A Conversation with Cindy Yeilding: Tenacity, Technical Work, Teamwork, and Transition

“I started working in 1985 when I was four years old.  That joke never gets old, just like me,” laughs Cindy Yeilding.  After nearly four decades of being a geologist, she says work doesn’t get old either.  Yeilding retired from BP in 2021 after a 35-year career and commenced a new phase of serving on corporate, educational, and civic boards. 

Yeilding began her career sitting wells and visiting offshore production platforms.  She says she then took exploration and technology roles, moving into formal leadership positions after 10 years of experience.  “I did everything you could do as a geologist in upstream,” she says.  While half of her career was focused on the GOM and in technology, she also worked projects in Venezuela, Colombia, and co-led field courses around North America.

In 2016, Yeilding was named Senior Vice President for BP America, a role that involved managing large-scale strategic projects for the company.  In addition to managing BP’s obligations in the aftermath of the Macondo incident, Yeilding managed BP’s relationship with Princeton University, including the Carbon Mitigation Initiative that focused on sustainable carbon and climate change solutions.  At the time, her daughter was in high school and her son was in middle school.  “My kids motivated me to learn more about Energy Transition,” she says. “So when I had an opportunity to chair the National Petroleum Council’s (NPC) working group on Carbon Capture, Use, and Storage (CCUS), and I jumped at the opportunity,” says Yeilding.  The NPC’s report, Meeting the Dual Challenge, was published in 2019.  “I led the 300+ person working team that delivered that study, and it changed my life,” says Yeilding. 

Her experience in CCUS positioned Yeilding to join the Board of Denbury in 2021 after retiring from BP.  It also led her to join the Board of Center for Houston’s Future, a civic organization aimed at bringing together businesses and communities in the nine counties surrounding Houston to innovate on energy, healthcare and immigration reform.  Yeilding had been a key supporter of the Center’s vision of bringing a hydrogen hub to southeast Texas. 

Yeilding explains that the lessons she learned in the early days of her career helped to shape her perspective on being an effective geologist and effective collaborator.  Reflecting on her career, Yeilding offers three key lessons to other geologists.  She says to stay close to the technical work and be tenacious in pursuing good ideas.  In addition, Yeilding emphasizes the importance of being a good collaborator.  Woven throughout these lessons is an emphasis on having an explorer’s mindset.

Stay close to the technical work
“I went into leadership roles relatively early in my career, but I kept a workstation and a microscope,” says Yeilding.  She describes a schedule of ending her leadership day at 5 p.m. and then logging into the workstation for several hours to maintain technical skills and to learn the geology her team was evaluating.  Although this schedule became impractical after having children, she emphasizes the importance of building a strong technical basis for decisions. 

Yeilding notes that technology is a key enabler supporting geologic evaluations. However, geologists still need to check their work, she advises.  In addition, it is important to keep pace with technology and innovation.  She recalls an experience of supporting former BP CEO Bob Dudley in responding to a technical question on geothermal energy.  She was originally dismissive of the opportunity but was surprised (and delighted!) to learn how much the technology had evolved over the previous few years.  “Never underestimate the ability of technology to deliver what the mind can create,” says Yeilding. 

Be tenacious in pursuing good opportunities
Yeilding recalls an experience early in her career of re-mapping a mature field in the GOM.  BP had no immediate drilling plans for the producing field, so Yeilding started looking for deeper prospects.  Surprisingly, her manager criticized her for focusing too much on “airy-fairy” deeper structures.  Those “airy-fairy” ideas later turned out to be Thunder Horse, Blind Faith and other large discoveries.  That experience, among others, encouraged Yeilding to trust her instincts and her technical work. 

Yeilding says she used creative techniques to build enthusiasm and shared ownership of her ideas.  For example, she recalls keeping the workroom doors open and making eye contact with anyone who walked by, inviting them to learn about her work and offer their insights.  She notes that asking others for advice is a great way to get help, improve the technical and business case and also build shared ownership in a project’s goals.  Yeilding recalls one highly creative engagement tactic that involved putting up an annotated seismic line outside of the men’s restroom to gather insights and get advice (people had to pass by at least several times a day!).  Yeilding says that these tactics, among others, gave her a reputation for being tenacious and for building broad-based support from staff, peers and management.

In addition to understanding the technical potential, Yeilding notes that it is critical to understand whether an opportunity is good from a business perspective.  “Be gracious when an opportunity doesn’t stack up, or if the timing is just not right,” she says.  “Don’t feel entitled.” 

Be a good collaborator
Yeilding started her career sitting wells on offshore rigs.  She says she was keenly aware of how much her presence inconvenienced others on the rig.  For example, the Company Man, always had to give up his bunk so she could have a room to herself.  Yeilding says she learned “to be cognizant and gracious” of others on the team, and also learned that it was critical to find something in common with her colleagues and share knowledge of the subsurface to help build trust and open dialogue. 

The lesson on building relationships translated into the workroom, where Yeilding says she worked hard to build foundational relationships before launching into technical or business discussions.  In the 1980s, she was known as the “geologist who works with engineers,” and she recalls that the company’s CEO was invited to visit their workroom to see collaboration between geologists and engineers in action. 

Leveraging experience to build a future
“There should be room for all forms of energy, including geothermal and hydrogen, in addition to oil and gas,” says Yeilding.  She acknowledges that many geologists view the Energy Transition as a threat, but she encourages geologists and the public to become educated about energy topics to recognize the opportunities.  Her most recent project is to promote simple, easy to understand information about energy systems.  “It’s hard to hate something you understand,” notes Yeilding.  She is collaborating with her son, now a Rice University student, to develop educational materials that describe elements of the current and potential future energy landscape.

Yeilding also encourages geologists to approach CCUS with an explorer’s mindset.  She recalls that many geologists believed deepwater oil and gas exploration would never work, but creative geoscientists with explorer’s mindsets tenaciously pushed those ideas into reality and engineers made production from these environments economic and safe.  Similarly, geologists should embrace the role they can play in expanding the energy system to encourage a new generation of geologists.  “Geologists are stewards of the Earth. If we aren’t attracting new people to geology, our world is missing an opportunity,” says Yeilding.