Career Development

Mentoring Is a Two-Way Street

John Donachie comments on the important aspects of mentoring.

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The topic of mentorship is important to both young and seasoned professionals. Knowledge transfer within our industry should have the highest priority, with the big crew change threatening the industry. John Donachie points out some of the important aspects of mentorship in this article. His practical perspective urges everybody to take control of the situation and find mentors to help in their careers. Donachie mentions the SPE e-Mentorship program, which will facilitate society wide professional guidance. Although mentorship is often seen as somebody older giving guidance to a younger colleague, the roles could just as well be reversed. Young professionals have skills (e.g., computer) that could be beneficial to seasoned professionals lacking those proficiencies. Mentorship is a source of constructive collaboration between people of all skills and ages and provides a positive contribution to our industry.—Léon Beugelsdijk, YEPP PerSPEctive Editor

No such thing as a stupid question?

Who has had a question in a meeting but didn’t ask because you thought you might come across as daft? I believe that the answer is everyone.


To test my belief, I used to include a totally irrelevant three-letter acronym, “TLA,” somewhere in the technical presentations I was giving to see who would ask me for a definition. No one ever asked, so I eventually stopped doing it.

The energy business has massive scope, encompassing all technical engineering disciplines. Our chosen sector also has all of the associated business and functional disciplines found in most global industries. As young professionals, we have to span this gulf of ignorance as we begin our careers while keeping an eye on our career development and progression within our chosen company.

We cannot be expected to immediately know everything about every aspect of this industry and also be expected to know how to handle the multitude of business and personal challenges that present themselves more frequently than we would like. As we begin on our career journey, there will be things that we simply do not know and will need to seek assistance to resolve. And so, we need guidance. I have always thought that the trick is to combine the need for guidance with the desire to seek and receive it when it is offered.

Simply put, this is mentoring.

I have seen mentoring in various forms in my career, having worked for a few companies ranging from the very small to the extremely large. I began my industry career in a small organization, and, at that time and given its size, it was difficult for the corporate structure to accommodate a formal mentoring program. It was up to me to seek my mentors where I could find them. As the corporate structure changed around me, because of our absorption into Schlumberger, I was exposed to an established mentoring structure, but the fundamental message remains the same: Mentoring is about two-way communication, and you must have the ability to face up to yourself and adapt when faced with good advice. If someone with experience is willing to invest time and effort in the attempt to assist your career development, you should always listen. You do not necessarily have to agree with their advice, but you should take advantage of the opportunity, discuss your perspective, and advance the discussion.

Throughout my career, I feel I have been fortunate to have had open and straightforward line managers. I have always felt that I could approach my supervisor with the “stupid question” or the “cry for help” and expect an honest response that has the corporation’s and my best interests at heart. In addition to this, I have always approached senior colleagues outside of my own functional reporting structure and asked for assistance in a mentoring capacity. This can be as simple as asking for a book recommendation or as detailed as asking how best to tackle a challenging technical or operational problem.

Whether you have a formal mentoring process in your company or not, do not expect any assistance in your career development unless you actively seek it. If you don’t have any mentors, then find some by inviting someone you respect to be your mentor. It is important to seek people with whom you can discuss your career from a personal and professional perspective without fear of repercussion. Expanding your network gives you the opportunity to meet peers and superiors outside your functional reporting structure who can assist you in your technical and professional development.

Remember that mentoring is not about getting someone to do your work for you. The best you can hope for is advice on how best to approach the problem from your mentor’s perspective. You should also be aware of any corporate confidentiality when discussing your needs outside your corporate structure.

SPE has many of the tools that can assist in developing a mentoring relationship with a colleague in the oil and gas business. This is developing further with a new initiative titled the e-Mentoring program. I would encourage young professionals with a desire to learn to inquire about this program within your local section.

Eight years down the line, having traveled to more than 30 countries, with exposure to many levels of complexity regarding technical, commercial, and political issues, I find I am now both a mentor and a “mentee.” I still require the assistance and guidance of my superiors as the challenges I face increase in scale and my responsibility expands, but at 31 years old, I am not so young that I don’t present myself as someone others can learn from if they wish to. Young professionals are the mentors for new recruits and students; we “bridge the gap” between naiveté and experience. We have the choice of keeping our cards close to our chest, revealing nothing and expecting nothing in return from others, or we can offer our perspective and advice to those younger than ourselves on how best to handle the big, bad corporate world we work in. We can help the “young ’uns” get some oil under their fingernails.

So is there such a thing as a stupid question? Or is that just a stupid question?

For those who didn’t get it, the three-letter acronym “TLA” expands into “Three Letter Acronym.” All you have to do is ask.

The American Management Assn. defines “mentoring” this way:

“A developmental, caring, sharing, and helping relationship where one person invests time, know-how, and effort in enhancing another person’s growth, knowledge, and skills, and responds to critical needs in the life of that person in ways that prepare the individual for greater productivity or achievement in the future.

.... A mentor is anyone who has a beneficial life or style-altering effect on another person, generally as a result of personal one-on-one contact; one who offers knowledge, insight, perspective, or wisdom that is helpful to another person in a relationship which goes beyond duty or obligation.”

John Donachie, 32, is a Senior Production Technologist with Helix-RDS. Donachie began his career with Schlumberger in 1997 as a design engineer and progressed with the company in roles specializing in completions, production optimization, and artificial lift, including work in business development and project management and travel to many oil-producing areas around the globe. A member of SPE since a university student, his SPE activity includes pioneering the Emerging Leaders Program in Aberdeen and chairing the “SPE Young Oil and Gas Professionals Workshop” in 2003 in Stresa, Italy, with TWA Editor Thomas Bruni. He is currently chairman of the Young Professional Online Network, Aberdeen Section Chairman Elect 2005–06, and a member of the global SPE Long Range Plan committee. He also contributes to various technical and professional journals, including TWA. He won the inaugural Scottish Offshore Achievement Rising Star Award in 2004 and the inaugural Offshore Engineer Leadership Development Award in 2004. Donachie earned a mechanical engineering degree from the U. of Aberdeen.