Tisha’s Insights

Why We Will Fail

July 11, 2024 Tisha Schuller
Image of motivating quote on a window wall of a boxing practice location. Quote says "If you never know failure, you will never know success".

I’m writing my next book about The Moment. Through these summer editions of Both of These Things Are True, I’m exploring the forces shaping The Moment and what it means for oil and gas leaders. Few recognize what The Moment is giving us: the most important opportunity in our lifetimes to play a positive leadership role in the energy future. Let me know what you think.

Like you, I am not wired for failure. But I can see clearly the path to oil and gas industry failure—the ways in which we risk missing The Moment.

We won’t fail in The Moment because oil and gas demand will have peaked and then dropped precipitously in the face of global decarbonization efforts. No, we will fail because oil and gas leaders won’t be sitting at the civic, political, and policy tables where the energy future is shaped. We won’t be at those tables if collectively we are too pigheaded and stubborn, too righteously indignant—too invested in fighting with potential partners—to earn our seats.

Too many of us are standing at the edge of failure now. Let me tell you how we can walk back from that ledge and claim The Moment—and claim our leadership in the energy future. How’d we get here? It begins with a gut punch.

Gut Punch

In the face of rising political polarization and apocalyptic predictions about the energy future, many well-meaning civic and political leaders don’t want oil and gas leaders—or companies—anywhere near the discussion about solutions. Why? Three reasons:

  • Political polarization dominates energy and climate politics;
  • Conspiracy theories about the role of oil and gas companies abound; and
  • Many climate-hawk leaders are more committed to fighting us than to finding solutions.

So while civic and political leaders desperately want solutions, they don’t want our solutions. They want immediate, transformative changes to society immediately and at scale—but not from us.

We’re being shut out. But this isn’t why we might fail in The Moment.

Sharp Intake of Breath

We run up against obstacles to our participation in energy transition planning again and again. Some industry leaders have started wondering if we are suckers for continuing to engage on climate, sustainability, and decarbonization. Our engagement routinely faces three obstacles:

  • Constant demonization of our industry. I’ve been on the receiving end of comparisons to tobacco executives (“You knew!”) and domestic abusers (“Why would I let you back in the house?”). The critiques are personal, emotional, and wildly effective. Demonization of oil and gas has become daily fodder for climate news.
  • Skepticism about all our efforts. Oil and gas companies deliver what activists, investors, and stakeholders demand: sustainability strategies, net-zero tech investments, you name it! And all of it is met—often—with accusations of greenwashing. Oil and gas sustainability efforts are presumed insincere until proven otherwise.
  • Ever-moving goalposts. And what proof would be compelling enough for us to overcome accusations of greenwashing? It’s difficult to say, because the expectations for energy companies vis-à-vis the energy transition keep ratcheting up. A voluntary program becomes a mandate. An aspirational goal becomes a bare-minimum expectation. Energy executives have understandably come to anticipate that social expectations of them will change before they can ever be met, making it seemingly impossible to prove their commitment to sustainability efforts.

This makes the best of us in our industry angry. Frustrated. Feeling like suckers. It’s routine now to hear the question asked among project teams: “Why are we doing this, anyway?”

Catching Our Breath?

All this has left many industry advocates, supporters, and leaders somewhere along the sucker-to-angry spectrum. We’re feeling fact-based, righteous indignation—something our industry excels at. Acting from this motivator, we have two possible modes of engagement:

  1. Fight the fight. From a righteous-indignation viewpoint, the climate-energy politics are interpreted as a zero-sum game. If “they” win, “we” lose—so we’d better not lose.
  2. Break out the facts. In our industry, we are overwhelmingly scientists and engineers. I have long argued that the facts about the requirements and challenges of the energy transition demonstrate the need for oil and gas resources and companies. We can demonstrate all the proof points of the moment with data and charts.

Sometimes our fact-based, righteous indignation drives us to both fight and “educate” people with the facts. Too many oil and gas leaders and supporters limit themselves to these strategies.

And this is why we will fail.

Another Gut Punch Already?

We find ourselves facing stakeholders who routinely make oil and gas out to be the villain and put us on the defensive—a situation where people demand that we do more and then critique our every responsive activity. As a result, many well-meaning oil and gas leaders don’t see the point in being persuasive about the energy future. Our fact-based, righteous indignation has taken on a life of its own.

