Energy Industry Veteran Prepares for New Role on Board of Directors
Ellen DeSanctis was senior VP at a multinational corporation when she retired. But her work wasn’t done. The Directors’ Consortium helped her prepare for the next chapter.
A self-described “rock hound,” Ellen DeSanctis grew up in New England, enjoying the region’s rugged landscape and hiking trails. She turned her love for geology into a 45-year career in the oil and natural gas industry, first in engineering, and then in corporate communications, strategy, development, and investor relations. She recently retired as Senior Vice President, Corporate Relations for ConocoPhillips out of Houston, Texas, where she’s lived and worked most of her adult life.
Looking back on her career, Ellen considers what it took to succeed as a leader — and as a woman working in STEM long before it was a recognized career path.
“The energy industry is volatile, with an ever-changing set of dynamics,” Ellen shares. “That’s what attracted me to it. There were always vexing problems to solve. My career strategy was to develop my skills so I could bring executive judgment, insights, and experience to complex problems — not just technical, business, financial, or communications skills. There was a tremendous amount of teamwork, learning, and growing along the way.
When she retired, Ellen passed the torch to the next generation of industry leaders. She looked forward to kicking back and spending more time with family. However, she wasn’t ready to leave the field altogether. With a lifetime of industry knowledge and insights to share, Ellen sought work on energy-related boards of directors.
“I expected my years of management experience would be helpful to boards, but I quickly realized the role of a director requires a different orientation, one of oversight. It was essential to shift gears,” Ellen says. A lifelong learner, she turned to Stanford Executive Education to prepare for the next chapter in her journey.
Shifting from Management to Oversight
Ellen enrolled in the one-week, in-person Directors’ Consortium program at Stanford, which offers leading-edge strategies, frameworks, and best practices for making complex and crucial board decisions in uncertain times. She was drawn to the comprehensive overview of timely topics covered in the curriculum, including shareholder activism, compensation programs, financial reporting, cyber security, risk exposure, and warning signs of management failure.
“I was looking for a broad introduction — the 101s and 201s of becoming an effective director,” Ellen says. “I also wanted to be in the company of esteemed instructors and, of course, a collegial cohort. I got all of the above in the program, with the bonus of being at Stanford. For me, it was perfect.”
Ellen enjoyed learning and sharing experiences with leaders and directors from diverse industries. “I really wanted an immersion experience,” Ellen says. “It was powerful to go some place where I could live, breathe, learn, and talk about directorships. An unexpected surprise was the respect, wisdom, appreciation, and the closeness of the cohort. We have a robust WhatsApp group that’s as active today as it was right after the program.”
Becoming a New Kind of Leader
Ellen is putting what she learned in the Directors’ Consortium program to work. She accepted a position as an independent director on the board of Plains All American Pipeline. “I made a list of things that I learned at Stanford,” Ellen says. “I’ve got a board meeting this week, and I’ll carry these notes with me as a reminder of oversight versus management, and of topics that I can feel comfortable asking about in the board setting.”
Reflecting on her experience at Stanford, Ellen says the program gave her greater clarity on how to serve Plains, as well as to pursue additional board opportunities. The program helped nurture her professional interests while making time for personal endeavors.
“Stanford was a great first step in helping me develop my ‘board personality’ and guide me toward becoming the most effective board member I can be,” she says. “Board work is a good way to stay connected to the business challenges that defined my career, while also maintaining some balance to do important things like taking walks in the woods and being with friends and family. These are big priorities for me.”