“Experience” Is Not The Same Thing As Achievement

A follower of The Way Ahead’s Twitter feed recently sent this article from Forbes, on hiring Millenials.  It’s an interesting piece, and I’d like to tie some passages together with my own thoughts about a term that comes up a lot in the context of the oil & gas industry:  “experience”.

To say that one person is more “experienced” than another usually means that the former has done more of something than the latter.  In this case, someone is genuinely more effective at what they do because, essentially, they’ve had more practice.  Unfortunately, in oil & gas I’m dismayed to see that the phrase “has more experience” is sometimes used interchangeably with the phrase “has been around longer”.   There’s a clear difference, and it’s important to see both what that difference is and what its implications are.

I’ll be frank:  in my view, in oil & gas, there is far too much emphasis on “time served”, and the hierarchies that come about as a result of this focus.  This is in obvious contrast to other industries (such as technology) that look far more at achievement, regardless of the time frame in which that achievement occurred.

Millenials (I’m in this group) occasionally get a bad rap, and the criticisms aren’t always unwarranted:  some DO require constant handholding, think far too highly of themselves, and write a much better 140 character description of what they had for breakfast than a fully written cover letter containing paragraphs.

Fine, I’ll grant the critics that much.

Nevertheless, I think that when you do find Millenials who ARE qualified, and who actually DO excellent work, great things can happen.  Now, in return for these great things, there is an expectation of recognition and reward, clearly stated in the Forbes piece:

“When recruiting Millennials, I’m frequently peppered with questions about the company’s value system, speed of career advancement, and the opportunity to learn,” says Scott Corrigan, director of human resources for media giant Hearst Magazines.

As a Millenial, I’m behind the straight-forwardness of this philosophy:  you do great work, you’re recognized for it, and this motivates you to stick around and do more great work.  Gone are the days when people would patiently wait their turns to climb the corporate ladder!

Youth clearly did not stop Mark Zuckerberg from doing great things (Photo:  www.Forbes.com)
Youth clearly did not stop Mark Zuckerberg from doing great things (Photo: www.Forbes.com)

Millenials believe strongly in the concept of meritocracies, and constant “churn” based on achievement and performance.  Compare these views to “more seasoned job seekers who, says Corrigan, are more concerned with the stability of the role”. 

Again, I’m completely in favor of this, as it should ensure not only a steady flow of new ideas but also that only the most competent people become prominent and then transmit their values throughout the rest of the organization.

Put bluntly:  “Millennials don’t take orders or instructions blindly,” says Flamberg. “They see a flat world where rank, status, and tenure don’t buy you credibility or authority. Anything that smacks too much of hierarchy and command thinking immediately turns them off.”

At first read this may strike you as a case of Millenials acting like spoiled children, but in terms of oil & gas operations, aren’t these actually great attributes?

The industry’s top priority is safety, and something the every new recruit hears is that if something looks out of place or “off” to them, they have the authority to “STOP THE JOB!”  What good is this message if these new recruits are too deferential and afraid to speak out because someone outranks them?

Furthermore, too much emphasis on “experience” and preventing progression on the arbitrary measure of time served can drive away the most motivated and competent people, leaving a senior management team made up of only those who were left behind (not necessarily the most capable).

On this point, one of my favorite business school professors likened a corporation’s senior leadership to the human body’s immune system.  In the best case scenario, that immune system is healthy, and it seeks out and destroys truly negative influences and ideas.  In the worst case, that immune system turns against the host (company) and “kills it” from the inside:  new ideas are suppressed in order to maintain the status quo, and rot and inefficiencies set in.

I’d argue that if the oil & gas industry really wants to pursue a goal of zero safety incidents, as well as avoid repeating another Macondo, this is absolutely THE WORST THING that could possibly happen.  We should constantly be entertaining new ideas and rewarding based solely on contributions and performance.  If that means that in twenty years I can’t rest on my laurels and must always be watching for the next hungry young upstart, then so be it.  In fact, bring them all on!  At the end of the day, yes, we’re all on the same team, but I believe the industry as a whole would nevertheless benefit from this type of dynamic environment.

