“I was truly raised by a village, you know.”
“If you had asked me when I was a little girl growing up in Heidelberg, Mississippi, if I would end up being the Senior VP of Tax at Halliburton, I would’ve said ‘absolutely not.’ It is something that was just inconceivable to me.”
We have all seen feel-good movies about kids growing up in small towns across America who end up making their marks in places they could have never dreamed of while they were growing up. But those are just movies, works of celluloid and fiction, and it is a rare thing to come face with such a real story in the flesh. That was our experience when we sat down with Myrtle Jones, the Senior Vice President of Tax at service industry giant Halliburton.
Heidelberg is a rural farming community located in the southeastern part of Mississippi, about 30 miles to the north of Hattiesburg. Situated in Jasper County, it lies in the midst of the largest oil-producing part of the state, although farming is really its main business. As is sadly typical of such agricultural communities in America, Heidelberg’s population has actually shrunk over the past several decades, dropping to just 714 souls in the 2010 census.
The town had about 1,000 residents during the 1960s and 1970s when Jones was growing up there, with perhaps 100 more than the 349 households recorded in that 2010 census. The Jones family didn’t actually reside within the city limits but rather on a small farm a few miles down the road.
“We had all the farm animals: cows and pigs and chickens,” she told us. “We basically grew all of our food on the farm between the gardens and fields. We grew cotton up until the time I was 8 or 9 years old — that was our cash crop. My grandfather was basically the driving force behind the cotton, and so fortunately for me, I was spared the cotton fields because by the time I was old enough to pick up my cotton sack and head to the fields, he had stopped doing it,” she added with a laugh.
As was quite common in such rural southern communities at the time, the Jones family was a multi-generational unit who all lived very close to one another. “It was me, my seven siblings, my parents and my grandparents. It was kind of a community where we lived, where our houses were within 50 yards from each other,” she recalled, adding, “You couldn’t get away with anything! I was truly raised by a village, you know. I’m actually the youngest of the eight children. I didn’t get away with anything.”
Jones’s mother worked outside the home, and for a secondary business, the family also ran a general store that served the other farms in the surrounding area. “My mother was a domestic worker. So, my parents were always busy,” she said. “They were always working hard to make ends meet along there with my grandparents. We also had a little tiny country store. It didn’t even stay open. It opened when someone came to buy something. It was like ‘Oh, somebody wants something from the store.’ So, you went and unlocked it, and then locked it back up when they were done. It just had staples like flour, sugar and cornmeal and bread and soda. It wasn’t like a big popular place; it was just what you would call a mom and pop store.
“That’s the environment that I grew up in.”
It was the kind of environment that has largely been lost to modern times, but one in which Myrtle Jones learned early about the values of hard work, of dependability, of community, of mutual respect and of collaborating with others to get things done.
Anyone who has spent time in the corporate world knows that these are values that can help a person to rise to high levels within any organization. They are all too rare and thus prized by upper management. Jones told us that, although unaware of where it would lead her at the time, she continued to learn these values and more while going to school in Heidelberg.
“I was always very civic, I would say,” she responded when asked about the kinds of extracurricular activities she was involved in at Heidelberg High. “I was in all the different types of clubs. I was Student Council Treasurer, Class Secretary. I was in things like The Explorers Club, Beta Club, and I always found myself being an officer of these clubs, if not President. I was always a leader.”
But the obligations of family and farm left little occasion for other activities that required her to spend time at school outside of normal hours. “I didn’t do much of the band and the choir or things that require a lot of after school time, as you can imagine; there were chores to do when I got back home,” she continued. “We didn’t have a lot of money growing up, so to be honest with you, transportation was usually an issue for those types of activities so that limited some of what I could do. To help out on the farm and also just the limitations on transportation and being able to get back and forth, that kind of dictated that I not do things like choir and band and what have you. But I managed to stay very busy and engaged in the different clubs and stuff that school had to offer.”
The enterprising student also held down a job during her junior and senior years. “There was a program for the students who were from low-income families to get summer jobs, so my first job was working in the principal’s office during the summer. Once the summer was over going into my senior year, the principal asked me if I would continue to work in the office and help the secretary. Instead of getting paid, because that program was only during the summer, they offered to defray some of my costs of things like graduation pictures and my graduation ring and things like that. So, I worked all through my senior year in the principal’s office and then went back to work in the summer.”
