This week in our series Profiles In GRIT, we introduce you to Sarah Walker, Senior Manager M&A Integration (Mergers and Acquisitions) at Baker Hughes, a GE Company (BHGE).
Sarah, who we honored with a GRIT Award earlier this month, has had quite an impressive career journey so far. She navigated through her dual-degree MBA program on multiple continents while managing intense merger and acquisition activity with a “bring it on” attitude.
She encourages others with her personal motto: “Say yes to unique opportunities and trust your own creativity to implement the how.”
And Sarah has done just that by employing novel approaches to challenges and demonstrating unwavering persistence.
Read below for more from our conversation with Sarah.
Pink Petro: What’s the biggest challenge you have faced and how did you overcome it?
Sarah Walker: In the fourth quarter of 2016, I received a text message from GE Oil & Gas leadership that read, “Sarah, how would you like to work on a merger?” Immediately, I replied “thank you, yes!“. The details soon followed: GE Oil & Gas and Baker Hughes $23 billion merger created the world’s first and only “full stream” provider of integrated oilfield products, services and digital solutions (NYSE: BHGE). At that time, I was a Senior Commercial Manager based in London leading a multi-million-dollar oilfield equipment deal in West Africa. I was also six-months into my two-year Executive MBA – a dual degree global program between Columbia Business School (CBS) in New York and London Business School (LBS) including international studies at Hong Kong University, LBS Dubai campus, IAE Business School Argentina and CBS Chile. Yet, when the text message arrived, I didn’t even flinch. My answer was “yes” – and then I would figure out “how.”
Within less than a year, we prepared two companies with commercial operations in more than 120 countries to list on the New York Stock Exchange as a new combined company. The M&A activity didn’t stop there. In July 2017, with the transaction now complete, the new challenge of commercial integration moved forward with intensity and required focus. My role was to lead the global sales efforts to achieve incremental revenue for the new company by helping to identify opportunities to demonstrate the value and innovation of BHGE’s expanded offering to customers.
Many people have asked me, “How did you combine intense M&A activity with an MBA on multiple continents?” My quick answer: meticulous personal and professional planning, dedication and a lot of coffee. However, behind every challenge is an opportunity. For instance, beyond overcoming planning and logistical challenges required to help execute a merger of equals, I seized the opportunity to bring our diverse cultures and professional disciplines together to collaborate cross-functionally and identify synergies to deliver additional revenue through increased customer engagement.
The challenge was real, but the opportunity once-in-a-lifetime. I am so fortunate to have been able to combine a global MBA with a market-changing M&A transaction.
SW: The most rewarding part of my career to date was when I launched the Commercial Women Network in the UK & Ireland on behalf of all General Electric businesses in 2016.
The aim: to grow and develop GE’s +500-person pipeline of female talent in client-facing roles in the country.
Having participated in many Women’s Networks, I felt there was something different about working in client-facing roles in industrial businesses:
- We’re on stage with customers every day. As a result, we are the default ambassadors for women in our company and industry.
- We’re often operating outside of our own company’s culture and HR systems. A wide and dense network is required for support and success.
- We tend to be underrepresented on industry panels at conferences, technical paper submissions, and features in industry mainstream media.
With those challenges in mind, I took a grassroots approach. I created a draft vision statement and then cold-called 60 women across the country to ask if they wanted to be part of that vision. With the first 10 ladies on board, we designed a program for 2016 – focused on training and developing commercial women as thought leaders to drive innovation in industry and today we lead virtual training reaching ~200 employees each month.
I am personally passionate about creating space for other’s voices to be heard and the network was a platform to do so.
PP: Who’s been a “gritty” role model for you and why?
SW: My mother. Her hallmarks: open-minded, driven, creative, passionate and a constant re-inventor. Her career has spanned public sector, banking, innovation and, now, cryptocurrency. Constantly at the forefront, she has exemplified the characteristics she wanted my sister and me to embrace as future female leaders. Pivotal to my own development, she very tactically included me in her career journey from an early age. For example, when she led emerging markets strategy for a major bank, she took me out of high school to spend a month with her in China. She brought me as her “date” at age 9 to the launch of her firm’s first branch in Hungary. At 12 years old, she had me speak on stage in front of ~100 potential Business School recruits about what it was like to be the daughter of an international banker. She’d prioritize flying back from client meetings in Asia just-in-time to see our concerts and sports matches – I now realize how exhausted she must have been! From my mother, I learned that anything is possible if you are passionate, create a plan, execute it meticulously and build a solid support team.
PP: What’s one mistake you made and what did you learn from it?
SW: During my undergraduate studies at Wake Forest University (North Carolina, USA), I was very active in our student government. My aim was to make an impact on the student experience at the university. In my first two years, I was elected by a few thousand students to the office of Student Government Treasurer. My job (I was paid!) was to manage a one-million-dollar student activity budget. I created a 9-person budget committee, had a classmate code an audit platform for student club accounts, and was responsible for presenting our fund allocation recommendations to the university board each year. On the back of two years of positive student opinion polls, I decided to run for Student Government President in my final year and was unsuccessful. This was deeply disappointing. At the time, I felt that my fellow students had rejected me personally when, in reality, they had simply selected another qualified candidate for the job.
What I learned from the experience can be applied to any professional challenge:
- Know your audience. Before you begin any customer engagement, strategic project or political campaign, you must methodically landscape and understand your stakeholders. Who are they? What are their biggest needs and challenges? How can your background and expertise help them succeed?
- Continue performing & reinventing yourself. Just because you performed well in your last role does not mean people will extrapolate that to their predictions for your future performance – especially if the scope of work changes. You need to constantly keep your performance high and brand fresh, whilst maintaining authenticity and integrity. When you tackle something new, you will likely need to re-train and re-brand.
- Keep going for it. Even if you don’t win the deal, secure the project or get that next promotion – still give it a shot. The worst that can happen is often nothing, so go for it!