Dream big: Climbing your professional mountain

By Jeet Bindra, President Global Refining
Chevron Corporation

2006 Annual Conference

Orlando, Florida

Buenas Tardes!

And thank you Fernando.

It's truly an honor for me to be here today. Many of you may not know it, but this is actually the second time I've been invited to speak at SHPE's national conference. While it has been over eight years since the last time I spoke at this event, it just goes to show you that in life, sometimes you do get a second chance to make a first impression.

At the end of my talk, I hope the impression you are left with is that now more than ever, you have a chance not just to graduate from college and receive a degree, but an opportunity to take your life and aspirations to the next level and be truly great. A chance to make a difference, and achieve what you never dreamed was possible.

I can make this statement with some confidence, because while I may not be Hispanic, I am a member of another growing minority group that has faced many hurdles and roadblocks in the past.

A minority group that has been singled out because of the languages that we speak, the religions we practice, the food we eat and the clothes we wear.

Yet despite, or maybe in spite of these differences, we've been able to reach new heights in almost every area of human achievement, from the sciences and technology, to literature, politics and beyond.

And just like myself and other Asian Americans, Hispanics are also rising to the top in many fields that were previously dominated by Caucasians - becoming engineers, astronauts, business entrepreneurs, politicians and more. So I want you to know that the sky is the limit and a lack of belief in yourself and what you can achieve will be your only limitation.

I came here today because I truly believe in the value and goals taught by SHPE and other organizations of its kind. Values like excellence in education, professional development and a commitment to strong leadership. Organizations like SHPE exist because someone had a dream and others shared in that dream. I commend you for being a part of SHPE'S dream.

My goal this afternoon isn't to lecture you, but to share how you can cultivate your own professional dreams and make them a reality. One way I thought to do this was to share a story with you that is very close to my heart. This story begins on a hot summer evening many, many years ago. A few military officers were playing tennis in an enclosed court, neatly dressed in white shorts, T-shirts and canvass shoes. Outside the fence, several pairs of young, eager eyes were intently watching the proceedings. Not because they enjoyed tennis, but because they hoped that one of the officers would take pity on them and throw a tennis ball their way. After four days they finally succeeded in capturing a ball. In the days ahead they used the tennis ball to play soccer with their bare feet.

One of those kids dreamed of the day that he would be on the other side of the tennis fence. His parents constantly encouraged him to study hard, and if he did well, then maybe, just maybe, one day his dreams would come true. This kid took his parents' guidance to heart and eventually finished high school in the top of his class. By this time the officers' tennis court was a distant memory. The young man had decided to reach higher. He went on to obtain a scholarship to study engineering at one of the most competitive and prestigious institutions in his nation.

After completing his undergraduate degree with Distinction in Chemical Engineering, this young man set his sights even higher. His good academic record enabled him to receive research assistantships for graduate studies at several U.S. universities. The only thing that kept him from crossing the oceans was an airline ticket. He overcame this barrier when a family member co-signed a bank loan, which he used to purchase his ticket. He landed in Seattle, Washington, on an overcast day in the fall of 1969 with just $8 in his pocket and the clothes on his back.

The kid in this story is standing in front of you today. The rest of the story, as they say, is history. Not many would have thought that this dream – my dream – would ever come true. That I would be here today, President of Global Refining for Chevron, one of the top five energy companies in the world.

Pablo Picasso once said, "Everything you can imagine is real." I think it's very important to use your imagination and practice seeing yourself where you want to be in the future. Practice seeing yourself as a leader. Practice seeing yourself reaching your goals.

When I look across this ballroom I see myself in so many of you – so full of energy, apprehension, anticipation and hoping for a break. Let me tell you right now that you have to make your own breaks. Rarely, if ever, will you be handed a golden egg. You are all on unique journeys. Some roads will offer you opportunities, and others challenges. Your responses to these events will either help you climb to the top of your professional mountain, or leave you at its base, unable to advance.

