OwlSpark | Rice University Startup Accelerator | PeopleWise: Matt Bell
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PeopleWise: Matt Bell

“It all started with a competition,” says oil and gas veteran Matt Bell.

In the early 90s, Shell offered to sponsor students who wanted to spend their summer working on their own idea. Matt and a friend decided they wanted to see what was left of the Berlin Wall, so they submitted their idea and Shell cut them a check. A year later, Matt graduated from Imperial College in London with a Chemical Engineering degree, and Shell offered him a job.

Today, Matt is the President of Ikon Science Americas and manages his own oil and gas consulting agency, IN2 Oil and Gas, which coaches startups concerned with upstream oil and gas. Due to the current state of the energy sector, both of Matt’s roles require a high degree of creativity to earn business. “It’s not the fastest or the strongest who survive—it’s the ones who can adapt the quickest”, says Matt.

Matt has spent his career on the front line of the industry, both using and developing new innovations. After spending 10 years using emerging technologies in the upstream sector of the industry at Shell, he shifted to consulting in the development of these technologies. For the first time, he moved away from the consumer role (finding and implementing technologies) to the provider role (providing services and technologies). Having witnessed firsthand the advantages and disadvantages of different technologies, Matt drew from his expertise to create better solutions.

Matt reflects on his time at Shell, and the learning experiences—both good and bad—he received there. “You learn everything by mistakes. When things go swimmingly, you don’t really notice you’re learning stuff. It’s when things break and when things don’t go well, you stop and think, ‘What the hell went wrong there?’” These learning experiences primed Matt for the endeavours to come.

At 39, Matt received his first leadership position as the director of a small oil and gas startup called Epik Energy Solutions. Leaning on all that he learned from his mentors throughout his career, Matt took those leadership principles and applied them to his new role. For Matt, one of the most important aspects of leadership is to always be learning. Good leadership is about empowering those that you work with to learn, grow and think independently. “The most successful leaders are the ones who have a vision, have charisma, know how to direct a group of people, but at the same time go, ‘I don’t know, what do you think we should do?’”

In Matt’s opinion, the most important aspect of leadership is the use of soft skills. Good leadership is about empowering those that you work with to learn, grow, and think independently. In some ways, being a good leader is like being a good parent; you have to let people fail in a safe environment so that they can learn what not to do next time. You cannot teach someone all of your mistakes and then expect them to not ever make any of them—good leadership is about enabling people to learn-by-doing.

Matt finds his biggest challenges as a leader is managing conflict. Knowing when to include those in the decision making process is incredibly difficult. It’s important to make sure everyone’s voice is heard, but at the end of the day it is up to the leader to make a decision. As always, decisions are situational and in crisis it is important to be strong and decisive as a leader.

Say there is a fire burning in the corner of the room. I’m not going to invite everyone to offer opinions on how we should fight the fire, it’s ‘You, put that fire out. Let’s go.’

As the president of two companies, and the father of two children, Matt finds his biggest challenge as an entrepreneur, and more so as a human being, is figuring out how to manage his time. It takes a lot of effort to preserve a personal life while still dedicating yourself to your job. When asked about his advice for the founders going through OwlSpark, Matt had the following to say:

You don’t know it all. Even if you think you know what your product is, what your market is or whatever. Just park that, and come here to learn. It’s just a phenomenal learning opportunity to interact with the other teams, to listen to great speakers, to go through the curriculum and just challenge everything you know.
I’ve seen it throughout my career, as soon as you think, ‘Ah, I know what I’m doing now,’ that’s the time to stop and ask, ‘Do I really?’ Challenging the assumptions you have already made is incredibly important.