Top Ten Tips for Surviving, Thriving in the Downturn

by Karen Boman, Senior Editor

The current wave of layoffs in the oil and gas industry likely has many workers wondering what they can do to remain valued, indispensable employees at their current companies.

Jeff Moss, senior drilling consultant for new technology at Exxon Mobil Corp.’s upstream research company, offered tips for surviving the downturn to attendees at the Society of Petroleum Engineers’ Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition in Houston in late September.

The top ten tips came together over a meal of chicken wings and a lot of beer, during which Moss conducted an informal poll of esteemed veteran oil and gas workers over the survival lessons they have learned in the oil and gas up and down-cycles.

Here is their list of tips:

10. If you can’t be indispensable, be useful at least

If you can’t say how your work is impacting the employer’s bottom line, you need to think about what you’re doing next month, and you probably shouldn’t buy that new BMW.

9. Painless Tattoos

Moss’ kids have told him tattoos are in, but instead of a real tattoo, go with a painless tattoo with a valuable message, Moss said. His suggestion? “Safety, Integrity, Excellence”. No matter if the market is up or down, these are words an oil and gas worker should hold dear to their heart.

8. Exceed Expectations

In the oil and gas industry, workers are expected to exceed expectations, even as the bar is raised higher and higher. Workers just need to accept and get over this fact.

“There’s no participation trophy in the industry.” -Moss

7. When you fail, fail early and fail well

Oil and gas workers will fail if they’re doing their job – no ifs about it. Managing expectations are key. Early failures also are easy to manage because they have fewer sunk costs.

“It’s okay to fail if you can explain why you failed, and what you’re going to do to prevent failure in the future.” -Moss

6. Learn to thrive in uncertainty

“Adaptability is always in style.” -Moss

At ExxonMobil, optionality is a popular buzzword. “If you want to make the boss happy, give them viable options that have discrete, understandable steps.” Flexibility is required in the industry, both at the business and personal level. There is an upside to uncertainty, Moss noted.

5. Beware of ‘Them’

Knowing how to build bridges to “them” – or the people who say you can’t do something – is the quickest way to going from a wall to a table person. When you enter a conference room, there are two groups of people: people by the wall, and people at the table, said Moss. Building bridges to the people on the wall – and bringing them to the table – is a great way to bring people together and bring their thoughts, opinions and learnings into what you do.

4. Bring graphs to meetings

Philosophy is built on conjecture, but engineering is built on data. Everybody has an opinion, but if you have the graphs to prove it, you’re there. Whether you’re a newcomer or an industry veteran, data is king, said Moss.

“Know how to represent it and know how to communicate it.” -Moss

3. Quality first but quantity matters

The biggest issue that Moss sees is knowing when good enough is good enough. It’s about total performance – delivering what you say you will while being mindful of costs. For some wells – what industry veterans call “CNN wells”, or wells that get you on CNN if something goes wrong – companies have a responsibility to shareholders and the public to ensure that the well is engineered to the tiniest degree, said Moss. But other wells may not require that level of engineering. In the case of shale – or what was previously known as “crappy rocks”, managing cost is key.

2. Optics Count

While it’s important for workers to manage their careers, training and networks by attending conferences and other events, they also need to think about how it looks to senior management. “The bunker mentality of lay low and don’t go only works for so long,” said Moss. But workers need to manage how time out of the office to attend a conference in Las Vegas or Bali looks to their boss and their boss’ boss, and make sure they’re also in the office doing quality work in sufficient quantity.

“It may be perfectly reasonable, but think about how it appears.” -Moss

1. Work-life balance requires both work and life

Both are needed, but in a downturn, managing the balance can be more difficult. Nevertheless, oil and gas workers need to make sure they still have both.

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