What It Comes Down To

Ensign Energy’s Cathy Robinson keeps her focus on talent during the oil industry’s market shift

Ensign Energy Services Inc. is one of the world’s fastest-growing energy-services companies. The Calgary-based enterprise provides oil-field services all over the globe and employs more than 5,000 people, including a multinational HR team, which Cathy Robinson oversees as vice president of global human resources. Here, Robinson talks about how she got into the field, how Ensign acquires and keeps talent, and the philosophy of her hands-off management approach.

You’ve been able to fuse your love of business and psychology into a career. How?
My father was the first dean of business at the University of Calgary, and he encouraged me to take commerce. I was in the precommerce program, and all I could really see was a future in accounting. My passion is HR and business strategy, so I elected to choose a path that I thought I could be more successful in. I took psychology to study human interaction. I’ve always believed people are an essential part of any successful business.

As my career progressed, I learned and confirmed the importance of HR in business, including the mergers-and-acquisitions process, my day-to-day responsibilities, and the development and execution of impactful HR strategies that align with business objectives.

Photo by Kyle Marquardt
Ensign’s breakthrough Automated Service Rig, the ASR, on site at Ensign’s field operations office in Nisku, Alberta. Photo by Kyle Marquardt

I have to imagine that Ensign, being one of the fastest-growing companies in the world, keeps HR on its toes.
[Laughs.] Absolutely it does. We experienced substantial growth the last few years, before the recent industry downturn. One of the great things about working in an oil-field-services company is that we’re all about our people. Regardless of what business or service a company provides, it is the people who differentiate and become a company’s competitive edge. Services and equipment can be duplicated, but people certainly cannot.

HR expansion usually lags behind the acquisition process and the integration and retention of existing and new staff with key knowledge—which involves educating on process, policies, and, more importantly, culture. Psychology, understanding your business, and the resistance to change, particularly from one business culture to another, is a critical skill set in growing a unified team. You need to understand where your people have come from, where you are going, and how to get there.

Historically, Ensign has grown by acquisition. But whether you grow by acquisition or organically, it creates tremendous challenges on people, positions, and systems. The goal of any good HR department is to have a unified and aligned team that truly understands the main function of HR is to support the business. Recently, however, our team had to switch gears, downsize due to the market while remaining positioned for successful growth when things turn around.

“I have never found that micromanaging people and leaning over their shoulder all the time is any way to empower an individual.”

What led you to your hands-off management approach?
I find that most employees will grow and thrive in the environment where they have the ability to make and execute on decisions within the appropriate guidelines. I have never found that micromanaging people and leaning over their shoulder all the time is any way to empower an individual. It is critical to ensure you communicate HR strategy and plans so that the team is informed, understands the direction, and can contribute and execute to support business needs.

What strategies does Ensign use to acquire its talent?
Our field employees are critical. We have built and maintained solid relationships with our employees, particularly our field employees. Ensign is fortunate to have employees who are loyal and dedicated. It really comes down to how you treat your employees. Our most valuable and best recruitment strategy happens to be referrals.

What are the keys to retaining that talent?
Retention requires providing challenging, positive, and interesting work. A component of this is to be committed to training and developing our employees so that they excel at the job they have today as well as groom them for future opportunities. It is about providing a career path.

Ensign is creating a consistent employment brand worldwide, focusing on leadership. We believe that our safety program, our work environment, our equipment, and how we treat our employees is our best advertisement. Our culture of respect, consistency, commitment, and innovation not only retains our employees but makes them our ambassadors.

What are your future goals?
Professionally, my immediate goal is to ensure that HR continues to provide valuable contributions to Ensign’s business and the required support, training, and coaching for our personnel. The next few months will be challenging for the HR team and Ensign in general, as we cope with the current oil-price environment. We’re focusing on positioning ourselves for when the market turns around; we need to be ready.

On a personal level, I believe what I’ve learned and continue to learn in my challenging and exciting career will position me to grow to the point where I can add value as a board member of other public companies.