I'd like to take the next few minutes to share with you some of my own professional trials and tribulations, and what helped me advance in my career. To start with, I have always thought that building a career is like climbing a mountain. While your ultimate goal might be to reach the top of Mount Everest, that wouldn't be your first expedition. Instead, you would first set out to master smaller peaks, like Mt. Diablo or Mt. Shasta. The same holds true for your career. While you may not instantly get your dream job after graduating from college, it's up to you to make a plan to get to the top of your professional mountain.

The first action item on your plan should actually be completed before you even accept a job, and that is to decide what kind of company or organization you want to work for. You may not know what you want to be in 10-15 years, but you should make sure that the organization you join reflects the values that are important to you.

Now, if you're wondering, "What are the 'tools' or 'core values' that I should develop to attain my professional aspirations?" then you're already on the right track. While your goals may be different, what does matter are the contents of your inner toolbox.

This toolbox consists of your attitude, core values, skills and moral compass.

Since you are just starting out, your toolbox may be relatively empty. If you're not currently a humble person, this should be the first characteristic you add to your toolbox. Because above all else, every good climber needs to be honest with themselves and recognize their strengths as well as their deficiencies. It's only through knowing your weaknesses that you can work on them and become stronger. Next, start collecting additional tools to help you on your climb: tools like a good education, a personal code of ethics and a collection of friends and associates who can help develop and guide you on your journey.

I truly believe in these principles and have applied them to my own career. I started out as a rookie engineer. At that time I decided to chart my journey through Chevron by preparing a 5-year career plan. In this plan, I identified future positions that I wanted, and I worked toward developing the required skills and experiences. Where there were gaps in my ability as they related to these jobs, I sought out resources to help me close those gaps.

While I began as a research engineer, I realized early on that this wasn't really my cup of tea. Management was where I wanted to be, because it was a better match for my long-term goals. I looked into my personal toolbox and realized that to make the climb into management I would have to increase my business acumen and education. So I went back to school and got my MBA. The degree by itself didn't propel me to new heights, but the skills and knowledge I gained though this education did help a great deal in getting me to my desired destination.

I worked on my MBA while I was still employed at Chevron. By the time I completed the degree I was a first-line supervisor and looking for my next promotion. At this point my career stalled. All of a sudden it was like I had run into some invisible barrier – a barrier that was preventing me from being considered for a possible position in senior management.

Around this time a vice president got wind of my ambitions. He called me into his office to give me some friendly advice about my chances for advancement. Looking back on the experience we must have presented a pretty interesting picture. Here he was, a white vice president dressed in a three-piece, pinstriped suit and shiny wing-tipped shoes – talking to a Sikh who was dressed in foreign-looking clothes and wearing a turban. I will never forget what he told me that day. He said, 'Jeet, listen – you look different, you dress different and you speak with an accent. You'll be lucky to make it to middle management before you retire.'

I remember thinking, don't judge me by the color of my skin, or my accent, or whether my name is Bindra or Wong or Gonzalez for that matter. What I told him was, 'Please judge me on my performance and what I bring to the table.' Looking back, I realize he probably thought that I was really nave, and that he was doing me a favor so I wouldn't harbor any unrealistic career expectations.

As it turned out, he really did do me a favor. I decided to take his unsolicited advice as a challenge rather than an insult. It made me that much more determined to show him, and other members of Chevron's management team at the time, that I could be just as good a manager as they were, or maybe even better. Luckily for all of you, a lot has changed since those days. At Chevron, especially, diversity is viewed as an asset and we are constantly looking for new talent, not just here in the United States, but all over the world. Chevron's mindset is a global one, and the company prides itself on recognizing the value of cultivating a diverse workforce.