That experience taught Jones the value of being able to hold down an office job. “So, where a lot of kids may have got their working start like in a fast-food restaurant or bussing tables somewhere, my first job was in an office,” she said, adding with a laugh that “I realized early on that I liked sitting in an air-conditioned office to do my work a lot better than I liked working on the farm.”
“I decided at 15 years old that I wanted to be an accountant.”
When we asked Myrtle to talk about the factors that led her to seek her degree in accounting at Mississippi State University, she surprised us by saying that “I decided at 15 years old that I wanted to be an accountant.” That’s a decision that very few people make at such a young age, but it made perfect sense when she described how it all came about.
“Even though I went to this really small high school in Mississippi, which is not known for having the best school systems, our high school actually offered business classes,” she told us. “They offered bookkeeping and accounting and some other classes that were business-related. So, when I was a sophomore in high school, one of my friends approached me, and it was really funny, she said ‘Hey, what are you doing 4th period?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know, I think I have study hall.’ And she said, ‘Well, the accounting class is during 4th period, and I’m going to sign up for it. Will you sign up for it with me?’ And I was like, “Okay! Better than Study Hall, right?”
Well, when you put it that way…
She continued: “It was interesting because normally the people in that class would be juniors and seniors, so I was a little intimidated by it. I was not as outgoing as the person you see before you today, but my friend was very outgoing, so since she was taking the class, of course I would follow her. I took the class, and at that moment, I knew I wanted to major in accounting.
“I was able to think about the different things we did in that little store and how that affects business,” she said. “Even when I was really young, my grandmother would have me sit down every month and write out her bills for her and get the money orders ready to pay the utility bills. She would also set up and tell me the things she needed from the grocery store, and she would give me the money to go buy the groceries.
“So, I was used to dealing with money, and somehow or another, my brain connected the link between the accounting class and these different things, and that made the class fun for me.”
“We get to make those decisions now.”
It was the making of those early connections that led Jones through Mississippi State to an extraordinary career that now sees her managing the tax department of the largest oilfield service company in America and one of the largest and most diverse service companies in the world. Today, this girl who grew up in tiny Heidelberg in the ‘60s and ‘70s oversees a staff of about 220 people who must account for and ensure Halliburton is meeting its tax obligations in more than 80 countries where it operates around the globe.
Rising to such a level is an extraordinary achievement for anyone, but especially impressive when one considers that Jones came into the energy business in the 1980s, when it remained by and large a big “good ol’ boys” club that made it very hard for women – and minority women in particular – to rise into managerial positions.
We asked her if she has seen that environment evolve over the years. “Yes, it has,” she said. “When I first started in the energy business, it was rare to even have women on the operations side. My first big energy job where I was really involved in more than just putting some numbers on a tax return was at Global Santa Fe, which is an offshore drilling company. And the idea that a woman would be out in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico for 21 days with men, well, that was just unheard of. It just didn’t happen.
“But that was not just out on the rigs; it was also in the corporate office. So, breaking that barrier down was — I’m sure it was easier on the corporate side than it was out in the field, but even on the corporate side, it was difficult.”
It may be surprising for some to hear these days, but one of the big barriers had to do with women engaging in business travel. “In order for me to progress as a tax professional, I have to go where the issues are,” Jones said. “We didn’t operate just in the UK, and we didn’t operate just in the Netherlands; we also operated in Nigeria and Venezuela, and in remote places that are very challenging.
“And initially, being able to work on the assignments that would give me the experience that I needed to progress, there would be very open conversations that were like, ‘Well, should we really send you off to West Africa?’ And I’d say, ‘Well, this is where the audit is, and this is where the issues are, and so in order for me to get my arms around it, I need to go to West Africa.’ And they’d say, ‘Well, are you ok with that? Is your husband going to feel alright about it?’
“You know, I was married at the time. (She has since divorced.) ‘How’s your husband going to feel about it?’ Well, he really doesn’t have a say so. Those were the kinds of conversations, and if it was happening for me in a corporate space, I imagine it was happening a hundred-fold to others.
“But luckily, I worked with people who actually asked the questions and allowed me to decide, as opposed to deciding for me. I think that’s what women were facing for a very long time: That those decisions were being made for us. We were not being allowed to say; we were not being allowed to make that decision for ourselves.
