Clearing Cultural Borders to reach Common Goals

Steve Bate has taken diverse career paths to arrive at his current position as President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of INOVA Geophysical Equipment Ltd. At each stage, he has cultivated a culture of drawing on the strengths of his people and organisations toward a common cause. This perspective is helping his company achieve its goal of becoming the premier land seismic company in the industry.
This article appeared in Vol. 9, No. 5 - 2013


Source: Inova Formed in March 2010, INOVA is a 51%/49% joint venture between BGP, a wholly owned subsidiary of China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and ION Geophysical. One of Bate’s main goals in leading the company has been to build INOVA’s culture in a way that does not merely blend the cultures of its parent companies, but instead combines their strengths.

“Our operating and organisational philosophies have focused on embracing the individual attributes of ION and BGP, which include different geographies, styles of running a business and cultures,” says Bate. “The end result is a unique INOVA culture, rather than a homogenised work environment.”

This operational philosophy is one that Bate has developed during his entire career, which has included a stint serving as president of a light commercial and residential construction company and as founder of a consulting business that provided advisory services to small, rapidly growing businesses. He also held executive positions with Landmark Graphics and ION before being appointed INOVA’s first CEO in 2010.

“In many of these positions, I was charged with rolling up different companies or taking businesses that already existed and streamlining them to drive greater operational efficiencies,” he says. “I have seen first-hand the damage that can be done to a well-established company that is rebranded or restructured just for the sake of achieving a sense of sameness.”

The end result is often a company that is less efficient or innovative than it was at the outset. To avoid this trap, Bate and his executive team have developed several initiatives that incorporate the positive cultural and organisational attributes of the parent companies to arrive at INOVA’s operating culture.

The company’s birthday celebrations are one area in which a global community spirit is fostered. “All 450 of our employees around the world wear the same INOVA shirt on our birthday, and have a little party at their offices,” Bate says. “While each celebratory event and cuisine has its own regional flavour, we are all celebrating as part of the same team.”

Face-to-Face Meetings

Long Quoc Nguyen, technician for INOVA’s VectorSeis sensors, chats with Steve on the manufacturing floor in Stafford, Texas. Source: Inova The INOVA culture stresses the importance of face-to-face communication to stay connected and share company objectives. For Bate and his team, this translates to travel, with frequent visits to INOVA’s regional offices each year. Bate also conducts twice-monthly meetings with his global management team via video conference. These meetings are less focused on problem solving, but rather on building connectivity between managers such that everyone is engaged in the common goal of moving the business forward.

“The video conference format is a chance to break down the barriers to effective communication that arise via email exchanges or teleconferences,” Bate adds. “By being able to actually see each other’s faces while talking, much of the confusion or uncertainty behind a person’s true message or intent is eliminated.” The meetings are also an opportunity to make connections so that it becomes easier to reach out to colleagues in other offices for input on projects.

While this communication philosophy h as paid dividends, work remains to improve understanding of corporate goals on a global basis. “Even when you are talking face-to-face with a colleague from another country, cultural differences creep in,” Bate explains. “We might use words or phrases that mean very different things to our colleagues, who are listening through their own set of cultural filters.” Very quickly, this could lead to people reacting to a statement that was completely misconstrued and taking actions that move them farther away from the business goal.

“We have a solid business model and aggressive growth plans, and we’re getting larger every year, but I don’t want us to lose that entrepreneurial spirit that breeds an intimate connection between our employees,” says Bate. “Without that connection, information gaps develop that prevent the best decisions from being made.”

East meets West

“Special considerations have to be given to communication between teams in both hemispheres, particularly since the rules of engagement are so different in Eastern cultures versus the West,” Bate continues.

The heritage BGP personnel are accustomed to working within governmental processes and regulations and to highly respect the chain of command in decision making. For instance, if a research scientist needed information from a sales person, they might send the request to their R&D manager, rather than go directly to the sales person. The R&D manager would relay this request to the sales manager, who would then seek out the appropriate sales representative to provide the necessary data.

“The Eastern ‘strong leader’ approach is more respect-driven, while in the West there is less attention to the chain of command and employees have no qualms about directly approaching a peer in another job function,” says Bate. “Both models of communication have advantages, either in timeliness, efficiency or closing the loop across management.”

INOVA employees are encouraged to communicate directly with one another, but certain information is best shared from the leadership team to their managers to maximise relevancy to the audience. Also, as Bate points out, the principles of seeking and sharing throughout the organisation encourage dialogue, which is a sign of respect for both the person seeking an answer and the person providing the information.

