Notoriously known as one of the oldest “boys clubs,” the oil and gas industry has a rigid approach to the way things are done and who has been able to succeed. Vicki Knott started Crux OCM to shake up the status quo, pushing for better safety standards and company values that allow workers to thrive.
In an industry made up of only 15% women, as a female CEO, Knott has been a “misfit” in her own right—something she takes pride in. Recognizing this industry won’t be able to make real diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strides without a fundamental shift in culture, she’s taking a wholly different approach to leadership than many of her peers.
Knott got her formal education studying chemical engineering in New Brunswick, Canada, then took a job working with Gas Pipelines in Alberta before moving on to a position with TC Energy on the commercial operations team for the Keystone Pipeline.
While at TC Energy, Knott trained as a control room operator and held roles in commissioning, process control, maintenance scheduling, and interfacing with the industry regulatory bodies.
It was during her work with TC Energy that Knott met Crux OCM cofounder Roger Shirt, who was working as a consultant and pipeline process control consultant at the time. It was during these early collaborations that Knott and Shirt identified the key industry gap that would spur them to launch Crux OCM.
“During my time training in the control room, Roger and I identified a large gap in the industry regarding control room operator’s tools and the lack of automation for executing procedures and checklists,” Knott says. “There was little automation to specifically operate the world’s energy assets from a human perspective, which put the system at a massive disadvantage.”
This observation prompted Knott to ask Shirt if he would be interested in starting a company with her to tackle the problem. That’s how she became the CEO and cofounder of Crux OCM. “I saw a problem that needed fixing and started a company with that mission,” she says.
The Diversity Gap
Control room automation wasn’t the only gap Knott has identified during her time in the energy industry. “While we need better solutions in place for my industry, we also need a lot more diversity in this field,” she says. “My common experience was, and still is, that I am the only female in the room for meetings outside my company. I’m part of the 1% of women who hold a CEO title. How can we expect to move the industry forward if we lack diverse backgrounds to bring unique perspectives and ideas to market?”
Knott believes the diversity of Crux’s leadership team makes the company stand out—in a good way—and better positions Crux to be a game-changer in the industry. Knott says Crux and its team are often called “the misfits of oil and gas,” a title she wears proudly. “Misfits make change happen,” she says.
The Importance of Mentors
Mentorship is a crucial ingredient to making the inclusion element of diversity and inclusion (D&I) work. It’s relatively easy to hire a diverse workplace compared with engendering meaningful inclusion of that diversity throughout an organization, including at the executive level. Having supportive mentors with similar backgrounds or who at least appreciate the different backgrounds of diverse employees can make all the difference for diverse staff.
Some industries are better-positioned than others when it comes to D&I at the upper levels of organizations within the industry, and Knott’s career was focused on one that has traditionally not had a great track record with D&I.
“There are very few female CEOs in this industry, both in oil and gas and in tech,” Knott says. “I was fortunate when I took this role to be surrounded by supportive and like-minded professionals. I’ve had experiences where my co-founder and I are in meetings and he will be the only one other men address. He will often defer their questions for me to answer. Unfortunately, that’s the progress that we have made so far.”
“Breaking new ground and creating a more diverse industry is going to require people coming together who see the value in individuals for who they are, not what box they fall into, and I’ve built my company around this mentality,” Knott adds.
Paying It Forward
Knott obviously understands both the importance of D&I in her organization and the challenges faced by diverse candidates. She makes it a point to be involved in promoting her company’s D&I goals, starting with recruitment.
“I personally take all of the initial interviews for culture screening,” she says. “Our corporate values are: uniquely happy, openness, be aligned and get the goal. With those values in mind and myself doing the screening, we’ve been particularly successful thus far in building a company that people want to work at: one which values diversity and inclusion.”
So far, it seems like those efforts have paid off. “Inclusion is in our DNA and our diversity statistics show that—we’re well above the industry average,” Knott says. “As we continue to grow we will work to ensure our corporate values and hiring practices that have shaped our culture thus far are maintained.”
“Looking at the industry as a whole, we are definitely not the standard mold of what people assume when they see big oil and gas,” says Knott. “So far, we are known as a company that embraces people of diverse backgrounds and we plan to keep it that way.”
Cultivating a Culture of Diversity
Of course, recruiting is only the first step in creating a diverse and inclusive workplace. Culture is key in supporting those efforts long term throughout a company. “Inherently diverse teams ensure that individuals have folks around that look or have personalities similar to theirs,” says Knott.
“When you come to the table with a company culture built on supporting one another, you end up with a group of workers that look out for each other, that feel like they can express themselves or any concerns they have. We’re open and transparent—it’s one of our strongest values,” Knott adds.
“While we don’t have stern protocols in place that outline D&I, we have an organic understanding for one another of acceptance that boils down to strong company values,” says Knott. “As we grow, we will certainly be exploring any additional initiatives that can help us maintain what we have.”
Knott has had an impressive career in an industry that isn’t known as a model of D&I. This doesn’t necessarily mean the industry or those in it actively work against those goals, but it often means it hasn’t been a priority, and it can be hard for a nondiverse industry to suddenly start understanding and embracing D&I efforts.
Knott is a great example of how a single individual can make an impact in such an industry by embodying those goals and putting them front and center in her own company.