Dorina Diaconu and Elena Nistor, the transfer of knowledge and the art of mentoring
Those 40 years that have elapsed since the start up of the first plant in Petromidia Refinery, means much more than a successful economic and industrial activity. Ii also involves a tradition which ranks as art nowadays - the transfer of knowledge between employees or, if you like it more, the English knowledge transfer – which is translated here by the fact that nothing from the refiners’ experience is lost, but instead is further transmitted from one generation to another. Dorina Diaconu and Elena Nistor are, perhaps, the closest example to perfection of what this transfer actually means. This is their story:
If we thought from a logical perspective, this tradition, of learning a – let’s say – job, from the mentor, has been lost over time, in the history of humanity. Let’s remember, if you want, only two famous examples from ancient times: that Plato and Xenophon were Socrates’ followers and that Hippocrates studied medicine from his father Heraclites and from Asclepius of Kos, and in his turn, had numerous brilliant followers, among whom his sons Thessalus and Draco, but also his son-in-law Polybus.
Tradition changed into art
Why such knowledge is also transferred nowadays? Because, despite all modern facilities, it is not and it cannot be everything written in books, namely in hard copy or in soft copy books, which are more and more numerous. Because it is not enough to learn from thick covers handbooks or to look for computer programs and schemes, in order to find out how things actually work in practice or to be able to anticipate or achieve certain goals in your work.
Perhaps the closest example to perfection as regards the efficiency of such an educational model may be found nowadays in Petromidia Refinery. Here, the knowledge transfer is not only a random thing or a tradition kept by default, but it is changed into a serious and functional program, being ranked as art. Its first and most important result is the simple fact that the refinery operates flawlessly, and even more and more efficient and attains every year some records which have never been forecast. That’s what happened several times in the last decade. Because maybe a few people would have thought, 40 years ago, that Petromidia would be the largest Romanian refinery and among the best-performing refineries in Europe.
Preconceptions and the reality within the refinery
And, because now when we talk about refiners we automatically think of men, today we intend to overcome this preconception, at the same time demonstrating the efficiency of the knowledge transfer. The example chosen by us is a feminine couple of mentor-follower, represented by Dorina Diaconu – head of the Thermo-Hydro Unit, the Utility Department and Elena „Rozi" Nistor – dispatcher within Production and Utility Department, who shall replace the former when she retires.
The work performed in the refinery is not at all easy and involves not only assuming the responsibility for your own work and safety, but also for people around you. Because in the refinery, somebody’s work and even life depends on the manner in which you perform your work. Therefore, the job is hard, which perhaps might make you think that you enter a sort of exclusivist club reserved only for men. Then, there is another preconception that we shall overcome with manifest feminine satisfaction: that men would be more skilled at the technical jobs. Well, that is not exactly the case.
Despite all these myths that make you think that refiners are men by excellence, hundreds of women work within Petromidia, some of them holding management positions. Women who work side-by-side with men every day, and we could even notice proudly that they outperform men at certain works..
When I shook these two women’s hand, at the beginning of the interview, I knew that both of them had held management positions for years, at different levels. I was expecting to see in front of me, probably falling to the other extreme, two women with briefcases, wearing sad business suits of corporate women and with cold eyes of career women.
Women outperforming in the men’s world
Dorina Diaconu and Elena Nistor, who is called by her co-workers with a manifest affection “Rozi", are far away from this. They could probably wear impersonal suits or carry briefcases, but they will never behave as distant and impersonal career women, my intuition tells me.
Although dressed in the flame retardant and protective antistatic overalls and wearing the standard boots that almost all Petromidia employees wear, and even with the protective helmets under their arm, Dorina and Elena manage somehow to be perfectly feminine. At a glance, in the few seconds after they entered, we shook hand and they sat at the table relaxed, I examined them from head to toe. They have delicate hands and gestures, hair done in a classical manner, even if in different styles, but which fit like a glove. They have soft skin like the skin of women having a single habit of care, rigorously practiced in the morning and in the evening. They also wear minimal jewellery, probably each of them having a special personal significance. Therefore, far from any image with briefcases or oily spots and monkey wrenches that might cross your mind when you think to oil and installations. However, I’m telling you now, this does not mean that the women present here would avoid or hesitate to get their hands dirty, if appropriate, but only that they have found that elegant manner to do their work without showing it.
We sat at the table as if we had a women’s chat. Those two interlocutors, affined by a beautiful friendship relationship beyond the mentor - follower relationship, did not seem to feel uncomfortable because of the presence of a journalist with a tape recorder, ready to ask them questions.
Why? Most likely because they are good at their job and because they have managed to come into prominence and outperform in a world which is dominated, at least theoretically, by men. And they still have something else. An enviable self-assurance and confidence in their own powers, obviously, completed by their work experience.