“So I think the biggest thing that has changed is that we now get to decide. We have a say so in that, and we get to say, ‘Yes, I have chosen to pursue a career in energy, and therefore I am willing to go into the harsh environments that you typically think of as being only suitable for men. I am willing to be in a remote location or a rig in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico or the North Sea or what have you where I am one amongst only a few women, and I am comfortable with that.’ We get to make those decisions now, and that is an important part of why we have made the progress that we have.”
“My success depends entirely upon the success of the people who work for me.”
The most successful leaders in any environment or organization are those who put most of their efforts into maximizing the effectiveness and success of those they lead. While one would think that this would go without saying, it is truly amazing how many of those placed in leadership positions ignore this simple fact.
Fortunately for Halliburton, Myrtle Jones is not one of those people. “I like to think of myself as a servant leader, that I’m actually there to serve the people that work for me,” she told us when we asked her to describe her leadership philosophy. “It’s about understanding what they need in order to succeed, not only professionally, but also personally. It’s about doing whatever I can to help give them those things that they need to get their job done properly and also to develop them to perform and to advance within the company.
“So, my overall goal in leading people is to serve them and to allow them and help them to do their job. Because look, Halliburton is a huge company, and it’s complex, and the work we do is very technical, and it is very material to our bottom line.
“I can’t do that work,” she continued. “My success depends entirely upon the success of the people who work for me, and I realize that every single day. I make sure that they know that I know that I am totally dependent upon them to succeed and to deliver value to Halliburton.”
But there’s more to being a successful leader than that: Jones also makes sure to lead by example. “The other part of my leadership style has been to not ask people to do things that I have not done myself. I can’t always say that anymore, though, because things have changed in the several decades that I came into the tax world, but I do try to lead with empathy. So, I do try to put myself in their shoes and have empathy for their situation. My goal is to motivate — not to direct, not to demand — to motivate and inspire people to want to be their best selves and to want to do their best work. In a nutshell, that is what I aspire to do, that is the type of leader that I aspire to be.”
The very fact that she has advanced to such a high position in Halliburton’s huge organization tells us all we need to know about how highly she is regarded internally. But Jones’s leadership and success have also been recognized externally. Her resume sports an array of impressive external awards, including Black Enterprise Magazine’s 50 Most Powerful Women in Corporate America, The Diversity Council’s Diversity Leader of the Year of Award, Diversity Journal’s Women Worth Watching Award and the Houston Business Journals Top 25 Women in Oil and Gas.
We asked her what it means to her to be on the receiving end of this kind of external recognition, and her answer was not at all surprising. “It’s very humbling. It’s not something I ever sought out or expected,” she told us. “My goal was never to stand out for that sort of recognition. The goal was always to just be the best I could be and to work to my highest potential. That was always the goal, and then I hoped that my potential and the work that I did would be recognized, not in a public way, but recognized by people that I worked for and that I would be rewarded for that by being able to progress in my career.
“So, when the recognitions and awards come along with that, again, it’s very humbling. I accept it, and I hope by accepting it and being on a platform where other people can see me, that will inspire people that look like other women and other people that look like me to understand that they too can rise. That they too can achieve — that I’m a living, breathing, tangible symbol of what can be done if you put in the effort and you continue to work toward achieving your goals. So that really, for me, is the reward of that kind of recognition.”
It also came as no surprise to learn that Jones makes a point of applying her leadership and life lessons to volunteer work and community involvement, working on an array of efforts that are near and dear to her heart.
“Community service is very important to me,” she said. “I feel like that’s me completing the cycle because if you’ve been listening, you’ve probably heard from the very beginning of this conversation that I understand that I got to where I am on the shoulders of a lot of people. It’s thanks to people believing in me and not only believing in me but investing in me, investing their time in me, and in some cases, financial support.
“I didn’t pay a dime to go to college. There weren’t a lot of scholarships being offered, but the income bracket that my family was in at the time, we qualified for things like grants and what have you that actually covered my college tuition. Then, I worked part-time to help pay for the other expenses that were incurred. So, I was raised to believe that to whom much is given, much is expected. And that it is expected that you give back, so that is why community service is so important to me.”
