Just a few weeks ago, I attended the funeral services of my dear friend, Jonathan E. Martin. At the time of his death, Johnny was Chairman of the Board for Martin Sustainable Resources L.L.C., the parent company of timber products company RoyOMartin. Following the memorial service and while driving back to Thibodaux from Alexandria, Louisiana, I mentally recounted the value of our nearly 20-year relationship, recalling the last note Johnny penned to me, signing it, “your friend, boss, and mentor.”
I truly valued Johnny’s friendship and generally considered the word “boss” as a term of endearment. However, as I reflected on the word “mentor,” it occurred to me that as I am growing nearer to the twilight of my working career, I am fast losing those individuals that have guided me throughout my professional life.
Looking back, I counted five individuals that had the most profound impact on me professionally. Of those five, three are now sitting around the heavenly boardroom table.
Interestingly, when I now reflect on their contributions (gifts) to me, they were perfectly metered into my life at the exact time of my needing. The first was Dr. Al Delahaye, professor of Journalism at Nicholls State University. Dr. Delahaye made me believe in myself with his abundant guidance, which I amply needed. He helped me appreciate the importance of words in communicating effectively, a gift that I rely upon every day. Dr. “D” is living in Thibodaux.
Next was Ernest J. Cappel. Ernie was the Industrial Relations Superintendent at Kaiser Aluminum in Chalmette, Louisiana. To a developing professional, Ernie helped set a solid foundation in my career development. His gift was attention to detail. In my Labor Relations role, all correspondence with union leaders was required to be letter-perfect. You never knew if your work would end up before an arbitrator or judge. Ernie passed away in early 2010.
Steve Kerns gave me the gift of exploration and freedom. I was in my young 30’s when I joined Copolymer, later DSM Copolymer, in Baton Rouge. Starting as Manager of Employee Benefits, Compensation, and EEO, and then as Director of Human Resources, Steve allowed me to generate ideas for new processes and practices. He provided me the freedom to fail. Wisdom is the product of time x experience. Experience often means failure + failure + failure, then learning from every “failed” effort. The last time I heard about Steve, he was living in New York.
From a leadership perspective, Jerry L. Thurston, then president of DSM Engineering Plastic Products – North America, Reading, Pennsylvania, was my most significant influence. He was the person who told me, “if you’re leading in one direction, and everyone else is moving in a different direction, you’re no longer leading.” He reinforced the lesson that you only lead when your followers permit you to. Jerry also worked to hone my commercial skills, assigning me sales leadership roles. As a more seasoned professional, Jerry kept pushing me to continue learning and growing. Jerry is now playing rounds of golf with St. Peter.
During my nearly 20-year tenure with Johnny Martin, I enjoyed my most significant professional accomplishments. A focus on preparation and execution was Johnny’s greatest influence on me. You had better not float a trial idea to Johnny without having considered all of the ramifications, because you may be walking out of his office implementing that previously conceptual thought. Johnny made me not only a better leader but a better person. It was through his pursuit of excellence that I grew. Johnny’s greatest gift was his vision – looking at what’s working today and asking, how can we make it better tomorrow? To Johnny, “moving the rock” and getting better every day was essential.
For the developing professional and future leader, I cannot overstate the importance of having a mentor(s) contributing to your career advancement. Each of the individuals I mentioned above profoundly influenced me to improve my performance capabilities. Now that I have retired from the private sector and am teaching leadership in the MBA program at Nicholls State University, I intend to pay forward the insights I have acquired over the past forty years. I want my students to have the benefit of my experience. Quoting Sir Isaac Newton, “If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”
My advice to you is to find a giant. •