I have been writing this article for almost a month; bits and pieces at a time. I wanted to finish it before December 26th, on what would have been my father’s 84th birthday. Joel Bussell was the most important mentor in my life. I have had many people who have influenced me during my journey into middle management. Supervisors, department managers, coworkers, and even direct supports have helped guide me through numerous challenges. However, my father was the first and most significant mentor of my entire life. An engineer, and later an attorney, he was not ever a C-suite executive or a world-renowned leader. To those he taught in his classes or hired and developed in his 40-year manufacturing career, and 15 years as an educator, he was an invaluable mentor.
As I look back on my life, I can visualize many of the times my father advised me. It was his idea for me to spend my summer mornings as 14-year-old, selling donuts door to door in office buildings. He was the one to introduce me to the world of engineering at manufacturing trade shows and college open houses before I was a teenager. As a struggling undergraduate, desperately clawing my way to transfer into engineering school, it was my father that would talk me down from a frenzy while in the library at 11pm, cramming for a test that I again had fallen behind on with the material.
When I was looking for summer internships, it was my father’s contacts that populated the form letters that I sent out with my modest resume. Six weeks after I started my first job out of college at a Detroit area steel mill, I was concerned that I had made a terrible mistake. My internships with the automotive industry were a million miles away from the rough, blue-collar, crass environment of heavy industry. Although I have never been incarcerated, daily life at the mill was as close as I could surmise what it would be like to work in a prison. The hundreds of steelmakers and supervisors would speak to me and each other with complete disregard to formality, coupled with the bizarre and obscene subject matters they frequently jested about. My father explained that they were probably just messing with me to gauge my level of naivete, but to be safe, I should avoid taking showers at work until I knew for sure. I worked in the steel industry for another 24 years without incident, it was all talk, but what a vocabulary I learned.
Years before my professional career was even a consideration, my father began teaching me the broad strokes of entrepreneurialism, perseverance, delegation of responsibility, and networking. Any new situation was an opportunity for him to each me and my siblings something we would use throughout our lives. As a child, it was delivered as extra work that was rarely embraced. As I grew up, I learned to appreciate his advice more often than not. Sometimes he would chide my brother, sister, and I that he “. . . had to get re-elected every day. . .” A reference that he felt we often neglected his sage advice until he proved himself. It became more of a mantra, another of my father’s stock one-liners. Surprisingly, we typically did listen to his advice and counsel.
During the “Blizzard of 1978” my father purchased a snowblower. Up until then, my Dad along with my brother and I used to clear the driveway with shovels. I was not strong enough to shovel a driveway by myself, but my brother and I would shovel the neighbor’s driveways together for a $10 payday. The new snowblower made that backbreaking task much easier and quicker. When we used the snowblower to clear a neighbor’s driveway, Dad said we owed him $2 for gas an equipment usage charge for each $10 job. Some people would think that was petty, but he was teaching us about how to operate a business. Labor costs are not the only expenses to keep in mind. He taught us that fuel, equipment upkeep, etc. are all part of the cost equation.
When I was 14, and too young to get hired for a part-time job, my father suggested that I spend my summer mornings selling donuts door to door in office buildings. It was such as successful idea, that I only had to work 1-2 hours each weekday morning. Meanwhile, I learned how to negotiate a discount with the donut store, how to manage inventory, and the importance of basic customer service. I worked that gig for two summers and by the time I was done each morning, I walked around with a pocketful of cash and buy money for the next day. Meanwhile, my friends were just waking up from their lazy slumber with half of their summer day gone.
As a young 28-year-old general foreman at a steel mill, supervising 45 maintenance trade mechanics with an average age of 46, I was way over my head. My dad explained to me that if the company you work for has been unionized, that along the way, management failed to treat the workforce fairly, and the union was there for a reason. He advised me to treat those who reported to me with respect and compassion while still maintaining a high level of expectations. He taught me to convince coworkers and supports to become personally invested. I still have friendships, 25 years later from that same group of now retired steelmakers. The only reason I earned their respect back then was by following my father’s advice.
When I was entering the 6th grade, we moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana where my father had taken a position as a plant manager. Within his first month, he had to lay off ¼ of the workforce due to the recession at the time. I remember us driving to a park in Columbia City where the plant was having a hog-roast. He explained to me just before we parked the car that he had to lay off about 100 of the event attendees. I was aghast. I asked him if they were going to be mad at us. He replied that they were probably going to be mad at him, but hard decisions needed be made. He elaborated to his 11-yeae old son how everyone deserves to be treated with respect, and dignity, even with bad news.
Years later, I found myself unable to locate mentors that could take me to the next level. I could not find them, because unbeknownst to me I had assumed that role for others. Seemingly overnight I found that I had become the person that younger coworkers and new hires came to informally for advice and career guidance. I later volunteered for different mentoring roles through the Engineering Society of Detroit and various onboarding programs with the companies that I have worked during the past 15 years. Dad enjoyed hearing about my experiences. He didn’t feel compelled to editorialize or give unsolicited advice. Instead, he enjoyed seeing me grow into the role that he always wanted for me. The role that he always wanted for himself.
After my father retired, he would ask me to tell him stories about work and other organizational activities I was involved with. Steel Mills are full of colorful people and stories. Even though they sound far-fetched and outlandish, there is an abundance of lessons that emanate from the brute force environment that builds America. My father was proud of my involvement and eager to hear how I handled different personnel and technical challenges.
One of my father’s bucket list items, years before The Bucket List movie with Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson premiered, was to teach. He taught business law and critical thinking at the University of Phoenix for almost 15 years. After he shared his experiences teaching with me, I was inspired to teach night courses, which I enjoyed for several years. Teaching gave him an outlet to connect with others, and to network with an entire new group of people. Networking was always important to him as he considered it the gateway to connection with others.
After my father’s retirement he began attending a weekly writing workshop. The sessions would revolve around writing one’s own story. He looked at the workshop as an opportunity to document his life, his family’s life, and the many experiences he and others enjoyed. It was his swan song of connection with people. Throughout his frequent health challenges, he realized that time was short, and opportunities to connect could not pass through without being utilized.
He wrote dozens of vignettes about his life, family, and experiences. His writing was his way to share his life with this children and grandchildren. His father and grandfather led more private lives, and only shared small glimpses of their lives with my father and the rest of us. As with many things, my father took a much different approach with his children and grandchildren than his father and grandfather had with him and his sisters. His stories were his way of forging a connection with those that were the most important to him.
As he grew older, he began having cognitive challenges with his memory and vocabulary. This was more difficult for him to bear than the ending of his career as an engineer, and later as a college educator. The opportunity to connect was the dearest thing to him, and as it fell away, he was saddened. In his last months, he asked me many more questions than I asked. Most of the time, I served to fill in certain details, or names that were escaping him. I could sense his frustration while he searched desperately for the small details of a memory that were eluding him. As time went on, the memories became a smaller, tightening circle, that revolved around a select few subjects.
Towards the end of his life, there wasn’t anything that needed to be said. In the week before he lost his speech, he was frustrated about something someone had asked him that he couldn’t recall. I assured him that it wasn’t important, and that he had told me, and everyone that mattered, everything that was needed. There was nothing left unsaid between us. My father had already shared with me everything I needed, and thankfully, all he had to give. The greatest lesson was that I needed to continue to do the same with others. He meant for me to keep learning, mentoring, teaching, and sharing. He meant for me to take pride in the contact and connection that we can make as middle managers. To him, middle management wasn’t anything to be ashamed of, or to regret. Rather it was something to be treasured.
|Joel Groden Bussell|
December 26, 1936 - November 7, 2020