When John Blazenko hired Robert Dul in 2006 as a junior inspector for Agrium Inc., the young employee was green, barely out of technical school in Edmonton. But Mr. Dul quickly identified Mr. Blazenko, who initially was his supervisor, as the go-to guy for knowledge and the means to fast-track his path in the company.
Seven years later, Mr. Dul still looks to him as a role model. With 40 years on the job at Agrium, a Calgary-based producer of agricultural products and specialty fertilizers, Mr. Blazenko is recognized as a valued resource for the next generation of workers in his field. As Agrium's chief inspector for wholesale, Mr. Blazenko, 62, is responsible for Agrium's mechanical inspection program and for helping to improve mechanical reliability performance to world class standards.
"I've always said I'd like to download John's memory files," says Mr. Dul, 32, now a team leader working out of Agrium's Redwater plant in Alberta. "His knowledge and experience level are incredible. He's seen it all. I realized early that picking his brain could only help my career."
This knowledge transfer goes beyond what any training manual can provide. Having older, experienced workers train and mentor younger ones isn't new, but with so many baby boomers approaching retirement age, many companies are recognizing the importance of such formal and informal matchups. Together with other strategies aimed at keeping older workers around a little longer, such as phased-in retirement options, job sharing and even bringing retired employees back to work on a flexible basis, Agrium is making sure that skills are passed along.
Sometimes the most important lessons are the personal ones.
"The body of knowledge John has given me is very important, but I also learned how to be a professional from him," Mr. Dul says. "Such as how to carry myself, how to present myself to others on a professional level, how to handle different and stressful situations and remain composed."
Their relationship evolved informally as Mr. Dul was given leadership opportunities.
"When I was new to the job, I had a million questions and he had a million answers," Mr. Dul says. "Then it got to the point where instead of giving me the answer, he'd ask what I would do. He groomed me to think on my own. He'd give me subtle hints and direction, and then let me figure things out. That style suited me and I ran with it."
Smaller companies too are creating programs to leverage the knowledge and experience of senior staff approaching retirement. Deeley Harley-Davidson, the exclusive Canadian distributor for Harley-Davidson and Buell motorcycles and parts, is working on just such a plan.
The company's senior leaders "understand that their time is winding down. We're talking about leaving in 24 to 36 months, not imminent departures, so we have time to manage the transitions," says Mike Harwood, human resources director at Deeley, which has about 150 employees in Richmond, B.C., and Concord, Ont.
So how does a company decide who will be groomed, especially in a small company where there may be limited opportunities to move up?
"If you have this set of the anointed ones, then what about the un-anointed?" Mr. Harwood asks. "You run the risk of losing them. So we're not necessarily tapping them on the shoulder and saying, 'You're next in line.'
"I'd rather provide a general level of progressive, managerial development opportunities for the entire level. The cream is still going to rise to the top, and you can then provide by project assignment or a set of work experiences to help complete that rounding out."
It's also essential to allow enough time for the learning process.
"So many times, companies look at mentorship as a short-term thing," Mr. Dul says. "Most times, six months isn't enough for a total transfer of knowledge and experience. Companies should look at a longer time period so you build up individuals as part of your culture."
Mr. Blazenko advises those in training to learn by listening, watching and asking lots of questions.
"It's important that they not be afraid of making a mistake and to learn from their experience and then move forward," he said. "For the mentor, it's a case of being prepared and having the desire to pass on your experiences and knowledge to someone who wants to do something with it. It is also important that there be a relationship of respect for each other as you do spend a great deal of time together."