Jay Swent Has Many Roles and One Goal

How getting employees out of their usual responsibilities and into new ones pays off for Ensco

Jay Swent, Executive Vice President & CFO, Ensco

Jay Swent, executive vice president and chief financial officer of Ensco, an oil and gas offshore drilling company headquartered in London, uses the word athletes in describing the individuals who make up the multiple teams he leads in Houston and globally. In addition to leading finance, his bailiwick includes human resources, information technology, supply chain, communications, and branding. “By ‘athlete,’ I mean that they have skills, heart, and discipline,” Swent says. “I’m not a sports fan per se, but the analogy is right on point, because having the heart and having skill and dedication and bringing those together are what really makes a team.”

So, why all the hats? “It makes sense to put finance, IT, HR, and supply chain under one roof,” says Swent, “These functions are all more intertwined than most people realize. And when you’re trying to get something done it generally touches two or three or all of these activities simultaneously.”

As head of finance and these other functions, Swent has a greater feel for the pulse of the organization as a whole. “If you’re in touch and responsible for what’s going on in all of those functions, you gain a better-than-usual understanding of the inner workings of the business,” he says. But where is the line drawn between micro- and macro-managing?

One of the things that Ensco does well, according to Swent, is establishing detailed, high-level strategic goals at the beginning of each year. They touch every department, and each one has a role in making sure the goals are accomplished. The need for micromanagement is virtually eliminated because objectives are clearly set and, with the appropriate team in place, self-management becomes the norm. A staff meeting every Monday morning allows the heads of every department to discuss progress, problems, and opportunities, eliminating the silo effect. “A lot of people say ‘Gee, I don’t know how you can manage this broad portfolio. It must really be a lot of work,’ but in reality it’s easier than just being CFO and having to sway others who don’t report directly to you or to your point of view,” Swent says. “It puts you in a position where you give a wider range of direct reports with various disciplines an overarching perspective of key priorities. They ‘get it’ quickly and then move on, working as a team.”

Getting people out of their silos and into other areas for which they demonstrate aptitude is one of Swent’s favorite subjects, and one he puts into practice. Unlike most large organizations, where roles tend to become rigid, Swent readily moves team members into other areas when there’s a need and the individuals have demonstrated versatility and a willingness to apply their talents and skills elsewhere.

Two finance silos in particular, tax and treasury, are difficult for people to transition in and out of. “They tend to be viewed as highly specialized skills, and there’s also a belief that you are either an analytical type or you’re an accountant, and you can’t possibly be wired for both,” says Swent. “I have spent a lot of my career debunking all of those assumptions.” Putting vice president of corporate finance DaveArmour into the tax department is just one example. “[Armour] has spearheaded a number of complicated transactions and done a remarkable job in the organization and with a very small team,” says Swent, who also put the best finance executive on his staff, MichaelHowell, in charge of human resources. As with the tax department, problems in HR required a first-class manager of people. Swent describes Howell as “someone who could just make things happen, who was very good at making sure that we were always properly staffed with good, energized, and motivated people.” 

Bringing all the pieces of the puzzle together in a seamless, efficient way is incredibly liberating, says Swent. “You need excellent professionals in every role, and you have to delegate heavily among reliable people who operate at a very high level of effectiveness. I am personally blessed with a lot of just really good, dedicated professionals.” Those experts, along with Ensco’s clearly established strategic goals, create the road map to success that Swent’s employees know to follow.