This would also help mitigate the effects of the Great Crew Change.  To the extent that the big worry is losing the knowledge of a whole generation of professionals, we should be encouraging today’s Young Professionals to absorb and experience as much as possible (and reward and promote them accordingly), while there are still many very accomplished senior professionals to fall back on.  If the message the industry sends Young Professionals is “don’t worry about pushing yourselves, just keep showing up and one day you’ll get your turn”, we are failing to prepare for the Great Crew Change.

The Great Crew Change isn’t just about retaining knowledge, it’s about growing workforce numbers.  As an industry, we shouldn’t want only those already in the profession to be more knowledgeable.  Instead, we should also seek to bring in more of the best and brightest.  This group will surely have many options in other industries, and talented young people are sending the message loudly and clearly that generous compensation is not enough to retain them; do we want to “turn them off” immediately with our organizational structures?  Addressing these issues will directly aid in making sure that this current generation has not only the knowledge but also the adequate numbers to carry on making future strides for the oil & gas industry.

Don’t think Young Professionals can handle large amounts of responsibility?  Here’s a great example I found the other day in the Wall Street Journal of a Millenial doing great things, that of Tracy Britt who Warren Buffett has tapped as one of his possible successors at Berkshire Hathaway.  Still not convinced?  How about Clara Shih, who at around 30 years old took over Sheryl Sandberg’s spot on the board of Starbucks?  Did lack of “experience” hurt either of these two women’s performances professionally?

Warren Buffet and Starbucks don’t seem to think so.

If you want an example more pertinent to the energy industry, you could look to anyone on the Forbes “30 under 30” list.  In oil & gas specifically, you could consider Stephen Holditch.  He’s the outgoing head of Texas A&M’s petroleum engineering department, and I was fascinated to learn that he started his own consulting business in 1977, which would have been about a year removed from earning his PhD, at roughly the age of 29.  That initiative led him to further, quite remarkable achievements as you can gather from his professional biography!

The more general potential and capabilities of Millenials were brought up in this column in Time Magazine, describing how senior many of the United States’ politicians are today.  Given how dysfunctional our political processes are at the moment, and that nothing ever seems to get done, does anyone really think letting energetic, enthusiastic, go-getter men and women give it a go would be such a bad thing?  If this group can do great things in the public sector, why not also in oil & gas?

When I set out to define “Building Hydrocarbon Bonds”, I wanted to build ties between the different generations of oil & gas professionals.  While this piece may make it seem like I’m firing a shot across the bow, nothing could be further from the truth.  Actually, I’ve worked with several people who have years of true, valuable experience, and I regularly go to them for advice and insight.  One of these mentors’ careers spans decades, and has included significant amounts of time in the field.  If I ever have a question about how something should be done, I go to him.  He’s also a person of outstanding character, so I can trust that the answer I get will be the ethical one.

On the other side of that coin though are times when I’ve basically been told to sit down and be quiet because someone who had been around for decades didn’t want to hear from someone with no “experience”.  It is THIS type of relationship I’m speaking out against, and while part of me wants to hope that these types of interactions make up the minority of inter-generational oilfield dialogue, the other part of me still fears these exchanges happen more than they should.

I suspect other Young Professionals share my views, and also try to consider these issues from every angle.  In fact, the conflicting views I’m presenting were articulated well by a Young Professional I met at a Society of Petroleum Engineers training course a few weeks back.  We got onto the topic of freelancing as consultants, and his thoughts (which I’m paraphrasing) were good:

“Would I hire myself now?  No way:  if I’m paying someone a consulting fee, I want them to have seen as much as possible, and I’m not there yet.  But, I’ve met some people who have been at the same company for decades, and my experiences dealing with them make me wonder how they managed that kind of longevity”.

The same business school professor who came up with the immune system analogy also said many times that you can’t construct arguments based just on the data point of “me”.  This is a column I want to be challenged on:  do you agree with me that the industry places too much emphasis on seniority rather than giving otherwise capable people a chance to prove themselves?  Or, do you think that the current hierarchical divisions in oil & gas are well suited to, and appropriate for, the industry?

Please leave your thoughts and comments below!