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The Most Valuable Asset

It’s striking that even in 2013 more than one billion people around the world live in conditions with no access to electricity. That means they have no heat for their homes and nothing to cook their food on. They do not have the ability to clean their water or to refrigerate medicines. They don’t have hospitals.

For these men, women, and children, the innovations and technologies that come with economic growth mean the difference between good health and safety or sickness and possibly death. 

Rex Tillerson speaking
Rex Tillerson received the IEY award from BYU Marriott in the fall of 2013

Much of the growth over the next three decades is expected to take place in these developing countries. We will need all forms of energy—anything we can develop, produce, and bring about through new technology. Meeting that challenge in a responsible and safe manner is the duty of companies like mine and others in the energy industry. ExxonMobil has employees working the world over to ensure we can provide the energy the world is going to need in the years 2020, 2030, and beyond. 

But energy is not the only element. Just as critically, the world will need leaders in every sector and every institution who are committed to integrity. 

Building Moral Fiber

One of Merriam-Webster’s definitions of integrity is “the state of being complete or whole.” As an engineer I can relate to that definition because we talk about structural integrity. The structural integrity of the Marriott Center is complete and whole, and we can have confidence that it is going to remain above our heads and not down around our feet as we sit there. Integrity is a critical building block of trust and cooperation. 

It makes it possible for people of different backgrounds, life experiences, cultures, and organizations to work together to solve the world’s most complex problems. Regardless of industry or project, integrity frees us to innovate, collaborate, and share over the long term. As the world becomes more interconnected and global challenges require sophisticated, integrated solutions, the value of integrity only grows in importance. In every sector, integrity will be key in unlocking high-impact technologies and new ways to conduct business that will make the world brighter for generations to come. 

We do not have to look far to find examples of the cost to individuals and society when integrity is sacrificed for short-term gain or personal advancement. Such damage strikes at the very heart of a free society. It undermines the public trust and the overwhelming number of businesses who do live and compete by the rules every day.

It is a fact of life that most individuals want to make a positive difference in the world in which we live. You’ve worked hard and sacrificed much to get where you are. You want your efforts to mean something beyond just a job. It is true that your education will certainly play a part in your future success. But if you want to truly build a brighter future for the world, you must make the decision to live a life of integrity.

Your knowledge and ability will not flourish without ethical behavior and strong moral fiber. Choosing to live a life of integrity provides a wealth of blessings and benefits. It gives us a pathway to do the right things, the right way, every time, whether anyone is looking or not. Such discipline is the true source of progress in a modern civilization because it is a commitment to see our actions as part of a broader social fabric of cooperation and mutual advancement. 

In your career you will have occasions where it may appear easier to take a shortcut. The pressure you feel may come from within, that you need to impress others or have all the answers. Unfortunately, it may also come from your organization or directly from your supervisor or coworkers. These pressures can be especially keen in the early stages of your career, pushing you to decisions before consequences are apparent. 

Committing yourself to a life of integrity and reminding yourself of that commitment often can give you the strength you need to resist the easy path that leads to poor results or even ruin. 

A Higher Law 

At ExxonMobil we believe that how we achieve results is just as important as the results themselves. That’s why we take special care to make sure we’re walking the walk when it comes to ethical behavior. First, we recognize and promote ethical leaders in our corporation. Second, we establish a corporate citizenship model with specific metrics to hold the entire global organization accountable to the same standard regardless of position, location, rank, or culture. 

We have a foundation of principles called Standards of Business Conduct. Everyone is required to be retrained in these at least every three years and sign an affidavit that they understand and have complied. Our Standards of Business Conduct make it clear that every employee is personally responsible for the safety of themselves, the public, and others at ExxonMobil; each must comply with all the laws and regulations; and everyone is expected to be honest and ethical at all times. 

In fact, our Standards state that employees will be held to a higher standard than simply abiding by the law. It reads, “Even where the law is permissive, the corporation chooses the course of highest integrity.”

I have been in situations where my commitment has been tested. The most significant was when I was sent to Yemen, on the heels of a civil war, because the government was aggregating our contract and a competitor had bribed the president. I was sent in to either sort it out or turn it over to the international arbitration court. The very first meeting I had with the Yemenite oil administrator was late at night at his house. We talked a little bit, and he said, “Well, Mr. Tillerson, I look forward to working with you. The only thing I need you to do is to wire $20 million to this bank account.” 

I was a bit stunned that it would come so direct. This was 1995. I was forty-three years old, relatively young, and this was the first time I had been overseas by myself to do a deal like this. I paused a minute, looked at him, and said, “Excellency, I can’t do that. If that’s the basis on which you want to do business, then we can’t do any business. I appreciate you receiving me at your home.” And then I left. 

I had to fly home thinking all the way, “Golly, I just walked away from a $4.5 billion deal.” I did it on my own. We didn’t have cellphones back then or even a good intercontinental phone from Yemen. I kept thinking about what else I could have done and how I was going to tell my boss. 

