ConocoPhillips keeps looking for Dream Team, but what about the coach?

Top universities frequently boast of having a highly talented network of alumni. Houston-based oil major ConocoPhillips could say the same — but that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Since 2006 about a dozen executive-vice-president-level staff members have moved on from ConocoPhillips, for a wide range of reasons.

Those ranks continue to swell with Wednesday’s announcement of the pending departure of four high-ranking executives in the coming months.

We wondered yesterday if the shakeup was big enough to call it “the Wednesday afternoon massacre.” (One reader, “Joe Skeptical,” felt the Watergate comparison was overblown.)

True, a number of the prior departures were simply top executives from companies ConocoPhillips acquired who stuck around for the transition and then moved on.

Ex-Burlington Resources executives like Randy Limbacher, who left soon after the 2006 acquisition to head Rosetta Resources, and Brent Smolik, now heading up E&P for El Paso Corp, could fall into that category.

Legitimate health concerns may play a role in a departure, too. That could be the case with one of the four scheduled to leave by the end of this year.

But a number of observers note there’s been an oversized churn of talented executives from ConocoPhillips who one might have expected to stick around longer.

This includes Geoffrey Goff, who left as head of supply and trading earlier this year to be CEO of refiner Tesoro, and the former head of E&P, Jim Gallogly, who left in 2009 to become CEO of LyondelBasell.

Other E&P bosses have left over the years, including Bill Berry in 2008.

General counsel Steve Gates left while general auditor/chief ethics officer Steve Scheck also departed.

Some observers think the turnover may have more to do with the command-and-control management style of Chairman and CEO Jim Mulva than the day-to-day stress of working at an oil major.

“It sounds like the head coach firing all the assistant coaches for a bad season, when it’s really the head coach who’s the problem,” one analyst said of Wednesday’s decision.

A former ConocoPhillips executive puts it another way: The company is seen by many as a major international corporation with an Oklahoma mentality (he’s referring to the Bartlesville, Okla. roots of Phillips Petroleum, where Mulva worked when the firm merged with Conoco in 2002).

The latest round of departures is to clear the way for a likely successor to Mulva, who is expected to leave in a couple of years. It appears outgoing COO John Carrig didn’t have the operations background the company wanted to fill that role. It probably didn’t help that equity analysts felt there was a certain “warm-fuzzy feeling” missing in their dealings with him.

How ConocoPhillips breaks the revolving door cycle is anyone’s guess. But the hiring of Alan Hirshberg, the former head of worldwide deep-water projects for Exxon Mobil, as head of planning and strategy seems to be a step in the right direction for some observers.

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