“Dialogue is important to me. I expect and encourage my managers to challenge my ideas,” says Bate. “I need people around me who have different experiences, perspectives and opinions from mine, and are not afraid to share them. I’d say this is sometimes a stretch for my teams in both the Eastern and Western hemispheres, depending on the organisations they’ve worked for in the past.

“This approach has caught on, as evidenced by discussions at the executive video conferences. Not only do the Chinese executives speak more freely and offer their opinions, but executives in the West have also become more respectful of differing viewpoints.”

By blending components of the Eastern and Western management philosophies, INOVA has arrived at a broader, more collaborative management team – one that not merely instructs its employees on the proper way to conduct operations, but is also open to learning and incorporating new ideas. “I would not want to hire anyone I could not teach, just as I don’t want anyone on my team who could not teach me something,” says Bate. “Whether you stop learning or you stop teaching, the result is the same. You stop growing.”

Learning from Mistakes

Face-to-face meetings, onscreen and in person, are very important to keep the global hemispheres linked. Steve shares face time with his executive team in Calgary. Source: Inova INOVA is cultivating several initiatives that encourage the personal growth of its current and future leaders, including giving people the freedom to make decisions, without fear of major repercussions if the decision does not turn out exactly as planned. “Many people like to make suggestions, but may not have a great deal of experience of pulling the trigger on a decision,” Bate says. “And of course, this can be a risky proposition – the bigger the bet, the harder the decision. Nevertheless, the more people making high-quality decisions on a real-time basis, the more successful a company will be.”

One way INOVA is empowering its people to make more decisions is a technique called Leadership Intent, an adaptation of Commander Intent with its foundation in battlefield planning, to ensure personnel have very clear objectives when deploying to the field so they can manoeuvre through obstacles as they focus on their assigned objectives. “With this understanding, our regional personnel are empowered to deviate from the original deployment plan should unforeseen situations arise – which they inevitably will,” says Bate. “The most important thing is that the final objective is met on time and within budget. And if something should go wrong in the execution of the plan, the decision-maker learns from this mistake to avoid it in the future.”

To truly ensure that the company’s message is conveyed so every employee has the right information to effectively understand the message and the goals, Bate is a strong proponent of a manager fine-tuning the message and conveying it directly to the next level below, rather than sending out a corporate-wide memo from the very top. “While employees in certain regions prefer to hear the message directly from me, we have seen that in other regions my message may get misconstrued,” Bate says. “But because managers – whether it be in communications, finance or product development – each have their own unique style of engaging with their teams, it makes sense for them to tailor the message for maximum retention and understanding. Setting relevant context is key for good communication.”

Predicting Industry Needs

“With this careful and calculated approach to conveying its corporate objectives, we plan to stay ahead of industry requirements for new seismic acquisition technologies. In particular, INOVA is trying to strike a balance between the needs of the operator and the contractor,” Bate explains.

In helping an operator quantify oil and gas finds more efficiently, the company aims to provide value, which comes from higher-quality seismic data. “We are developing solutions that support denser surveys, more receiver points and provide an overall more sophisticated measurement,” he says. “Ultimately, the objective is to give operators better data to make the best decisions.”

Contractors need a seismic measurement platform with greater ease of use and in a package that is robust and reliable. This requires close communication between engineering teams who build the high-sensitivity equipment, and field technicians who are charged with handling the equipment in real-world scenarios and putting it through its paces to ensure reliability.

“We have recently advanced these goals with the introduction of highly flexible acquisition technologies. These include the cableless Hawk™ autonomous nodal system, which incorporates INOVA’s VectorSeis® multicomponent digital sensors and supports three-channel analogue geophones for better characterisation in unconventional plays. The node is built from lightweight, high-grade aluminium for greater durability. The system has a transcription time that is at least three times faster than comparable systems, and allows for advanced quality control by drive-by or helicopter via Wi-Fi with the Connex Field Harvest Tool.” INOVA also recently released its G3i™ cable system, designed for flexible land recording in rugged terrains. The system supports more than 100,000 channels and can be used to capture 2D, high-density 3D and time-lapse 4D data.”

The new tools have been successfully deployed in regions ranging from the Marcellus shale of West Virginia, USA to oilfields in Western China.

“We could not continue to develop and deploy technologies such as these if we did not maintain open communications in a way that acknowledged our employees’ cultural and technical differences,” says Bate. “I believe that our differences, if properly aligned toward a common operational goal, will truly make INOVA an innovator in seismic acquisition for the 21st century.”


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