Jones has served on the boards of several organizations. One, in particular, Genesys Works, hits very close to where she came from. “Genesys Works serves high school juniors and seniors from the economically challenged neighborhoods,” she said. “It provides them with the same type of experience that I had working in that high school principal’s office, except these kids get to work in a corporate office. We provide them training in accounting or engineering or IT, and then they spend a year or a summer in an internship in a corporation. I actually sat on that board for a little over six years, and I was chairman of it as well. That one means a lot to me because that’s really putting into something that I believe was instrumental in my success in helping other kids have a similar experience.
Currently, Jones is also on the board for Dress for Success Houston, the Houston Zoo and Stages Repertory Theatre in Houston. “I try to make my board service to mirror things that I feel very passionate about, and that it be targeted,” she said. “When I sit on a board, I do the work. I don’t sit on a board just to show up and have my name on a roster, but it’s to do the work, and so it has to be something I’m really passionate about.
Dress for Success also hits very close to home for Jones. “When you think about Dress for Success, yeah, the first time I wore a suit, the first time I owned a suit was when I was getting ready for my interviews out of college,” she told us. “I couldn’t afford to go and buy a fancy suit, and my mom gave me $50. I went to the fabric store, and I got some fabric and a pattern and took it to a dressmaker, and she made me my homemade suit for my interviews. You know even going into that, that you’re not looking like a lot of other people that are going into those interviews with their Brooks Brothers suit and so on and so forth.
“So, in Houston, this organization serves women that were like my mom who didn’t get a chance. At least it’s giving those women a chance to build their lives beyond the position that they find themselves in at any particular point in time.”
Jones also applies her talents to mentoring employees internally. “At Halliburton, I can probably count about six or seven people that I mentor or that I have mentored. We have a mentoring program within our finance group, and I’m the executive sponsor of that. I am also the executive sponsor of our Black Employees ERG at Halliburton.”
This would seem overwhelming to most people, but it’s seemingly all in a day’s work for Myrtle Jones.
But her life is not all about business; Jones is the very proud mother of three children, and it will come as no surprise to any reader that she has been successful in this part of her life as well.
“I have three children. I have two girls and a boy: two accountants and one computer scientist. My second daughter has recently returned to school. She’s getting her Ph.D. in computer science, so she’s actually at Stanford right now. My son is pursuing his master’s degree at A&M. The one thing that I’m more proud of than my career is my kids.”
“They have definitely not made anything simpler.”
Tax is a very specialized piece of any business, and obviously, the U.S. tax code has evolved to a large extent over the course of Jones’s career. Since she came out of college in the mid-1980s, Congress has engaged in several efforts to simplify the tax code. We asked Jones if those efforts have been successful.
“No!” she laughed. “They definitely have not made anything simpler. In fact, they’ve made it more complex.
“In 2017, we had the first major overhaul of the tax code that we’d had in 30 years. They initially started out saying it was for tax simplification, but before they finalized it, they had completely abandoned the idea that it was going to be simpler because it had gotten more complex.
“So, with the passage of the law, our workload actually increased as opposed to decreased. Halliburton’s tax burden went down, but our complexity and our compliance burden went up. For us, that’s a trade-off. Of course, we think that it’s good, and it’s appropriate that U.S. multinationals be taxed on the same basis as the companies that we compete with for business around the world. So that was why that law change was very important for us. But that complexity, I just don’t think that’s going away. I don’t think we’re ever going to get to a place where it’s simple, easy to understand, and easy to comply with.”
Of course, that just describes the complexity of dealing with the U.S. tax code. It’s important to remember that Halliburton operates in 80 countries internationally, all of which have their own complex tax laws with which the company must be careful to comply.
“That’s why it’s so important that I have the amazing group of people that I have working for me that are managing the day to day issues and are also bringing forth to me the material issues that I need to be aware of and that I need to weigh in on,” Jones said. “As the head of Tax, my job is to manage people and to manage our tax risk because taxes are very uncertain, and they are subject to change.
“Some changes arise because the law changed. Others can be because the interpretation of the law by the courts changed. So, it requires people who are hardworking, intelligent people who are also able to handle the complexity and the marrying of the different responsibilities that they deal with day to day and to also have the judgment to bring me in on a more detailed basis when the situation dictates it.
