In what might have otherwise been a quiet transition, Exxon recently named Refining Boss Darren Woods “heir apparent” to current CEO Rex Tillerson. Barring any unforeseen shakeups, Woods will hold the title “president” until Tillerson either steps away or retires.
Anytime the largest energy producer in the world makes a move it is major news. But the announcement also carries with it a message that any internal strife created by the competition for the top spot is over. Until the announcement, both Woods and Exxon’s exploration chief Jack Williams were vying to step into the CEO spot when Tillerson retires, which is expected sometime in early 2017.
Woods is certainly a capable choice with a long, proud history with Exxon. An electrical engineer, Woods joined Exxon in 1992, first as an analyst, before moving up through the ranks. Back in 2014, he was appointed to a position on the management committee overseeing day-to-day operations, along with his ersatz competition, Williams. At the time, the eventual CEO spot was seen to be anyone’s ball game.
The move to name Woods as president telegraphs his eventual elevation to CEO because it mirrors that of Tillerson, who was named president shortly before being moved up to CEO. While the move wasn’t widely publicized, it was expected. Tillerson will reach 65 in March, which is the mandatory retirement age at Exxon. A suitable replacement would need to be found.
Woods, 50, seems to have a long career opportunity ahead of him as long as he manages the company well and meets or exceeds expectations.
Of course, any time assumption comes into play, that can create pitfalls and landmines for public relations. When contemplating a potential 15-year reign, critics have a lot of room and time to dig into issues that don’t fit quite right.
Exxon’s PR team needs to find just the right balance of “steady as she goes” and “new personality making his mark” messaging to keep investors happy and assuage any potential hiccups in the market, which can happen any time a company of this size and girth makes changes.