Which Soft Skills Can Help Young Professionals Succeed in Megaprojects?
The chance to work in an industry megaproject is a rare opportunity. These projects are exciting, fast-paced, and dynamic. Besides solid technical skills, which other skills will young professionals (YPs) need to be successful in these projects? To find out, I interviewed six YPs currently working on Majnoon, one of Shell’s largest projects. The Majnoon oil field is estimated by the Iraqi government to hold 38 billion bbl of oil in both carbonate and clastic reservoirs. The field is managed through a joint venture between Shell (operator 45%), Missan Oil Company (25%), and Petronas (30%). Production is currently around 220,000 BOPD.
The YPs sharing their experiences are Salem Alzyadi, Mohammed Mustafa Kamal, Zahraa Mohammed, Mootasem Chtay, and Safa Alsaedi. Their experience level ranges approximately from 1 year to 9 years. Their specialties are primarily in production (operations, technology, and chemistry).
It is always important to be able to present your ideas and proposals in a professional manner. Megaprojects bring the additional challenge of multiple stakeholders with differing agendas from diverse cultures. You may not have met any of the attendees in other settings and your ideas may be threatening to them. The cultural differences mean they may act in unexpected ways, which may make you feel threatened or challenged. Presentations are a key communication tool for inquiry and learning from the audience. What can you do to prepare?
- Practice. About half of the group were members of Toastmasters and actively worked on speaking skills. They all practice their presentations with peers and supervisors before presenting to a larger group.
- Maintain your composure. In the face of what may feel like extreme challenge, do not let your self-confidence slip. Spend the time to know your material thoroughly.
- Provide pre-read. Sending a pre-read for challenging presentations a week before gives the audience a chance to absorb the ideas and respond with more thoughtful questions.
This attribute showed up in a number of ways throughout my conversation with the YPs. As a YP, it is important to develop your technical skills and also to show that you can apply them to improve the project. Being a technical “wallflower” who has skill but never dares to speak or demonstrate that skill will lead to an unsatisfactory career. What can you do to build your professional courage?
- Acquire the necessary work experience. Field experience is a must for most professionals, but especially so for those working with production. Culturally, it was initially challenging for the women engineers to spend time in the Majnoon camp. However that experience paid off tremendously for them and paved the way for others to follow.
- Use your network. Test your ideas with supervisors and other professionals. Build confidence in your theories before taking them to a controversial environment.
- Expose yourself as a learner. Develop a natural inquisitiveness. Connect with experts. Confident professionals are always learning.
- Be tenacious. Megaprojects may have long time schedules. Stakeholders can be misaligned or it may simply take time to get to your proposal. If you believe it is the right proposal, then stay the course. Understand the drivers of involved stakeholders and maintain your position.
- Be prepared to make mistakes. Learning comes in many forms—“hands-on” is by far the most impactful. Occasionally, errors can occur; be bold and learn from the mistake.
Megaprojects usually transcend borders and multiple time zones. The staff for Majnoon are located in Iraq, UAE, UK, The Netherlands, India, and the US. It is critical that the YP get comfortable using virtual communications over multiple time zones and different cultures. What can help?
- Practice. Many people prefer face-to-face dialogue but megaprojects are usually global in nature. Force yourself to engage with a wide network by phone and networking tools. Train yourself until it becomes second nature.
- Schedule and be inclusive across boundaries. This project used a number of cross-organizational meetings to connect diverse staff in UK, India, UAE, Iraq, Europe, and the US. The diversity requires a lot of work to prevent disconnects.
- Appreciate cultural differences. Different cultures may require different approaches. Learn when to switch to a different technique. Be sensitive.
- Language skills. All the YPs in this group were bilingual. Megaprojects will likely cross several national borders. Being able to speak to key stakeholders in their native language is critically important.
Of course, these skills are important to any professional. However, the criticality becomes magnified in megaprojects. Cultural differences are more pronounced, stakeholders are more complicated, deadlines are sharper, the stakes are higher, and the pace is faster. But the rewards are tremendous.
Ask. Industry experts identify the lack of clearly defined organizational structure and early planning as a key reason for failure of megaprojects. YPs should not allow the noncritical nature of entry-level positions to act as a reason to accept loosely defined responsibilities. They should step up and directly ask senior team members to clearly list expectations, provide the project leader timely reports on their progress, and actively ask for feedback to make course corrections.
Be Realistic. Consultants point out that megaprojects are unduly influenced by “over-optimism and over-complexity.” Past projects have shown that sometimes project managers, competing for funding, massage the data until they look affordable. Instead of being idealistic, YPs should engage in regular and rigorous “reality-check” exercises to ensure that things are on track. Any over-/under-estimations that become apparent should be communicated immediately to the supervisor.
Blast From the Past. While YPs may be at a disadvantage due to lack of experience, they can bridge the gap by actively internalizing lessons learned from previous megaprojects. In addition to data available within their company, we encourage YPs to take advantage of the excellent resources offered by SPE.
OnePetro.org has several papers related to megaprojects. A few of them are listed below:
—Contributed by Asif Zafar, Rita Okoroafor, and Islin Munisteri, TWA Soft Skills Section Editors
David Carpenter is the global discipline head for production technology and production chemistry for Royal Dutch Shell. He is responsible for technical standards, training, and capability development for the professionals in his discipline. Carpenter has 33 years of experience at Shell in a variety of positions and has worked in most upstream oil and gas environments, from heavy oil to high-pressure/high-temperature gas, and deepwater projects.