What did you learn in school today?

What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?
I learned our government must be strong.
It’s always right and never wrong.
Our leaders are the finest men.
And we elect them again and again.
That’s what I learned in school today.
That’s what I learned in school.

-“What did you learn in school today?” by Tom Paxton

Does anyone remember a Malaysian Airlines plane that got shot down on 17th July, almost certainly by separatists in east Ukraine armed and supported by Russia? Unless you happened to be family of one of the 298 people who perished, I’d be surprised if it were more than a vague memory.

Considering the magnitude of the event, it is remarkable how quickly the world brushed it under the carpet and moved on, particularly the Dutch who lost the greatest number of citizens in the incident. But there are good reasons for this: it suited the interests of European and American politicians to do so.

For those who thought the shooting down of MH17 would prove to be a Lusitania event in the crisis in east Ukraine, proving beyond doubt the nature of the Russian government which the west is facing, it would have seemed unbelievable at the time that barely 6 weeks later Russian armour would be moving en masse into Ukraine whilst EU and American leaders repeat the same empty, lame, and downright pathetic bleating about “de-escalation” that has done nothing but embolden Putin thus far.

There are probably several historical analogies that can be drawn here, but I’ll refrain from doing so. What I will do is remark on how similar the behaviour of the western politicians is to the management in the modern oil and gas industry, and for the same reasons.

It is blatantly obvious in whose interests Obama, Merkel, Hollande, etc. are acting over this Ukraine crisis: their own. And I don’t mean their citizens, or their country, I mean their own personal interests. Any support they may receive from their citizens or corporations is purely coincidental, although in the case of Germany it is clear that Merkel’s interests have been identical to those of certain favoured German companies with large operations in Russia all along. She damned near admitted as much. Probably the only politician I have heard speaking on behalf of her electorate is Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė who has far more to lose than her counterparts further west:

“Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said Russia was “practically in a war against Europe”.

She said: “We need to support Ukraine, and send military materials to help Ukraine defend itself. Today Ukraine is fighting a war on behalf of all Europe.”

Contrast this with:

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the new sanctions would be imposed in Moscow did not change course, adding that there was no military solution to the conflict

French President Francois Hollande said: “Are we going to let the situation worsen, until it leads to war? Because that’s the risk today. There is no time to waste.”

The US applauded the EU’s move.

In hindsight, nobody should be surprised by this. The EU likes to portray itself as having guaranteed peace in Europe since 1945, perhaps believing Nato was a polo club and ignoring the small matter of the Balkan wars which raged on Europe’s edge for the best part of a decade complete with massacres, sieges, floods of refugees, and ethnic cleansing while they looked on impotently. The EU leaders give the impression of a unified body of nations standing shoulder to shoulder, upholding principles of freedom, democracy, and decency and offering protection to smaller nations who they take under their wing. With slick promises of economic integration and military cooperation, Europe’s eastern nations have been seduced into thinking they are joining a club where they are respected as equals.

In reality, the EU leaders are a bunch of shyster politicians who give a shit about one thing: their political position, and by extension the powers they wield and the personal fortune they amass. Like all politicians, they are a bunch of backstabbing, duplicitous, untrustworthy cunts who you wouldn’t trust to look after a wet breeze block, let alone guarantee the safety and security of a nation of people they don’t know and give less of a shit about. The Ukrainians have probably worked this out by now, only it’s too late. The Baltic States should also be waking up to reality and realising that they are on their own and always were. There were times when this fecklessness wouldn’t matter so much as the US could be relied upon to step in when required (as they eventually did in the Balkans), but the current occupant of the White House is so out of his depth and so wrapped up in preserving his image that he makes the EU leadership look Napoleonic by comparison. The collective language of this gaggle of incompetents over the Ukraine crisis screams “Oh why did this have to happen on my watch? Why won’t the problem just go away?”