After my conversation with that vice president, I once again looked into my personal toolbox to assess my strengths and deficiencies. When I did this, I saw that my strong accent was making it difficult for many people to understand me. So I went to evening classes to work on my accent and actually learn to speak American. As you can see, I also decided to cut my hair, shave my beard and stop wearing a turban. I want you to know the decision to change my appearance wasn't made lightly. There was actually a very practical reason behind my decision. Back in the 1980s I was offered a promotion to manage the construction of some lube oil facilities I had designed at Chevron's refinery in Richmond, California. Company rules required that anyone working around such facilities had to be clean-shaven, with short hair, to provide a positive seal for the emergency breathing equipment.

While I decided to adopt this new look, I never considered changing my appearance as selling out. To me, changing the way I looked didn't change who I was or what I believed in. I was willing to alter my outward appearance to improve my chances for success. At the same time, I was able to remove one more convenient excuse that some had used for not considering me management material. While others would now label me a coconut, brown on the outside and white on the inside, I've always known who I am, and I haven't changed. I'm still proud to be an Asian American and extremely proud of my heritage and the value system with which I was raised.

Throughout the years I've added many additional items to my personal toolbox. I know their value because they have helped me greatly throughout my career, so I would like to share some of them with you now.

  • First and foremost, treat everyone with respect and dignity irrespective of their position, title, color or social standing. As a manager, engineer, or senior executive, you will quickly learn that success will follow when people come first.
  • Always conduct yourself in a manner that demonstrates the highest level of ethics and integrity. People value honesty and transparency above all else. Credibility is an asset you cannot afford to lose. As Gandhi once said, 'True happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony.'
  • Dream the impossible dream and prepare for the adversities that lie ahead. In life, things rarely follow the path that we originally intended. When barriers and obstacles begin to appear, don't give up and let them get in the way of your success. When I think about this point, I remember the farm worker and labor leader Cesar Chavez. Born into a family that became migrant farm workers after losing their farm in the Great Depression, Cesar attended more than 30 elementary and middle schools. Although his formal education ended early, Cesar possessed an insatiable intellectual curiosity, and he was self-taught in many fields. His dream was to create an organization to protect and serve farm workers. Despite his humble beginnings and an untold number of obstacles, he went on to found the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers of America. This organization fought for fair wages, medical coverage, pension benefits, and humane living conditions for farm workers. He is a great example to me and many others of the power of positive thinking and the idea of never giving up your dream.
  • Another value to add to your toolbox is to never measure your success solely on the amount of money that you make. That is a surefire formula for discontent and disappointment. Cesar's life, for example, cannot be measured in material terms. At the time of his death, he never earned more than $6,000 a year, and he never owned a house. His motto in life – "sí se puede" (it can be done) – embodies the valuable legacy he left for the world's benefit.
  • Just like Cesar, you should also dedicate yourself to continuous learning and self-improvement. Don't think that your education ends with your college degree. When opportunities for career development and personal learning present themselves in the future, seize each and every opportunity.
  • Once you enter the corporate arena, find someone whom you view as a role model and pick their brain for advice and guidance. Schedule a time to meet with them regularly to assess your strengths and weaknesses and help chart a course for personal improvement.
  • Don't think that you will instantly get ahead because you are a woman or a minority. In fact, you should plan on working twice as hard as your white counterparts. Stereotypes still exist about minority groups. By working to excel in your performance, you will help to shatter many of those stereotypes.
  • And lastly, don't ever compromise on your principles. Too often I see senior executives compromise their principles just to look good and get ahead. If your company doesn't value you for who you are, then it's time to look for other opportunities. For at the end of the day, you must be able to look yourself in the mirror and be happy with who you see.

I'd like to close with just a few more words of advice – advice I gave my son when he graduated from Southwestern Medical School three years ago.

  • Follow through with your commitments.
  • Apply your greatest effort to everything you do.
  • Strive to differentiate yourself from those around you.
  • And when you reach a position of influence, always remember to help the next generation waiting in the wings to fulfill their dreams.

The future belongs to you – take good care of it.

Thank you.

Published: January 2006