Some Non-Technical Advice For Starting Your Career In Oil & Gas

Aloha from Maui!  Usually when I travel, it’s not for fun, and it’s not to places nearly as beautiful as this.  This week, I’m lucky enough to be here for a friend’s wedding, so this post was easy to write:  it’s not hard to find inspiration in a place like this when you’re around great people!  By the way, that house beyond the palm trees belongs to Steven Tyler from Aerosmith.  Who knows, maybe after a few more FuelFix columns I’ll become famous (and rich) like him!

Not related to oil & gas, but hey, I'm here, and it's some beautiful scenery, no?

Not related to oil & gas, but hey, I’m here, and it’s some beautiful scenery, no?

Now, onto this week’s topic…

Last week, I suggested that the oil & gas industry should differentiate between “time served” and actual “experience”.  I argued that this would promote fresh ideas and encourage new entrants to push themselves forward constantly, which would in turn help operations in the oil & gas industry become more safe and efficient, while also enabling a smoother transition through the “Great Crew Change”.

It should be obvious that I think very highly of the newest generation of oil & gas professionals, but in no way will I ever say that every one of us acts perfectly from day one on the job, or is equipped right from the beginning to deal with the rigors of the oilfield.

Far from it!

Success in business is due to so much more than just professional accomplishment.  I wish I had realized this earlier on in my career, since actively working on some key behaviors and habits would probably have pushed me even farther than I am now.   In fact, the really fun parts of my involvement in the oil & gas industry (such as this column!) came directly from following these tips, some of which I’ve picked up from research and speaking with people, and others I just learned the hard way, on my own.

With all of that said, this week I wanted to put together a list of suggestions and ideas that I think will help today’s Young Professionals in oil & gas!

  • Treat everyone in your company equally.  Everyone wants to suck up to the “Big Shots”, but really, what are the chances of that getting you anywhere?  Most senior people can see right through such attempts, and they see so many names and faces that shotgun attempts to impress them probably won’t work.

The people you should really befriend are the office support staff, the operators in the field, and of course the people working      alongside you.  It’s unfortunate that some tend to ignore or take for granted these people.  The fact is, being nice and kind to everyone is just the right thing to do, but in terms of career advancement, these men and women are the gatekeepers to people and opportunities.

In the office, the support staff does see the “Big Shots” every day, and you can bet that those senior executives you look up to will hear about it from the staff if you’re not supporting everyone on your team.

In the field, the operators (not you!) do the work, and believe me, they can make your life really difficult if you don’t get along with them, or they can become great friends and make you look like a superstar.

  • Constantly seek to learn new things, and do your time in the field.  This one is tough, but it is so crucial to your oil & gas career that I have to mention it.  You will always find field personnel and engineers clashing:  the operators say “this engineer designed something that only works on paper”, while the engineers reply “my design is perfect you’re just not using it right”.  If you take the time to see what goes on “on the ground” you will sound more competent in front of your managers, you’ll get along better with your operators, and you’ll begin to start putting together the “big picture” of the oil field.

Be warned:  this one is really tough to follow through on.  When you get comfortable in one particular track, it can be hard to push yourself out of your comfort zone and learn something new.  Being in the field specifically can be brutal:  the weather isn’t always accommodating, you can be away from home for long periods, and the hours are completely unpredictable.  Trust me though:  it’s worth it.

At the very least, read a few technical papers a month, or keep up with the latest industry publications.  Even if you’re not a fan of overly technical papers, many of the magazines have more accessible, easy to read sections, and I find I always take something away from the articles I read.  Ultimately, you’ll be more knowledgeable about and current on what’s going on in the oil & gas industry, which will make you the boss’s “go to” guy when they want to know what’s “trending” in the oilfield!

  • Become involved in the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE).  As far as professional organizations go, the SPE is top notch:  it has offices around the world, it sponsors world famous conferences, and anyone who’s anyone in the oil & gas industry is a member.  Getting involved is simple, and there’s no need to go “all in” at one time.  You can (and should!) start by attending SPE lunches.  They’re a great way to network with fellow professionals and learn about new technologies and best practices.   Then maybe you can volunteer for an event committee, apply to join the team over at “The Way Ahead”, or even submit a paper abstract to present at one of those world famous conferences!

