What young professionals in oil & gas need to know about finding a mentor

One of the best managers I’ve ever had is a devout Christian, and though religion never came up directly in the office, one day when we were working through a problem he did happen to paraphrase the Bible (I had to Google the quote) and in the process gave me some of the best career advice I’ve gotten so far:  “a wise person seeks the counsel of many while a fool seeks the counsel of none”.

Regardless of your beliefs, those are words to live by:  you’ll never have all the answers, and you’ll never have the ability to see every situation from every possible angle.  For these reasons, it’s great to have a mentor, and I’m not the only one that feels this way.

This week, I heard from one such like-minded person, and answer a question from this reader who is looking for a mentor to help kickstart their geology career!

Remember, if you also want to participate in “Building Hydrocarbon Bonds”, please get in touch with me either through my website, LinkedIn, or through email.  If the answer to your question ends up turning into something substantial, I’ll post it (keeping your details anonymous) so that others can benefit as well.

Thank you for your article “Starting your oil & gas career with a service company” that I read on FuelFix.com.  I entered a master’s program in geology to research brachiopods and graduated passionate about oil and gas.  However, my small university had no industry connections and I had little idea of where or how to enter the field.  I was hired up as a mudlogger and have only slowly come to understand the structure of the industry. Your article was a great summary of the differences and relationships between operators and service companies.  I hope to work for an operator, so I loved to hear that my intense, hands on training learned during endless shifts in horrible weather is valuable!

I’m looking for some guidance to help me reach my career goals.  I know the Society of Economic Geologists has a mentor forum that is dedicated to guiding mining geologists, but the American Association of Petroleum Geologists does not have one aimed at petroleum geologists. Do you know of any organization where I could find a mentor to guide me in the beginning of my career?

Thank you again for your contribution!

Thanks very much for taking the time to read my articles and send me your note; I’m really glad that you like the content!

When you consider mentoring, it can be split up into two groups:  discipline/non-discipline specific, and formal/informal.  By that I mean first that in your working life, you’ll have questions related to your specific discipline, and others just relating generally to important career choices, and second there are relationships where it is understood there is a “mentor” and a “mentee” (formal) and others where you just go seek out advice when you need it (informal).

It sounds to me like you’re looking for a discipline-specific, formal mentoring relationship.

The discipline specific aspect makes this a tough one, but there is a solution!

The best advice I can give you for that beyond the sources you mentioned is to check out the SPE’s e-mentoring program.  It’s great because there is a defined expectation that the mentor will help you out, AND you can specify what type of expert you’d like.  The address for that is http://www.spe.org/ementoring/.

What are the key differences between formal and informal mentoring relationships?

I’ve had both formal and informal mentors, and based on those relationships I saw two big differences:  expectations and time commitment, and usually the two are closely related.

Given Young Professionals’ desire for mentorship, many companies tout their formal programs that match people new to the company with more experienced personnel.  Before the matching even begins, both groups of people may be asked to fill out questionnaires to determine their personality type and career goals.  Once this information is used to make matches, there might be an expectation for regular meetings and then a check-in from the pair with the organization to see how they are progressing.

Even without an organized matching process, the relationship is still a formal one if you (like the reader) desire to find someone compatible that you can eventually ask:  “you followed the path I want to go down, would you consider being a career mentor for me?”.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is the completely informal path where you get to know several experienced people, and you knock on their office door or give them a call when a question comes up.

Neither one is “better” than other:  it really does depend on the expectations and commitment of both the mentor and mentee.  If you’re a Young Professional that wants the comfort of knowing there is always at least one person there for you, by all means sign up for a mentoring program.

It’s a little trickier if you choose to ask someone to be your mentor.  Indeed, just the act of asking could put your desired mentor in a tough spot, making them feel obligated or think you are expecting a lot of time from them.  In that case, reassure them up front that you just want to learn from them, and see what time they would be willing to share with you (lunch once a month?  A 20 minute phone call every week?).

In my personal experience, I’ve found that for me it’s less important to have a defined mentor than it is just to know when it’s time to ask questions and who to go to.  I don’t say that to downplay any one person’s advice, it’s just that no two people’s careers are ever the same.  So, while I may have found one person’s help invaluable at first, my career would branch off to something else (or I’d think hard and the answers appeared!), at which point I’d seek out the advice of someone else.

There’s nothing wrong with doing things that way, either.  I do my best to continue to keep in touch with everyone, which in the end just leaves me with more options when I need more advice!  In fact, there are several people I’ve met in my nearly 8 years out of college I really respect.  I drop them a line every now and then, which makes it easy to get back in touch with them if I have something truly important to bring up with.

Important things to remember about a mentor/mentee relationship

In my mind, where Young Professionals can potentially run into trouble with regards to being mentored, whether that’s formally or informally, is a lack of understanding of the role of a mentor.

To be clear, a mentor is NOT there to think things through for you.  So, if you’re thinking that as soon as you find someone willing to share their experiences with you, you can ask them: “please tell me everything I need to do to be promoted to CEO”, it doesn’t work that way.

Rather, a mentor is there to give you advice when you’re just about ready to make a choice, and need a little more insight from someone who’s been there.  Think about it this way:  if the mentor is patient enough to answer such open-ended questions, they may end up steering you on the path that their career followed, because that’s all they know.  Is that what you want, as opposed to making your own way?

In the worst case, they will just find this type of question annoying, and the mentoring relationship won’t last long.  Remember, you value your mentor’s input because you respect their contributions to the industry, and inherently that means their time is valuable.  Use their time considerately, and ask them the kinds of questions you would like to answer!

Which brings me to the next point…

The importance of paying it forward

You may think that a mentor/mentee relationship is completely one-sided, in the sense that while the mentor is offering you the benefit of hindsight and experience, there can’t be very much that they can gain from speaking with you.

It’s true that you are asking a lot from a mentor, but rest assured there is usually some benefit from both sides.  Actually, many feel very flattered that someone thinks highly enough of them to ask for advice, but if you’re still looking for another way to show your gratitude, I can offer this suggestion:  pay it forward.

Perhaps you feel that, compared to your mentor, you’re quite junior, but realize that someone else may look up to you just as much!  Say that you managed to transition into the oil & gas industry, or you have just graduated from university; there is certainly someone trying also to get a coveted industry position, or is struggling with their classes, that would appreciate your help!

By mentoring others, you develop the skills to look at things from a different angle, as well as those required to be a good listener, which is an absolutely crucial attribute in a professional.   Plus, being the mentor allows you to see things from the “other side of the coin”, which has the potential to positively influence your relationship with your own mentor.

Finally, there’s the saying:  “what goes around comes around”.

The more good you do and the more you help people out, the more good things will come your way!