Doing the job, being ‘effective’

Sonnenberg’s Leadership Skills Stretch Far

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)
Leadership begins at home: Steve Sonnenberg with his dad, Frank, at various parts of his “career” – including a field trip where they were “checking the geology” in the mid-1950s. The late Frank Sonnenberg was a longtime AAPG member.
Leadership begins at home: Steve Sonnenberg with his dad, Frank, at various parts of his “career” – including a field trip where they were “checking the geology” in the mid-1950s. The late Frank Sonnenberg was a longtime AAPG member.

When leaders of AAPG decided to honor someone each year with an award for outstanding leadership, you’d like to think someone in the room was saying, “Yeah, Sonnenberg. Definitely.”

The choice is a natural.

Or, as Lee T. Billingsley, an AAPG past president, says of Sonnenberg:

“He epitomizes effective leadership in a professional organization.”

Leadership begins at home: Steve Sonnenberg with his dad, Frank, at various parts of his “career” – including a field trip where they were “checking the geology” in the mid-1950s. The late Frank Sonnenberg was a longtime AAPG member.
Leadership begins at home: Steve Sonnenberg with his dad, Frank, at various parts of his “career” – including a field trip where they were “checking the geology” in the mid-1950s. The late Frank Sonnenberg was a longtime AAPG member.

Stephen A. Sonnenberg is this year’s winner of the Michel T. Halbouty Leadership Award, which next to the Sidney Powers Memorial Award is AAPG’s most distinguished prize.

First presented in 2007, it is given in recognition of outstanding, exceptional leadership in the petroleum geosciences.

Even a casual look at Sonnenberg’s past gives ample evidence for the inevitability of the choice.

An Honorary member of AAPG, Sonnenberg has displayed his leadership as:

  • An AAPG president.
  • Before that, a term as AAPG vice president.
  • A 15-year member of the House of Delegates (and its chairman from 2009-10, making three stints on the AAPG Executive Committee).
  • President of both the Division of Professional Affairs and the Rocky Mountain Section.
  • General chair of the 2001 AAPG annual meeting in Denver.
  • Playing crucial roles in several AAPG national conferences and meetings.
  • A member of a plethora of AAPG committees – his AAPG activities page has more than 70 entries – including important roles on the Corporate Advisory, Budget and Advisory committees.
  • Co-chair for this year’s inaugural Unconventional Resources Technology Conference (See April EXPLORER).
  • Heads the Colorado School of Mines’ Bakken Research Consortium.
  • The recipient of five AAPG Certificates of Merit and three more awards from the HoD.
  • A professor and Charles Boettcher Distinguished Chair at the Colorado School of Mines.
Inspiring Thoughts

Those who can, lead; those who can lead well, teach.

And those who combine all of that have known what it means to have the gift of inspiration.

That would be Sonnenberg.

“One of the best quotes on leadership I have read is by John Quincy Adams,” he said in talking about leadership and the Halbouty award. “‘If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.’”

And where to put that to better use than the classroom.

“Currently I am running three consortiums at the Colorado School of Mines,” he said, “Bakken, Niobrara and Vaca Muerta petroleum system studies – and I mentor over 20 students each year.”

He talks about his satisfaction with seeing the results of student-based research (“with guidance, of course”) and watching students blossom and grow through time.

“It is fun to see them accomplish things in the companies they go and work it, too,” he said. “It is great to encourage students to become the future leaders.”

He thinks the state of geology education in this country is “OK to good,” primarily, he said, because of the public outreach that various societies – including AAPG – have done.

“I know that it can always be improved, however,” he added. “When budget cuts occur, it seems that cutting geology-related programs are at the top of the list.”

The good news?

“Geologists are fairly vocal,” he said, “and help keep most things on track.”

Seeing the Bigger Picture

His encouragement, though, is not just for those entering the profession; it’s also for those already in it. And one of his energies at the moment is the aforementioned Bakken Consortium.

“The consortium project on the Bakken studies all aspects of the petroleum system from the source beds to the reservoirs,” he said.

One of the goals is to get operators to think, literally, out of the geologic box.

“Operators tend to focus on their early successes,” he said, “so I advise them to remember other aspects of the play, including the well-known concept that part of the production comes from the shales, in addition to the silty dolostone reservoirs.”

Leading this project, he says, has given him the ability to see the bigger picture and to give advice to other consortium members.

Or at least, he tries to.

“Some of them listen,” he says.

On Bakken, though, he wants to make sure the right story gets out.

“The general public gets lots of mixed information about what is going on,” he said, speaking about the play that has dominated the media’s energy reporting.

“If there is bad news to report (such as an operational problem), the public generally always hears about it,” he said. “The good news on employment and the economic benefits of the Bakken unfortunately doesn’t get the press that it should.”

Working On a Dream

But if his work in and with the Bakken is his job, much of his passion is expressed in geology – and in the opportunities for leadership that the profession has provided.

“My greatest success so far in all that I have done is being president of AAPG,” he said, proudly. “It’s one of the most enjoyable and challenging things that I have done.”

He talks of the traveling to various conferences and experiencing the global perspective on oil and gas.

“It was fantastic,” he said of his time heading the AAPG Executive Committee. “Interacting with geologists around the world was – and still is – great.”

As a geologist, as a leader, he knows that it’s never just one thing that makes a person an effective leader.

“The qualities that mark good leadership include: Commitment, competence, character, communication, attitude, relationships, focus, integrity, passion and vision,” he said.

Sonnenberg also knows that awards (and he’s won many) do not happen in a vacuum – and that’s a lesson he learned early in his career.

“I did my master’s degree under Bob Berg at Texas A&M University and my Ph.D. degree under Bob Weimer, Colorado School of Mines,” he said. “Both are Sidney Powers medalists from AAPG, and they both inspired me and all the rest of their students to get involved in professional societies.”

They were instrumental, in fact, in him becoming an active member in the Rocky Mountain Association of Geologists, first as a program chairman and then in a variety of other ways as the results of networking became evident.

Asked whether those leadership opportunities were circumstance or design, he says, for certain, at least one experience was the result of a dream.

“I set a goal in the leadership arena to be the president of AAPG early in my career,” he said. “This goal was accomplished through committee work, being active in all areas of AAPG governance.”

Don’t Forget to Remember …

He is biased, he’ll tell you that, but he says, “geologists are the greatest people in the world.”

Who sometimes need to be reminded why they’re doing this, of course. After all, even the most skilled and experienced of geologists have challenging days.

And when that happens, his advice is to remember two things.

First, remember the basics.

“My advice to anyone in the petroleum business these days is to understand the geology, geophysics and engineering of the play,” he said, “and then develop it in an environmentally and socially responsible fashion.”

To those entering the profession, he says, read the books, build your net, learn how to “push back,” maintain your technical skills, remember your employee may be your boss someday, maintain balance in your life and support your profession.”

The second piece of advice:

“Enjoy what you do!”

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