Christina Sistrunk: On Leadership and Life
What does it take to be a good leader? If you ask Christina Sistrunk ('82), it takes … YOU.
Sistrunk is the former President and CEO of Aera Energy LLC, one of California's largest oil and gas producers with 25 percent of the state's production. She was recruited in from Shell, where she had been VP of Production Assets for the Gulf of Mexico, and was known for her skills in revamping organizations based on understanding and leveraging the unique aspects of an organization's culture that make it successful.
Sistrunk began at Amoco. Over a variety of roles, from production engineer, procurement, and construction management, to being responsible for safety as Vice President of Production Assets for Shell Upstream Americas, Sistrunk learned that self-accountability is key. "I kept translating that into different roles, asking how I could make a difference in people's lives," she said.
She came to hold the view that “if the organization isn’t delivering the results you are aspiring to deliver, you have to look honestly at yourself. The only thing you can control is how you’re showing up.”
It was a challenge at times to pivot her thinking, but she became relentless about her responsibilities and opportunities to get a different set of outcomes by working to understand the gaps and what she needed to do to deliver a different level of performance.
I believe leadership is personal. The results you get are the level of leadership you are showing. Look in the mirror and figure out who you need to engage with, and help them be successful, too.
For Sistrunk, this also meant being humble enough to reach out to other organizations who were getting good results, to ask for help. “Pride can’t get in the way,” she said. “Years ago, a mentor said to me, ‘Your value for safety has to override your discomfort for anything else.' My people deserve better, and it has to start with me."
Sistrunk's belief in personal accountability extends into another career focus: Safety. It began as a personal concern and expanded.
“When I joined the oil business, I knew very little about the industry,” she recalled. “I met my husband on a rig, and his family is the third generation in the industry. So on any given holiday, someone in my family would be working. I wanted to know they would come home safely, and I wanted other families to be treated the same way,” she said.
Being head of Environmental, Health, and Safety for Shell's upstream business in North and South America was a huge job. How does one approach it? "Achieving rigorous safety improvements starts with making sure that the company's leadership has a common vision, plus the people who can deliver it, and a culture of accountability to make sure it is delivered," she said.
She built a common set of values around safety by telling people why it was important to her and what she needed from them—accountability and commitment. "You can't write enough rules. You have to build in the capability for people to support one another, be accountable and empower themselves to drive the agenda forward with a sense of ownership," she said.
She also led by example. "If my everyday actions weren't consistent with our common values, then I wasn't doing what was needed to get to the next level," she said.
As an engineer, a key element for Sistrunk is studying the data. "When the team knows and sees the metrics of what to deliver and when, problems solve themselves because people want to win. If they all have the same definition of what winning is, they can go a long way towards resolving issues well ahead of senior leaders. That compounding effect at every level of the organization is what makes visual metrics so powerful," she said.
Sistrunk's efforts yielded stunning results. During a two-year period in her quest to improve safety, injury rates reduced by 60% each year in Shell’s Gulf of Mexico operations.
Her passion for safety includes a pragmatic assessment that athe best thing an oil company can do is to keep everything in the pipe. “Safety is of vital importance for people, the environment, and financially, as well,” she said. “It matters not just in our lives, but in what kind of world we are turning over to future generations.”
Sistrunk's transparent self-accountability isn't a common management theme. It may stem from the self-reflection she undertook when encountering gender discrimination early in her career. "I had not experienced any discrimination at Ohio State, so I was shocked to find out that industry wasn't gender blind. Not everybody was supportive," she said. While gender discrimination still exists, Sistrunk cautions women to not stop at the easy answer. "Self-reflection is an asset, so take the time to assess. Sometimes the problem is someone else, but sometimes it may be how you approached the issue,” she said. Look at the data objectively and ask yourself what might be going on, she advises.
Sistrunk believes it is important for women to get out there and create a support network with other women, "but include some men, because both perspectives are needed," she said. She suggests being clear about all life aspects - health, relationships, spiritual wellness, emotional, and career. "Understand what your choices are and why you are making them. Married or not, kids or not; and if kids, who is playing what role. You probably have more choices than you think you have, so you need to make choices congruent with your values," she explained.
"Your definition of success probably is, and needs to be, different than anyone else's. That's how you feel good with the course of your life. Are your choices consistent with your values and goals? That is success,” she stated.
Having worked for 38 years, Sistrunk retired in 2020. Looking back, she relishes every minute, and is grateful to Ohio State. "Coming from a small town, and as the first in my family to attend college, I never imagined having the opportunities and life I have had. None of it would have been achievable, had I even made a different choice of school or what to major in," she said.
Throughout her career, Sistrunk found time to volunteer. At Ohio State, she served on the College of Engineering Advisory Committee and the Koffolt National Campaign Committee. She is now looking for new opportunities to volunteer and advise.
She and her husband John are also enjoying catching up on visiting people, working on their new house, and being more active with family.