and Texas as two of the country’s leading producers of petroleum and natural gas, he entered the oil and gas industry in the same year as a production engineer at Exxon. He spent his early days with the company exploring and developing new resources out in the oil fields.
Career Rise as an Oil and Gas Engineer
Tillerson worked his way up through the ranks in his 41-year career in the oil and gas industry.
He ascended from one of the production engineers to being the general manager of Exxon’s central production division in 1989. Eventually, he took to more responsibilities on a global scale, with operations handled in Yemen and Thailand in 1995.
Being the hardworking engineer that he is, Tillerson was named vice president of Exxon Ventures Inc. and president of Exxon Neftegas Limited in 1998. This gave him oversight of the company’s Russian holdings and in the Caspian Sea.
Three years later, when Exxon and Mobil already made the record-breaking merger, he became the company’s senior vice president. It did not take long – another three years – before he was elected president and a member of the board of directors.
Replacing American businessman Lee Raymond, Tillerson took over as chairman and chief executive of ExxonMobil in 2006.
Tillerson as CEO
Using his experience as a dedicated boy scout, Tillerson changed how ExxonMobil employees worked: he introduced a merit badge-like system to reward employees for accomplishments, reports say. This was a completely different approach compared to his blunt predecessor Raymond.
When it comes to maneuvering ExxonMobil as a business, Tillerson’s expertise in oil and gas operations was put to good use. His prior experience taught him how to manage technological and geological challenges, exploring for oil and gas on six of the world’s seven continents and operating in more than 50 countries.
Tillerson, as one of the most powerful men in the oil and gas industry, also forwarded the idea that fossil fuels, at the time, represented the only resource capable of meeting growing global energy demands.
Under Tillerson’s leadership, ExxonMobil ranked near the top among the world’s most profitable firms and remained one of America’s most profitable companies. It was named No. 2 in the Fortune 500 in 2016 with profits of $16.2 billion in 2015, despite being hit by the worst oil glut in the oil and gas industry in decades.
Secretary of State
The task of being the secretary of state, especially in the United States, is not an easy one. And Tillerson is exceptionally challenged that he was sworn without prior public office experience and that he is working with Pres. Donald Trump whose administration is riddled with controversies.
But based on his 2015 commentary in Forbes 500 Insider, a platform where top executives share their ideas, Tillerson has what it takes to survive this great duty.
“The demands on leaders in the 21st century are significant,” the 65-year-old secretary of state wrote then. “The challenges we face are many. But by recognizing the role of integrity in success, we can do our part to restore confidence in business, government, and markets. We can get and accept the feedback that allows organizations to change, improve, and compete more effectively.”