Discover a Career

Maintain Objectivity To Push Through Transitions

If I had a time machine, would I travel back in time to change anything if I could do it again? Should I have taken that job offer as a public relations guy on a treasure-hunting dive boat in the Philippines? No, I do not think so. All experience makes us who we are, and some say they would not change a thing. On the other hand, if I have to change one thing I would have striven harder to learn the languages of the countries in which I have previously worked and would recommend the same to anyone with similar opportunities. I also recommend pursuing variety in one’s career. Change brings opportunities and challenges. Only through change, is progress possible.

When I was growing up in northern Canada, we were offered career advice in high school to learn a trade and work as a welder, truck driver, or get a job on the rigs. I did not feel these career options suited me as I was thinking in terms of further education and I have always enjoyed traveling. Hence, weighing both of these, I decided to pursue a university degree abroad. Since then, I completed my university studies, joined the oil and gas industry, and have enjoyed a diverse career overseas.

Throughout my career transitions, maintaining objectivity has been the most recurring challenge I have dealt with. Through experience, I have learned an important rule when it comes to expatriate life (which applies equally to other career transitions): Never make career-altering decisions in the first 6–12 months after moving to a new country or taking up a new role. It is human psychology to feel excited and motivated about any new location or job immediately after arrival. However, after about 6 months a period of negativity (or reality) sets in and one begins to see only the downside of a new position or new location. My experience suggests that the period of negativity does pass, and when it does, the experience can be truly objective—bringing the positive and useful aspects of past experience to bear while learning and experiencing the best that a new role has to offer.

Over my career, I have gained a lot through changes in my role, career path, or location. Changes in setting can often provoke one to become more open, a better listener, and more patient. I have learned the importance of clear communication and that “communication” involves explaining, listening, and confirming that both parties truly understand both directions. I have observed that there is always more than one way of solving a problem, and the “right” answer is not always the best answer. Water does sometimes flow uphill, and the highly sophisticated and high-cost development solution is not always the only solution. To illustrate this example, I have provided pictorial evidence of individuals in rural China carrying natural gas in large compressible bags (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1—A Chinese woman carrying a bag filled with natural gas on her back in Shandong Province, China.

Years ago in Southeast Asia, I was supervising the construction of an exploration drilling access road. We had upgraded the road to handle heavy rig traffic and elevated it above the expected flood level to ensure all-weather access. We had installed a few drainage pipes under the road. The drainage design was based on local survey information and the engineering assumption that any floodwater would flow from high to low ground. However, in reality, this area was located between two large and distant rivers. Heavy rainfall miles away in the watershed of one of the rivers brought huge amounts of floodwater downstream. Floodwater levels built up on the low ground, forcing flow in the opposite direction against the normal flow. Water built up and flooded all the land on one side of the road while restricting flow to the land on the other side. Our company was invited to the road site to discuss the problem and, upon arrival, our cars were blocked and surrounded by angry farmers. It was clear to me that we were not going to leave without a solution being agreed upon.

My approach to landowner-related issues was always to seek practical solutions rather than financial compensation, as I have learned that money does not solve all problems. Thus, instead of paying in terms of compensation, we brought in excavators and cut a large opening across the road allowing the water to flow through. We quickly fabricated a simple motorcycle bridge maintaining access for the villagers. Fortunately, the drilling rig had not moved onto location at that time, and we were later able to put in a proper bridge before rig traffic started using the road. As far as I know, the bridge is still  there.

When Water Flows Uphill

We are living in interesting times in this industry. Looking back, each oil price crash has been associated with an interesting and ultimately positive career change for me. In 1986, while occupying a comfortable role at Shell, I was pretty much unaware of the impending fall in oil price. However, the price fall coincided with my relocation from a civil engineering position in Brunei to a mechanical engineering role in Dutch sour gas operations. I was fortunate to maintain employment while gaining new engineering and language skills, ultimately gaining professional engineering status with the Institute of Mechanical Engineers. The next oil price fluctuation during 1998–1999 led me to leave Shell and join Independent Project Analysis, a project benchmarking consultancy, which was a rapid “broadening” career move exposing me to many other companies’ way of doing business. Subsequently, the dramatic fall in 2008–2009 coincided with my move from a small new venture startup to join a mid-sized Southeast Asian exploration and production company as country manager in Indonesia.

Today, the current price fall is driving a healthy increase in my work at Gaffney, Cline & Associates consultancy business and generating a lot of fascinating and challenging advisory work. This work includes providing advice to governments, lenders, and borrowers, buyers and sellers, as well as operators and partners. An impartial assessment of project risks and upsides is valued now more than ever.

I would argue that the same opportunities are present for young professionals in industry today. Fig. 2 shows the trend of Brent crude oil price since 1971. I am amazed at how comparatively modest the oil price falls of the past appear in comparison with those of 2009 and 2015. But if you look in more detail, the falls of 1986, 1998, 2009, and 2015 have all been (proportionally speaking) about the same—price fell to roughly half the precollapse high. It is just that at USD 120/bbl it looks a lot worse than at USD 20/bbl.

Fig. 2—Brent crude oil price trend from 1971.

Young professionals have some great options in this industry whether it is with an operator, or a service provider such as consultancy. Working for an operator, be it supermajor, national oil company, or independent, is about organizing and motivating teams and resources to accomplish a larger objective within agreed upon resources, time, and budget while identifying and managing the risks associated with that activity. One learns to specialize and become good at a particular role as there are opportunities to work on different projects for your skill sets.  The focus is on cost and time, because revenue oil price is largely an external factor outside of day-to-day control. The budgets can be huge, and the consequences are dire if developments go wrong.

In a consultancy business, the product is the consultancy’s brand and reputation. That product is delivered through the sale of a study, a report, or productive man-hours incurred. An intense focus is given to personal efficiency and high-quality deliverables. Clients expect and value the external perspective consultants bring. The work is varied, with tight time scales and budgets, but supports some of the most exciting projects and developments in the industry. There are less zeros in the budgets, but most consultants enjoy having influence over decisions. Although usually not in a direct decision-making role, consultant participation as decision advisers poses responsibilities to the client that must always be kept in view.

I leave the reader with my three pieces of career advice regarding the management of professional transitions.

  1. Be objective and positive. Try to see the good practice and the learning points. Ask yourself why they do things differently here. There is an upside or a learning in most every situation.
  2. Maintain and value your network and your reputation.
  3. Keep good relations both arriving and leaving. Do NOT slam the door on the way out. The oil industry is a very small world.

Andrew Duncan is a principal adviser, facilities engineer with Gaffney, Cline & Associates (GCA) based in Singapore.  Duncan is experienced in acquisitions and divestments in new business development roles for various operators and with GCA, and has technical background in facilities and project engineering. He has held senior leadership roles in Southeast Asia, with significant work experience in Indonesia. He is a member of the Association of International Petroleum Negotiators, Southeast Asia Petroleum Exploration Society, and a chartered member of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers.  He holds a BSc in civil engineering from University of Bristol.


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