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W.L. Mellon Speaker Series: David Porges

David Porges knows something about stepping outside his comfort zone.

When he was 30, he decided to shift his career from a successful management position at Exxon in Australia to return to the United States and join Bankers Trust.

Despite being mathematically gifted and holding a top-tier MBA, Porges says he knew relatively little about finance. With some back issues of Institutional Investor tucked inside his travel bag, he took one last vacation to a remote part of Australia before heading to the United States. Waking up in his tent one morning, he saw the back end of a python slithering its way out through a gap in the zipper. To avoid panicking and thinking about the fact that a deadly snake had been inches from his head while he slept, he picked up a copy of Institutional Investor and forced himself to focus on its content.

The python proved to be a worthy catalyst. Porges stayed at Bankers Trust for eleven years, leveraging his strengths – a good working knowledge of the energy industry – to learn a new skill set that would serve him well in his next career move, chief financial officer at natural gas producer EQT Corporation.

porges crop jpgSpeaking to an audience of Tepper School of Business students as part of the W.L. Mellon Speaker Series, Porges emphasized the point that most managers will need to acquire additional skills as their careers develop to boost them up the ladder.

“What got you here won’t get you there,” he said, paraphrasing leadership coach and author Marshall Goldsmith. In other words, the qualities that allow someone to succeed in their current position probably won’t be as helpful in the next job. For example, Porges’ technical background became less relevant the longer he spent time in management. By the time he became chairman and chief executive officer of EQT, most of the people working for him were far more proficient in their specialty areas than he was – and that, he says, is how it should be.

“You almost find yourself struggling to understand the things people are working on,” he said. “That can either be frustrating, or it can actually be energizing.”

The concept of allowing other people to shine was another principle Porges emphasized, quoting John Gardner: “Don’t try to be interesting. Be interested. That’s what keeps you vital.”

Generally speaking, managers work best when they are no longer technology leaders, but rather facilitators for those who are, synthesizing a team’s parts into a cohesive, successful whole.

“You get to the point where you want everyone who reports to you to be better at their job than you would be at their job,” he said, again quoting Goldsmith. “You don’t need to be the smartest guy in the room. You won. You’re the boss. They all know you won.”

Porges said business schools should focus on teaching person-to-person interaction, group negotiation, and leadership skills in addition to accounting, marketing, and entrepreneurship. While all are important, organizational behavior training is most likely to propel a management career, he noted.

He also cautioned students to pay attention to the culture of their workplace before taking a job there. When he worked in banking Porges regularly put in 100-hour weeks, and so did his peers. If that is the culture of the organization, workers need to adjust accordingly – or move to a different company, he said.

The leap he took when he was 30 wound up paying handsome dividends later on. By the time he reached EQT, “it was kind of a broken company,” he said, with falling stocks and lukewarm investors. Porges’ restructuring efforts focused on selling assets that didn’t fit company goals and buying more in areas that played to competitive advantages. He used some strands of cash flow from the pipeline business and put them into master limited partnerships. His tenure also included eight equity offerings, two of which were IPOs.

When the dust settled, very few people remained who had been at EQT when Porges joined in 1998. But the company, which had been a utility worth about $1 billion then, is today one of the top five natural gas producers in the United States and worth $10 to $12 billion.

“Financial strategy is always going to be important at any company, but there was a time at EQT where I felt it had an outsized importance,” Porges said. His proudest achievement is that during the past seven years while EQT’s peer group in the energy segment is down about seven percent, EQT is up by the same margin.

With little financial engineering left to do, Porges plans to step down as CEO and spend time on philanthropic efforts – he is a Carnegie Mellon trustee, among other causes – as well as travel internationally with his wife and daughters.

“Don’t let yourself get so sucked up on your career that you lose track of who you are. Be true to yourself,” he advised his audience. “Know who you are, and be true to that.” 

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