Life in the refinery and how it has improved
The first thing that Dorina Diaconu tells me is that the refinery represented a group of families from the very beginning. Each section represented one, and overall, these families are merged together in a tight clan. ‘We were many employees at the beginning, around six thousand, but we were really tight, stuck together. We used to go on holidays together, to go to parties, we knew what was going on in each other’s life”, she says. And she immediately emphasizes that now, in this side of their life, some things have changed – partly because of the social networking sites that she deems useless – but the basic idea remained. “We still behave as if we were a family”, the mentor points out.
“I finished high school in 1979 and the thought I had had in mind when I was admitted to the Faculty of Petro-Carbo-Chem, which was a section established in the second year, was to come to Petromidia". But why did she choose this specialization?
“Because everyone’s intent was to return home after finishing studies, and that was the only possibility at that time here, in Constanţa - Năvodari region. Since big cities were blocked for any other job, that of teacher, of physician. I had no other possibility, especially that in the year when I had graduated from university, no negations had been easily given to assignments, as before", Dorina Diaconu relates.
She was hired within Petromidia directly from the Faculty graduated in Bucharest, in 1985, and, at a certain time, she thought to follow her husband in another region of the country. But it's just not what was meant to happen.
“I intended to leave Petromidia at a given time. My husband graduated the faculty a year after me and took assignment to Rovinari, as he was specialized in operating surface machinery. I had found a job close to Târgu Jiu, to a concrete laboratory. And I was in the audience including at the then minister of Oil to this end. In the waiting room of his cabinet, there was a placard containing a large print text:
“Instead of producing less charcoal for the country, it’s better for a family to be separated”. I will never forget this. I thought to myself that this could not be true, to find such a message in the waiting room at the secretary’s office. But that was the policy of that time, and I did not receive such negation", Dorina Diaconu relates.
When the superior learns from his subordinates
Even if she was a graduate of the specialized faculty and was hired as engineer, she states that she had learned the real job from the people within the refinery. She had learned at length from some of them, over time, and others helped her to make it through when the situation was beyond me.
“I was a head of the treatment plant, this is a plant somehow located outside the works, but at a given time after the Revolution, some activity reorganization was made here. I left from that plant, I worked in the turbo unit and almost overnight I was appointed head of nitrogen, compressed air, distribution, utilities, thermal water units. And during the first week of my work of “leadership”, my former co-worker Nae, may he rest in peace, had gone on holiday. And we had to perform manoeuvres. Perform manoeuvres, Dorina, if you know how! I knew that it was something very, very important, which had to be done perfectly, since the operation of so many plants depended on this manoeuvre, because we were interconnected in the Refinery. And then, I left my proud attitude behind the door, I took a networking worker and I told him “make me understand what you have to do”. He explained to me what his job was and how he had to do everything, and then I was capable of writing the respective manoeuvre and transmit it to the other co-workers to understand and perform it. I remember that I called Nae at home, I told him everything and I asked him: “Nae, is it correct?". “It’s correct!", he answered me. Yes, there are cases when we do such things. There are the teams below us, which know so many things, and thus, they know how to transfer them, they even transfer them. Well, they make fun of you a little if you are younger, but they show you what you have to do", Dorina Diaconu says smiling.
Why knowledge should be transferred
However, as I said, the knowledge transfer here is made somehow differently: it’s more than a tradition, it’s almost an obligation. Why does this transfer take place? Because the operation of the refinery depends on the people operating it, at each level.
“No one is to be replaced, but there is a more difficult moment, before the employee who holds a position understands what his or her job is. When we come to a new workplace, until we get used with the work environment, we feel like an alien, as if you came from another planet. Each word seems new to us, we don’t know what it refers to, and people have expectations from us, just because if we obtained that position, it means that we have some knowledge, and is very difficult to struggle with ourselves and a the same time, with others", the mentor explains. “Perhaps many months will elapse until an employee learns what his or her tasks are. It’s easier in this way, the transition is smooth and does not affect in any manner the others’ activity", she continues.
Actually, the secret is hidden in here. Within the Refinery, plants are nonstop operating and are connected among themselves. If one of them shut down, several plants would shut down in a chain because of it. Therefore, logically, if it is about a position or about a simple job, they must be permanently occupied with people who know what to do so that such an interruption is avoided. People who know their co-workers very well, their superiors and subordinates, as in Petromidia all positions are important. So, how to proceed to always have such type of employees in each position? Simply: you bet on the knowledge transfer!
How the knowledge transfer is actually made
You establish a team composed of two employees: the employee who is going to retire or to be advanced in a higher position becomes the mentor for the employee who shall replace him or her in the current position. This is exactly the ancient model, however stylized and refined – as we discuss about people working with “black gold” - until it becomes true art.
The mentor and the follower stay together every day at the workplace, and the student learns at leisure almost everything the mentor knows. Depending on the “significance” of the position, the transfer is made in a slower pace, over time, or faster. If the position is higher, the transfer means a larger volume of information, so that the mentor-follower team is established one or two years before. In terms of strategy, it is probably the simplest and the most efficient manner in which we may ensure that for every job, we always have employees who know exactly what their tasks are. Because we already have the mentor and the follower hired in the refinery.