“We have all kinds of internal controls in place that when a switch is flipped based on certain conditions, things get escalated right away. Think along the lines of a decision tree, and policies and procedures that basically document what that decision tree is that says ‘this can be handled locally,’ ‘this you bring to a director,’ and ‘this you bring in the Senior VP of Tax.’ And then there’s other areas that once it becomes of a certain magnitude that I’m in discussion with the CFO, or we’re talking to the Audit Committee.”
Before the 2017 changes to the corporate tax laws, “it used to be that your taxes could eat away 35% of your profits. Now, your taxes can still eat away 21% of your profits at a minimum. That’s a big bite. So, it gets a lot of attention. It gets a lot of attention not only from our governmental auditors, it gets a lot of attention from our internal audit group, as well as our accounting auditors.”
She pauses for a second, then laughs. “So, in this article, I hope that I don’t frighten people into not wanting to go into tax. I’m telling you things that you probably weren’t even aware are the things that should keep me up at night. But they don’t keep me up at night because I have a great department, and I have great people working for me.
“But those are the types of things that go into my job, and of managing Halliburton’s tax risk: Making sure that we’re compliant with tax laws in 80 countries — making sure that our tax returns are filed on time and that we’re paying the right amount of tax. — making sure that we manage our tax controversy in a way that we don’t get material adjustments to what we think our taxes should be and what our taxes ultimately end up being — and also making sure that we organize our business in such a way that we don’t pay any more tax than we are legally required to pay.
“People tend to look at this kind of tax planning as if it were tax evasion, but we do not commit tax evasion. That is absolutely not what we do. But we do actively look for opportunities to arrange our business in such a way that we don’t pay any more taxes than we would otherwise have to.”
Of course, in 2020, managing tax or any other aspect of a business has become even more challenging than before due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. We asked Myrtle to talk about the kinds of accommodations and adjustments her group has had to make in order to deal with this new environment.
“100% of my group has been impacted in one way or another,” she told us. “My entire U.S. office is still working from home. There may be some pockets of people outside of the U.S. where the virus is maybe more contained, and there’s a little bit more time being spent in the office, but we have been working remotely since Houston and Texas started the stay-at-home, work-from-home directives.
“The transition has been a challenge. Prior to this thing, Halliburton had not really moved toward any type of permanent flex-type schedule for people to work from home a couple of days, except for in certain specific situations. So we had to shift from almost no one working from home to everybody working from home in a very short period of time.
“And when I tell you that when (Halliburton CEO) Jeff Miller talks about Halliburton being an execution company, that doesn’t just apply out in the oil field. That applies everywhere, and we executed. For finance, it was even more stressful because we were coming up on the first-quarter close right when it all hit. So, think about it: it’s first-quarter close, there’s a severe downturn in the industry, and we’re all working from home for the very first time.”
The array of considerations that had to be dealt with was daunting. “You know, making sure people had adequate Wi-Fi, making sure people even had the equipment they needed. I can remember those days before, on Friday before we left, I can remember sending an email to my entire department saying ‘make sure you take your laptop home with you every day just in case you’re aren’t allowed to come back to the office.’
“Were there a couple of kinks? Yes. But I don’t know that anyone could’ve done it better, and we’re still adjusting to some of the things about working from home right now. I think if you had been planning for it, and you did it after a year of planning that you would probably be in better shape, but we are handling it extremely well.”
Handling it as a team; handling it together; handling it well. This is how Myrtle Jones leads; it is what she does; it is who she is in all aspects of her life.
With all of her achievements and successes in the corporate world and her personal life, Jones, in many ways, remains that little girl growing up on a multi-generational farm in rural Mississippi, still applying all of the life lessons she learned there.
She has never forgotten where she came from and how she got where she is today. “Where I am today, in terms of where I started, is something that was just inconceivable to me. I am incredibly grateful for all the opportunities that I’ve had, and for all the people who invested in me and who believed in me and gave me an opportunity coming into an industry where there were very few women and even fewer black women or men in that profession and giving me an opportunity. There’s just been some really remarkable people in my life at different points in my career that allowed me to be where I am today.”
About the author: David Blackmon is the Editor of SHALE Oil & Gas Business Magazine. He previously spent 37 years in the oil and natural gas industry in a variety of roles — the last 22 years engaging in public policy issues at the state and national levels. Contact David Blackmon at [email protected]