Getting involved in the SPE is about more than just taking on new roles or adding lines to your resume.  The best thing I’ve gotten out of the SPE has been new friends, business contacts and valuable sources of knowledge and insight, which leads me to my next piece of advice…

  • Find a mentor/role model.  Everyone’s career is different, but given the choice between going it alone or having someone provide advice and something to strive for, I’ll take the second one!  A good mentor will be there if you have a question about your career progression, how to handle a situation at the office, or maybe even provide a reference for you if you’re looking to make a company and/or role change.

If you’re looking for a mentor, realize that it is not up to him/her to make decisions for you.  YOU have to do the “heavy lifting” in terms of figuring out the questions to ask or possible courses of action when faced with a tough choice.  Remember, it’s YOUR career, so even the best mentor can’t decide what path you should follow, but they can definitely guide you along the way.

  • Jump on every opportunity to speak out and take initiative.  Everyone has an opinion, but not everyone is willing to express that opinion, or make the effort to do so.  Oftentimes, the person who gets to take the lead on a big project, speak at a conference, or be published is the one that takes the initiative to say something.  In fact, I was invited to become an editor for “The Way Ahead” magazine after taking the time to write a letter to the publication in response to an article, and here I am five years later, about to become the editor in chief!  This column for the Chronicle I’m so fortunate to write comes from me just having an idea and pitching it out of the blue to the editorial staff.  Yes, the process took some time and effort, but the outcomes were well worth it!

If shyness rather than motivation is preventing you from expressing yourself, let me offer you some reassurance.  As long as your thoughts are clear, well thought out and respectful of others’ opinions, anyone true professional will consider them.  It’s important to make the distinction between “offensive” and “provocative”:  the former burns bridges and makes you look bad, while the latter shows that you’re not afraid to challenge established ideas, or take a stand and defend it.

  • Being too eager to please can hurt your career progression.  If you’re in the beginning stages of your oil & gas career, you might find this one surprising.  Am I saying you shouldn’t do your best?  Absolutely not.

There IS a difference though between being eager to learn and doing your best, and being a “yes-person”.  Everyone knows a “yes-person”, always saying “yes” to anything and everything that comes their way, and there are several reasons why you shouldn’t follow their lead.

First, saying yes to everything means you’ll have way more to do, and could lead to early burnout.  It also sets you up for possible failure:  do you want to make a targeted number of people very happy with a few excellent contributions, or risk disappointing many more with things you did superficially just to turn them in on time?

As long as you object respectfully and thoughtfully (there’s also such thing as a “no-person!”), it can even BOOST your own personal brand!  Think of your own development:  how can you grow if everyone only tells you great things about your performance?  Even the best can always find something to improve, and these people will actually welcome this feedback, knowing that it in the long run it will make them even stronger contributors.

So, if you’re asked about how a certain training course went and you left disappointed, or if you disagree with some of the initiatives for a project, speak up!  Pretty soon, you’ll be known as the high performing, straight shooter everyone goes to when they need input.

  • Understand that your company does NOT manage your career for you- YOU DO!  For me, this really was the key to taking control of my journey in oil & gas, and as soon as I realized this, things really started clicking for me.

I’m realistic about my employment, in the sense that while I’ve been told I do great work and love working with my co-workers (and as far as I can tell they like working with me), in the broader scope of the company I’m very aware that I’m still relatively insignificant.  While it’s true that I have no control over the whims of “the Market” or the executive team, it’s also true that neither of these has any bearing on my drive or motivation.

Eventually, I’d like to be someone significant, so I take every chance I get to learn, contribute, and meet new people.  Sometimes it’s stressful, and there are definitely times when I’d rather just be kicking back at home, but I have faith that if I just keep doing what I’m doing, things will go my way.

Your company may train you up to a certain point, and it pays you a salary, but that’s about it.  If you want to work internationally, run a business unit, or heck, even become CEO one day, it’s up to YOU to map out a plan and work towards that.

You have a choice:  kick back and take whatever comes your way, or take the initiative and make your own way?

Now, what about you:  do you practice some of these already?  Do you have anything else to add?  Can you trace back some of your own career successes to thinking about and acting on some of the things on this list?

Please let me know in the comments section!