Rigs rethink site leadership

By Cindy Soderstrom


The oil patch has its rough edges.  Grease, dirt, and mud all play significant roles in the workday.  Rig equipment is heavy and built for tough operations.    

The oil patch also has a reputation for rough-edged personnel.  A certain constitution is needed to be successful at rig work.  As one 20-year veteran captured it, “the work is something mere mortals wouldn’t do.”

But there’s one rough edge the patch is working at smoothing out: management style.

Back in the day, senior crew members held firm to the belief that yelling, coupled with some measure of belittlement, effectively produced a tough hand.  Senior people across industry have stories about ‘old school’ job training.  The language and treatment was rough.   The style blended with all the other rough-edges that were part of the job.

The patch is working at breaking from that history.

The rig manager is more commonly known in the field as the ‘toolpush’ or the ‘push’.   The informal job title has been around for generations.  For anyone who ever wondered where the term comes from, the ‘tool’ a rig manager ‘pushes’ is the drill bit.

The rig manager oversees a range of details at the rig site, but most importantly, his ability to coordinate the skill of individual crewmembers is what gets a drill bit churning away downhole.

It’s a significant amount of shorthand to go from ‘rig manager’ to ‘toolpush’.  The term ‘toolpush’, beloved though it is by the field, glosses over the critical responsibility of the position: the management work of running a rig.

Drilling and service rig contractors, like companies from many industries, are now striving to get a better handle on how frontline supervisors develop management skills.

Companies move an experienced field employee into a supervisory position because the employee demonstrated solid technical skill.  However, successful frontline supervisors need to pair technical skill with management skill.

Frontline supervisors need to recognize and develop key players.  They need to motivate their team and to communicate clearly with the employer about their team’s ability.  Frontline supervisors draw on several skills that are unrelated to their technical skill.

More often than ever before, today’s rig managers understand this, and companies are stepping forward with needed discussion and resources.  For example, when rig contractors bring together senior field staff each spring for an annual update on company practices and policies, these meetings have a broader agenda than in years past.  A decade ago, it would have been unusual to see a discussion about leadership or coaching on ‘spring meeting’ agendas, but today, companies recognize the importance of these qualities in field supervisors.

Cindy Hames is director of Global Field Resources for Ensign Energy Services and has been attending the Ensign spring meetings to discuss the company’s talent management objectives.

“Some people are inherently trainers.  They’ve always developed their crews and always done really well at it.  These supervisors have leadership traits that are just as important as their technical capability.  Spring meetings are a chance for us to step back and encourage further development of our current and future leaders, emphasizing the balance between technical and behavioural skills.”

Rigs inherently have rough edges, but rough-edged management doesn’t make a safe or efficient crew.   It’s not the rig manager’s job to make a crew tough.  A rig manager guides a crew in a tough job.  The concept is a full turn-around from several generations of accepted industry practice.

As more rig managers hone their leadership skills, industry has a role in applauding their decision to break from the stereotype.  Events like the Canadian Association of Oilwell Drilling Contractors (CAODC) safety awards are opportunities for the rig industry to commend their best frontline supervisors on a job well done.  This year, drilling and service rig contractors nominated 2,380 drillers and rig managers for a CAODC safety award.

These industry leaders are setting a supervisory model that encourages a safer team environment for the future.


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