To someone who has worked in the oil industry for a long time, this behaviour is not unusual to witness. Rather, it appears drearily familiar. It is a symptom of the high salaries that the oil business pays, coupled with basic human nature, that most managers in the industry act purely in their own interests. The idea that managers act in the interests of the shareholders, or a project, or a department, or even achieving the task at hand is not one that is supported by empirical observation. The primary motivations of an oil and gas manager are as follows:

1. Not looking bad in the eyes of his hierarchy.
2. Ensuring his position is secure, his annual appraisal good, and his bonus as high as possible.
3. Ensuring his next position is better than his current one in terms of status and salary.

People are elevated to managerial positions in the oil industry based on a variety of factors which include age, nationality, previous position, educational background, class, and relationship with the hierarchy. Note here the absence of competence and experience (I mean genuine experience, not occupying a desk with a fancy title).

Most managers want the status which comes with the title, and their egos make them fight tooth and nail to achieve it. But when they get there they find they are patently unsuited to the role in terms of technical skills, human skills, organisational skills, communication skills, or general competence. But having achieved the position, and enjoying the elevated status (think doe-eyed child admiring Daddy for being an important manager), pay, and (perceived) authority, they’re never going to let it go. And so finding themselves unable to do an actual manager’s job and get stuff done, their priorities shift to those I listed above.

The results aren’t pretty. For a start, a lot of them are terrified, knowing full well they are out of their depth and scared rigid of making a mistake or being found out. You can see them, forever stressed, working stupidly long hours on unnecessary, mundane tasks, trying to convince themselves and everyone around them that they belong there. They don’t know enought to determine who they can trust, and so attempt to micromanage everything.  And the work suffers, meaning the company suffers. Decisions don’t get made, because that carries the risk of making a mistake and looking bad in front of the hierarchy. Much better to just have endless meetings and discussions involving as many people as possible, so blame cannot be attached to any one person in the event of a fuckup. Any decisions which do get made are based on “what is best for me, right now” rather than what is best for the project or company, or what standards, procedures, policies, plans, or even common decency dictate. If you ever see a flagrant breach of standards or policy in an oil company, nine times out of ten it will be because a manager is doing what suits him personally, right then.

I have seen managers knowingly skip leak testing offshore in order to meet a schedule set by their hierarchy; I have seen an employee removed from his position in breach of company policy, ethics, and employment law because he “embarrassed” a senior manager; I have seen managers lie about returns on investment on projects in order to secure approval further up the chain of command; I have seen decisions on vital, pressing concerns deferred because senior managers want to make sure their successor is the one to deal with it; I have seen managers blindly repeating illegal, unethical, and dangerous instructions passed to them by their own management, and angrily waving away any concerns raised by those who are actually charged with implementing them; I have seen a conference room full of managers, livid with anger at what they were being asked to do, sit in meek and compliant silence for two hours rather than raise any objection to the hierarchy; I have seen managers refrain from reprimanding dangerously incompetent staff because they lack the personal courage to even have the conversation; I have seen managers cravenly say nothing when their staff are mistreated and humiliated by a contractor or partner company, because they haven’t got the guts to stand up for them.

If a manager’s course of action results in the advancement of a task or the furthering of the company’s interests, it is because it also happened to serve his own purpose, and for no other reason.  Far, far too many of these people should not be there. They lack the managerial courage to make the decisions they are paid to make and shoulder the responsibility they are paid to carry (and they are paid well), and instead resort to shitting on those below them, arse-licking those above them, and blaming those who cannot defend themselves (i.e. contractors) for their own shortcomings.

Like our current crop of politicians, they want the status, salary, and trappings of power that come with the position but don’t want to take the decisions and carry the responsibility that comes with it.  So they sit there, head in hands, thinking “Oh why did this have to happen on my watch? Why won’t the problem just go away?”

There are some exceptions, and there are some truly excellent managers in the industry, but – like Miss Grybauskaite – they are drowned out by the cowards and charlatans who shouldn’t even be there.

Our leaders are the finest men.

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One Response to What did you learn in school today?

  1. Mainman says:

    Too true. If anything, you have probably understated the problem, although it is certainly very well written. We all have our own stories of those oxygen thiefs that should buy a spine with their salary.