John Huff Shares Advice for Leadership and Life

John Huff, CE 68, delivered the fall 2019 lecture in the Kenneth Hyatt Distinguished Alumni Leadership Speaker Series Oct. 3. (Photo: Amelia Neumeister)


In three decades of leadership, John Huff, CE 68, has helped Oceaneering International Inc. become the premier organization in underwater technologies. He grew the business from a small diving company to a highly successful corporation with pioneering technologies that have been used to explore deep ocean basins and outer space. 

He has achieved a lot in the business world, and he says that understanding people is a key to leadership and success.

Huff returned to the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering for the Kenneth Hyatt Distinguished Alumni Speaker Series on Oct. 3. Huff’s demeanor was warm and casual as he shared stories and anecdotes from his life and career to illustrate what it means to be a leader with around 100 CEE students and distinguished guests.

“Leaders and followers need to have a common vision of what they are doing,” Huff said. “A leader is someone who sets expectations of followers and helps followers achieve expectations.”

What’s important about that, Huff said, is that not everyone you lead will need the same kind of help to succeed. Some people may require motivation, while others will need more knowledge to achieve their goals.

“It’s not one size fits all,” Huff says. 

In the same vein, Huff said it’s important to remember what it’s like to be both a leader and a follower.

“In your lifetime, you’re not always going to be the leader. Many times, you’re going to be the follower. You need to learn both sides of the equation,” Huff said. 

After graduating from Georgia Tech in 1968, Huff began his career working for two pioneering offshore drilling companies: The Offshore Company and Zapata Offshore, which was founded by President George H.W. Bush. He later joined Western Oceanic and worked his way up to chairman and CEO of the company, where he developed a detailed knowledge of offshore operations through his work around the globe. 

This experience led him to Oceaneering International Inc., where he became chairman and CEO in 1986. He grew the small company into a highly successful multinational corporation by adding technological innovation and tying oil exploration with deep sea exploration. 

Today, Oceaneering is the largest manufacturer-operator of remotely operated vehicles, intervention tooling and specialized subsea products in the world. 

In addition to many other achievements, the company developed the remote-operated vehicles that assisted in the exploration of the Titanic, the wreckage of the Challenger capsule, and the remains of the H.L. Hunley, a Civil War-era submarine.

In 2011, Huff was elected as a Pioneer of the Industry and inducted into the Ocean Energy Museum Hall of Fame. For his technical achievements in space and underwater robotics, he was inducted into the National Academy of Engineering in 2013. 

Huff said developing a positive attitude has served him well. He flew often for business, and made a habit of letting the flight attendants know if had a nice flight. People are likely to complain when things go wrong, but rarely acknowledge the effort when everything goes according to plan. This simple gesture helped him to think more positively, and he said the flight attendants greatly appreciated it.

“If you spend your time trying to develop a positive attitude, you can do it,” Huff said. 

And while hard work and knowledge are important to success, Huff said it’s important not to discount the role that forces out of our control can play.

“Luck is a big part of everything. Good fortune is what you’re looking for,” Huff says. 

Huff’s civil engineering education helped set him on the path to success. He said that engineers have a great advantage in business because they are trained to think logically and understand how things work. 

“I think you’ve got to learn what customers need and go solve that problem,” Huff says. “I’m a big believer in getting an engineering education.”

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