The situation has created a market for all kinds of unproductive (fact-based, righteous) oil and gas industry cheerleading. You can easily find these pieces in your LinkedIn, Substack, and X feed. I know better, and I still enjoy consuming these pieces. They make me feel smart for working in the industry (I am!), confident that I have the facts on my side (I do!), and righteous about my views of the energy future (brilliant!). I learn from the authors’ research and cite their graphs in my presentations.

And if we all embody this point of view, we will fail.

Why? Because for those outside of the industry, our fact-based, righteous indignation comes off as a toxic soup of resentment, entitlement, I-told-you-so-ism, and blame. It makes us seem like reactionary, unattractive, self-righteous “victims”. It presents us as a caricature of the Muppet-movie-oil-and-gas villain, hell-bent on protecting the past and our place in it.

Smart, confident, and righteous feels good to us—but it’s wildly ineffective with them. It’s the opposite of the problem-solving, can-do engineering ethos that is our legacy as an industry and that the world needs from us now. 

We need a new game plan.

Two seemingly opposed ideas can both be true at the same time:

  • Our fact-based righteous anger at being demonized feels good and brings us together (briefly).
  • Our fact-based righteous anger at being demonized looks to outside stakeholders like the defensive posture of yesterday’s energy leader and will never succeed.

We must stop leading with anger and initiate a new engagement strategy, with persuasion at its heart. We must be irresistible.

The Key to Success: Choose to Persuade

Oil and gas leaders are some of the most persuasive executives in the world: They lead wildly successful organizations, have large audiences, and use persuasion regularly, and to great success, to achieve their objectives.

But if you don’t want to persuade someone, you usually won’t.

Here’s why I think you should decide to persuade an audience of civic, environmental, and political leaders to embrace your leadership in The Moment.

  • Otherwise, you’re talking in the silo. There’s not a lot of long-term upside to talking amongst ourselves. Sure, it feels good to address the true believers. And if you’re lucky, you might capture some people who are neutral and open to persuasion. But while there’s an important role for both these audiences, it’s not enough to earn us a seat at the most important energy-and-climate-policy tables.
  • The Moment changes everything. Passionate industry advocates have been waiting for this kind of reckoning for the past decade. Civil society is about to figure out how badly it needs our leadership and energy solutions—let’s not squander the opportunity.
  • Remember your real audience. Doubling down on the political fights of the energy transition empowers your antagonists and, incidentally, proves them right (“We told you they didn’t want to address climate!”). They aren’t your real audience. Your real audience is the civic, political, and policy leaders who are looking for a way out, a path forward. Give it to them.

Pivot to Persuasion

We aren’t doomed to failure. Here’s the pivot passionate industry advocates and leaders can make:

  • Decide. It’s easy to be an industry-centered or right-centric industry advocate. You can get likes, clicks, followers, and accolades. You can get standing ovations at industry conferences. None of that will matter if we blow The Moment.
  • Determine your audience. Consider carefully: Whom are you trying to convince and to what end? There is a broad target audience of climate-centric civic and policy leaders who are looking for solutions and partners. Speak to them.
  • Respect your audience. So much industry advocacy is grounded in thinly veiled contempt. It works as clickbait—but it repels people who are actually open to persuasion. Get to know your target audience. Listen to them. Contemplate and appreciate their perspective. That deep knowledge and authentic respect will give you the key to being irresistibly persuasive. (More to come on that in future Both Trues.)
  • Whom does this audience trust? Conduct an honest assessment of how credible you are to the world of civil society leaders. Know the limits of your credibility and consider how you’re going to boost it.
  • What would effectively persuade your targets? It might not be you. Building credibility will certainly require action—and time. Create a game plan that includes that ongoing engagement, relationship building, proof points, and demonstrated commitment over time.

Are you committed to fact-based, righteous engagement and hating this post? I want to hear why. If you can persuade me I’m wrong, I’ll write about it.

I am delighted to welcome Jack Ridilla to Adamantine! If this email was forwarded to you, please sign up here.

To the pivot,

Tisha

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Both of These Things Are True

By Tisha Schuller