Eight years ago, I was a wee lad, barely 23, fresh off my year of serving the nation in the foothills of Sango; with the mellifluous, if unintelligible, sounds of the music that consistently wafted upwards from the traders that surrounded my very modest lodgings at Maraba still ringing in my ears. I was none the wiser of the ways of the world at the time – like the good son of my Mother that I still was, in addition to being the pitifully shy, introspective bloke, I still greeted older males and females as ‘Sir’ and’Ma’ – a predisposition which perhaps made me fall prey to the shenanigans of a couple of police men on my first day at work.
That first job was the dream; and each day I was in it, I went in with great gusto happy to contribute my quota and more. Sadly, in retrospect, I suspect I could have done a lot better than I did out of it. I left it a month shy of my fifth year anniversary; missing out on the plaque, the car loan, and the furniture grant I would have gotten. The years since then have made me more pragmatic (some would say more cynical), but if I had the chance to do it differently, I suspect I would change quite a few things. So here goes, in no order of importance.
- Esoteric specialities count for nothing: My fascination with metallurgy and rust was born during my six month internship at one of the moribund steel mills in Nigeria. Four of those months were spent under the wing of a bloke who learned his trade from the Russian steel makers of his day. His enthusiasm infected me, and when the chance for selecting a specialty on my first job came, I opted to go down the rust route. In addition to the seeds sown by said old boss, the lure of eventually becoming a specialist in an obscure discipline was a big draw. In retrospect it wasn’t a good move. Aside of the satisfaction – and that dubious at best – of speaking a technical language no one else on the ALT spoke, the dividends were few and far between. And when it was appraisal time the high fliers were the drilling lads who delivered barrels of crude oil in the hundreds; the critical pitting temperature of 22Cr duplex counted for nothing.
- Irrespective of whatever HR spiel you’re fed about the ‘Corporate Culture’, the social context of work is almost always more important: The HR suits – the word around town was that quite a few of them were Harvard MBAs – never missed an opportunity to remind us of how we were working for a truly global company with tons of development opportunities open to us. What they failed to add was that the Corporate Culture of objective assessments, rewarding high performing employees and attracting and retaining top talents was superimposed on the Nigerian culture of deferring to people in authority and tribal cabals. By the time yours truly realised he was the minority in a minority state, it was probably much too late to rescue my career.
- Nine times out of ten how you say what you say is more important than what you actually say: It may have been because we were new hires, fresh out of college with the most important metric of success being our ability to learn, but time and time again, the one dude who consistently put his foot in his mouth, resumed work at 9am when the rest of us had been in since 8.30 or earlier but never shirked the chance to speak up was the one who got the plaudits early on. It wasn’t so much that he was crap, and spewed crap and rubbed everyone the wrong way, it was that when first year appraisals were done, he was somehow ranked highest of us all, and got a cushy transfer to Houston for a three year stint. There might have been the influence of a few high up relatives, but I can only chalk his meteoric rise down to him being willing to put himself out there in the eye of others. A particular case in point stands out. The choke on a high sand producing well had failed for the umpteenth time and we were sitting in on a 5 whys sessions. The said dude promptly declared loudly that the failure had occurred due to brittle fracture. Every metallurgist worth their high school diploma knows that brittle fracture occurs when a metal loses ductility when it’s cooled below its ductile-brittle transition temperature, not when it is clearly eroded by high flow velocity fluids with entrained solids!
- Alignment is 9/10th of the law, the other 1/10th is visibility: I learned late – I was already mentally out of the door at the time – that every manager has a pet project, the one (or more) deliverable he is betting his two year stint on. The first boss’s one was staffing and growing the group – hence the slew of new hires including yours truly that he brought in over an 18 month period. The next one’s though was controls – ensuring that every task we did – routine or not – had an appropriately documented procedure which had been peer reviewed and was stored in a retrievable format. The next one from the group who got the cushy assignment to the relatively heady heights of a file totting Lagos office was the one lad who submitted the most inane of near-miss reports and effectively acted as his Ops Manager’s PA.
- In male dominated work environments, delectable females wield a lot of (understated) power: Our Technical Administrator was a delectable Efik woman who could not have been a lot much older than us, but she sure made sure we felt her presence, even though she was only a contractor. She ran everything from organising our monthly tea and biscuits, stationery, and passing documents to the big boss for signing off. Inevitably in her time, she also ran her eyes over a few documents requiring high level clearance. A quick chat a few weeks ago revealed a telling fact, the big boss had asked for her opinion of quite a number of us as part of his canvassing the opinion of ‘knowledgeable others’.
- The first essential of taking over a new role is rubbishing the work the ones who came before did: Time and time again, the time honoured tradition espoused by people who took over roles that had been done passably by others was to bad mouth the previous regime. Sadly!
- The mirthless grin is an art form that must be conquered: The mirthless grin, a quick expansion of the lips to form a grin, barely discernible but there quickly became the de facto greeting – quick enough to show recognition, but devoid of any real emotion.
- Though shalt have a vice, as long as it is a shared one: Mid way through my last year on the job, I realised that there were both tribal and activity based cabals. One Monday or the other we would come across clusters of people sharing stories of their latest exploits in painting the town red. Unsurprisingly, these people seemed to earn moves to the same places at the same time. Us lads with no discernible vices never got a look in.