I am lucky. I didn't know that until 1969. Infantry trained by the U.S. Army at a base known as Little Vietnam, I was sent to South Korea to serve as an administrative clerk, rather than to Vietnam as a grunt. I've been on a roll ever since.
I lucked out in my career when, on my third full-time job after journalism school, I hooked up with Ernie Zielasko, founder of this publication. People called him Mr. Zielasko—he had the kind of bearing—or Ernie if they knew him well. Like some, I addressed him mainly as EZ. I also call him my mentor.
Everyone can use a mentor. What concerns me is the trend in the business world to skip that phase of personnel development as an expensive luxury. It's the Digital Age, baby—Siri and Wikipedia can explain everything.
In business, I think not. In the rubber industry, definitely not, and I wonder if the field is heading toward trouble, if it already hasn't already arrived at that destination.
As a journalist, having EZ as a mentor is just what I needed. He was a tough, exacting boss who loved a good news story and the English language. He taught me to slow down, to make every word count. EZ gloried in tight writing, loathing the wordy babble perpetuated by MBAs and marketing people. The man embraced new technology, but I'm sure he wouldn't be tweeting about what he had for lunch or his opinion about some trivial, non-rubber industry event. He was a serious guy, covering a serious business.
EZ often said everything that left this office represented the publication. Which is why I'm sure he carefully edited his emails. So do I.
In the rubber industry, I've heard people say many times that when a veteran goes out the door, so does the human experience of 25-30 or more years. Experience that, typically, perpetuates some of the experience of a previous mentor, who learned from his personal rabbi, ad infinitum.
The digital world is awesome and ever-changing. But computers aren't sentient beings, and they can't explain how 2 + 2 equals 10 in the unusual world that is the rubber business. An industry veteran can.
Therein lies the problem for the rubber field.
These are the days when the Baby Boomers are entering retirement, often “encouraged” to do so in an effort to cut costs. Let's face it: Someone who has spent decades at a firm has a higher salary, benefits and, frankly, medical costs than a newbie.
This is nothing new in the business. I recall back during a recession in the 1980s, lots of senior people were offered buyouts, to the point some companies—DuPont comes to mind—had to rehire many as highly paid consultants. The Young Turks needed mentors.
Everyone can use a mentor. I'm lucky I had one. Then again, I've been lucky for a long time.
Noga is a contributing editor for RPN and its former editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.