When I got to Dallas and told him what happened, he said, without hesitation, “Fine. We’re outta there.” About three weeks went by, and I got a letter from the same oil administrator wanting to know when I was coming back to Sana’a. I told my boss, and he sent me back to see what the administrator wanted. 

I took the long flight from Dallas and arrived at his house, where he said, “Okay, how are we going to sort this problem out?” The subject of a bribe never came up again in the two and a half years I lived there. All I had to do was say no in a respectful way. 

Oftentimes, it’s as simple as that: be respectful and say, “No, I’m sorry, we don’t do that. If those are the rules, my company and I can’t work here.” I have had to do that a couple times, and it worked out the same way. As soon as they figured out no meant no, they quit asking. 

Managerial Integrity

It’s important to remember that leadership is not a position or title. Becoming a leader is what happens naturally to those who embrace a life full of integrity. As you grow in your career, your personal integrity will draw people to you. Your coworkers will rely on your humble, well-informed insights. Your supervisors will trust you because  of your self-discipline. As you take on more responsibility and gain experience, your personal integrity will naturally evolve to managerial integrity. You will exemplify what the best leaders demand from their people until you become a leader. 

I never aspired to be chairman and CEO. My wife will tell you that I achieved my objective in about 1992. I was forty years old, and I had become a division manager. That’s all I ever wanted to be. It was the best job I’ve ever had. But at some point you begin to recognize that you have capacity to do more and contribute more, not just for your own personal benefit but for your organization. When senior management begin working on behalf of their people, that’s when they begin to knock it out of the park. 

The truth of the matter is I did not intend to work in the oil business. I knew nothing about it. I’m a civil engineer by training, and I had interned with Armco Steel. At the time, they had the largest mill west of the Mississippi. They offered me a very good job, more money than Exxon was offering me, and a guaranteed promotion in six months. But a couple of recruiters from Exxon were very persistent. I remember saying to them, “I don’t know what a civil engineer is going to do for an oil company.” They kept saying to me, “Don’t worry about it. You’ll figure it out.” So I took a leap of faith. I fell in love with the business and the company. Thirty-eight plus years later, here I am. I would never have envisioned the journey I’ve taken to be standing before you. I promise every single one of you has a journey ahead.

You’re going to have a great life. Some of those days are going to be good days; some are going to be bad. But you maintain and protect who you are and remember that being a person with integrity is the most valuable asset you have. Don’t ever let anyone take that from you. 

Carefully consider the values and culture of the organizations in which you seek to work. Look for employers who set high standards for personal conduct and who reward ethical leadership. Identify mentors who exemplify integrity and leadership excellence. See how they carry themselves and how they manage their responsibilities. Study how they communicate and make decisions. Observe how they learn from mistakes or missteps—their own and those of others.

Recognize that integrity is not unique to any one culture. No matter where you are in the world, integrity and character are prized by every great faith and tradition. Integrity means managing our lives in a way that focuses on the ideals that unite us as people. 
In summary, I return to the definition of integrity: the state of being complete and whole. Absent a life of integrity, no human being can live a life that is complete or whole. With integrity, perhaps we have that chance. 


Speech given by Rex Tillerson. This text is taken from remarks Tillerson gave to students, faculty, and National Advisory Council members when he received the Marriott School’s International Executive of the Year award on 26 September 2013.

Rex Tillerson

About Rex Tillerson

A native of Wichita Falls, Texas, Rex Tillerson earned a BS in civil engineering at the University of Texas at Austin before joining Exxon in 1975 as a production engineer.

In 1989 he became general manager of the company’s central production division, responsible for oil and gas production operations throughout a large portion of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Kansas. In 1992 Tillerson was named production advisor. Three years later he was named president of Exxon Yemen Inc. and Esso Exploration and Production Khorat Inc. In January 1998 he became vice president of Exxon Ventures (CIS) Inc. and president of Exxon Neftegas Ltd. In these roles, he was responsible for Exxon’s holdings in Russia and the Caspian Sea as well as the Sakhalin I consortium operations offshore of Sakhalin Island, Russia. In December 1999 he became executive vice president of ExxonMobil Development Company. Tillerson was named senior vice president of ExxonMobil Corporation in August 2001 and was elected president of the corporation and member of the board of directors on 1 March 2004. He assumed his current position on 1 January 2006.

Tillerson is a member of the executive committee and a former chairman of the American Petroleum Institute. He is also a member of the Society of Petroleum Engineers and a trustee of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He is a member of the National Petroleum Council, a member of the Business Roundtable, a member of the Business Council, an honorary trustee of the Business Council for International Understanding, and a member of the Emergency Committee for American Trade. In 2013 Tillerson was elected to the National Academy of Engineering.

Tillerson is the vice-chairman of the Ford’s Theatre Society, immediate past national president of the Boy Scouts of America, and a former director of the United Negro College Fund. He is also a member of the Chancellor’s Council, the Development Board, and the Engineering Advisory Board for the University of Texas at Austin, where he was named a distinguished alumnus in 2007. In 2011 he received an honorary doctorate engineering degree from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

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