How strong is your company’s tribal knowledge bench? If one colleague were removed, could you continue to operate? If you just thought, “Yeah, if it’s the new kid or one of the helpers, we could manage,” it’s time to drill deep into your team. In drilling, where 80% of all development knowledge comes from field experience, creating a succession plan for all team members is crucial. The plan starts with identifying which employees could step up to a role bigger than just a helper.

I know a great drilling company that recently learned a hard lesson about succession. I received a phone call days into the New Year from a northern drilling company. The call started with the traditional chat. How were your holidays? However, I could sense our conversation was rushed, and my friend needed help.

I halted the chitchat and asked, “How can I help?”

“Brock, I am in serious trouble. I lost my best driller over the weekend in a snowmobile accident where he broke his leg,” he told me.

I knew this driller. He often texted me questions about drilling projects and issues. Not having this skilled driller on the platform for most of the first quarter will hurt the company. I asked about the second driller, knowing that he typically operated the older Failing on less complicated jobs. My friend explained that the number two had no desire to step up and run the new 2018 top-head. Beyond that, number two didn’t want the responsibility of drilling the large-diameter agriculture wells that rig often drilled.

Our employees want to know that progression is not only possible, but also encouraged. Instead, many driller origin stories start with, “Well, Frank broke his leg, and I stepped up to run the rig.”

Next, I asked about the assistant drillers that worked on both rigs, and he immediately said, “We don’t have assistant drillers; we have drillers and helpers.” My friend was in trouble. He asked me to refer him to any drillers I knew who could run a 50- or 60-thousand pounds pullback top-head rig. Sadly, I didn’t have the right candidate in mind. Since we are such a small community, it would be inappropriate to refer a good driller happily working at another company. As equipment payments come due, frost laws are weeks away, and customers want their wells, my friend’s company is experiencing a bad start to 2021.

We all recognize the difficulty of replacing any team member in our highly specialized industry. Why choose to compound that difficulty by a lack of a succession plan? Our employees want to know that progression is not only possible, but also encouraged. Instead, many driller origin stories start with, “Well, Frank broke his leg, and I stepped up to run the rig.” The industry accepts the standard sink-or-swim training program. Owners must invest in helpers to change that standard. Pushing employees to grow beyond shoveling the pit creates future drillers. Finally, to all the helpers, the choice to become a driller is up to you; it is time to step up and grow into the professional you want to be in the industry.

Identify Requirements for Becoming a Driller

The difference between a driller’s helper and an assistant driller comes down to state of mind. Start the shift from one to the other by identifying requirements to become a driller for your company or region. Ask questions about all the steps of a project from start to finish. Learn the fundamentals of hole construction. Learn the design of the specific equipment used by your company and how to use those features to achieve success. Ask for upcoming project locations and scopes of work, then practice creating plans for those projects. Compare your plans to the leadership’s programs. Create project checklists that help you build better strategies. Work toward understanding project constraints and how a team overcomes them. Find time to stand on the platform and understand the controls. Continue to question and learn from the lead driller’s decision-making process. Start a drilling journal of all that you have learned and experienced. Documentation will help you become a reliable driller in the future.

Repetition and Consistency

Becoming a reliable driller is 100% about consistent results, be it creating a water well, installing piles or core recovery. I cannot stress enough the importance of consistency. Many new drillers step up on the platform for the first time and want to challenge all processes — even ones that worked on past projects. In drilling, there will be plenty of situations to challenge the norm and work to overcome the problem. Understanding the importance of repeated good choices and consistent execution will help you to continue to grow — moving from an assistant driller to a driller. Good field knowledge earned today helps a lead driller execute effectively tomorrow.

Student of Drilling

driller's helper
Assistants often become drillers due to a mishap or a lead driller suddenly leaving the company.

Now that you have identified requirements and focused on learning what it takes to produce consistent results, you are becoming a student of drilling. As a student, you will start thinking critically about all aspects of the job. By taking the initiative to look at local logs, you will begin to understand when the bit encounters a reactive clay layer or the production zone, even though you are not at the controls. By understanding the scope of work, you will aid in successful project outcomes. Every opportunity you have to help progress the job beyond being a laborer will allow the lead driller more time to help you become a driller. Being a student of drilling and taking on responsibility for project success will progress you faster into becoming a competent driller.

Becoming a Driller

Becoming a competent driller does not start the day you step up on the platform. It started the day you change your mindset from helper to student. When the opportunity to drill presents itself, you will readily step up on the platform and execute. In the blink of an eye, you will be dozens of wells past that first day, and then comes the time to shift from student to teacher. Of course, our industry often fails to embrace that giving-back ideology but you, as the driller, can determine how you want to move forward. My advice to you from day one on the platform is to check your ego. Be the driller that everyone fights to work with. Be the driller who sees the assistant’s initiative in training and finds time to step back and allow them to operate the rig. Share lessons learned and lead a team of students through safe and successful project completions. When you realize that everyone on site is invested in project completion, you will never fail.

Succession Planning to Vision

Let’s circle back to succession planning and my friend’s dilemma. The past 11 months have taught the world about the uncertainty of tomorrow. But, drilling company owners cannot leave their companies’ futures to fate. We can determine our futures through the people we hire, and our investment in their futures increases our company’s legacy.

Succession planning starts with accessing all of your teams. Employees we promote into leadership roles must be capable of training and leading those who report to them. I think the drilling industry’s culture of “they can learn it the hard way on their own, just like I did” has cost us to lose a generation of drillers. Our drillers promoted to supervisors must understand succession and nurture young talent. Next, we give helpers and assistants a path toward developing into students of drilling, giving them a taste of both the privilege and accountability of standing on the platform. Then we need teachers. The drilling industry must hold experienced drillers and supervisors equally responsible for developing the future leadership. A plan is good for one generation; a vision shared by the entire company transcends multiple generations, continuing your legacy through the growth of great women and men.

Have a Question for Brock?

Drill trainer Brock Yordy takes questions in his ongoing video series Ask Brock. Find episodes at Have a question? Send an email to