Choosing the successor
How did Dorina Diaconu choose the successor of the position? Is it mandatory to be replaced by a woman?
“No, the choice is made differently. First, we adopt the idea of “who wants to be in your place”. Obviously, the respective person should also have the necessary theoretical knowledge to replace you. Instead, that person must want the respective position and no, it’s not mandatory to be a woman because I am a woman. That’s the way it was, only women are working at the production dispatch. Rozi (Elena Nistor, n.r.) was one of the employees who wanted to advance, to accept new challenges. This program of knowledge transfer is very well structured, by stages, by categories, over time. Actually, we work together for a period and we effectively teach everything we know, with all problems identified to the respective plant, with its complete history, somehow. Revision, timesheets, staff, projects, if you have them, certainly, you delver them. It is about many information and it is impossible not to omit something, and this is the reason for which your follower has to work next to you for one - two years, so that he has time to learn", Dorina Diaconu explains.
Each employee may be follower and at the same time, mentor
This is the time when the follower manages to surprise me with a piece of information. “It’s not the first time when I take over knowledge as such. Everything works gradually. Generally, this happens for each advancement and, actually, each person comes to accumulate and cumulate the knowledge of the generations prior to him or her", Elena Nistor points out.
Actually, we could say that Rozi has broad experience in this knowledge transfer, from both positions. After a short break, during which she seems to thumb through a photo album in her mind, she tells me:
“I started from zero, from the first level. And now I am going to be appointed head of section. On second thought, Dorina is the fifth mentor that I have. Mr. Stănică, the girls working at the dispatch beforehand, and now Dorina. And before being transferred as the “shadow” of Dorina, I also had one person whom I had trained to take over my old position", Elena Nistor points out.
When you are the amount of all generations before you
I immediately think of what this means, purely in mathematical terms. Rozi is, directly, face to face, the total outcome of five mentors, and this means that at the time she holds Dorina’s position, she will also have, besides her own knowledge – that of the faculty and the knowledge resulting from the personal experiences at the workplace - and the experience stored by her predecessors.
But if you think that each of her mentors has experienced exactly the same program? That perhaps each of them had, in turn, other two, three, four or even more mentors? Obviously, the amount increases exponentially, and the volume of information refined over time by so many minds, sounds more and more like a huge data base. One to the bearer, so to speak.
“It’s normal to happen like this. The work in the Refinery is different from any other job. To be able to coordinate a section, you have to know what your tasks are. By this program, Dorina transfers her knowledge to me, so that when she retires, things will go on, and exactly in the same manner, starting with the second day", the follower simply explains.
I realize that between Dorina Diaconu and Elena Nistor this relation of superior-subordinate is not visible anymore. So I ask them: how do you realize when this huge knowledge transfer has been made? When Rozi will be ready to take over the Dorina’s position? It’s simple", they tell me, with one voice. “When the balance tips to the other side".
The balance, naturally tipped in reverse
“At the beginning, this knowledge transfer is one direction. The follower learns from the mentor. Gradually it comes to be a bidirectional exchange of knowledge, and things will settle down at a certain time. It’s a tradition, as you say, which has been changed into a program, by stages and stylized, in which you realize, it’s visible when the balance tipped to the other side, when the important knowledge transfer has been completed. This is not something forced it happens naturally", Elena Nistor explains.
“After a while, things slowly reverse. There are many things about which I ask Rozi now how to solve them. This is the role of the mentorship, that at a certain time, the direction to which the balance tips, should be changed. And it’s normal to happen like this. We don’t like it as time goes by. At a certain time, we must take a step back and make room for the people coming from behind. It’s the natural order of things. And don’t tell me that at the end of the career you have the same enthusiasm as you had on your first day of work. It’s the ideal manner in which things happen, in which the shift is changed", Dorina Diaconu adds with a large smile.
The natural and elegant end
The mentor says to me that at the end of the year he or she will retire from service and, I think again that refiners seem to have found somehow he Fountain of Youth. As for the end, I have it on the tip of my tongue to ask her whether she will miss the work in the refinery. But Rozi stops me, probably feeling that I could pick at that. “Certainly, I will call them also after I retire, when I have doubts, to ensure that they do their best", she tells me with a large smile.
“It’s second nature for us, refiners, to stay close to each other", Dorina concludes.
When the interview finishes, “because they have tasks to perform in the section", I follows them several seconds with my ear and eyes. They talk at leisure, with their bright faces, and discuss about technical things, related to their work. They move away relaxed, but they do not walk slowly, but firmly. No matter what they say to each other in this image burned into my mind, but the fact that they have the same pace. They walk shoulder to shoulder, not one in front of the other. They look at each other and treat each other between equals. And this is, finally, the essence of the knowledge transfer.