In a 1999 newspaper column, published just before Father's Day, I wrote about fathers and their business acumen. Now I certainly don't want to slight mothers. There are lots of moms in business and many are good sources of business help. But, these days, fathers seem to take quite a beating when it comes to image and could use a little extra praise. TV dads like Al Bundy, Fred Flintstone and Homer Simpson give folks the impression that all fathers are idiots. And other media coverage on dads seems to focus on the negative - "Ten Worst Dads" or "Deadbeat Dads."
Dads operate well in the world of business. It comes to them naturally because they were probably immersed in it by their own fathers. In many households, the simple question asked at the dinner table, "How was your day at work?" provokes analysis and discussion which is far more relevant to real life than the stuff in Forbes or on the 'Nightly Business Report'. And children get front row seats.
Dad and me
Ocean City, N.J. - July, 1946
Dads understand the workings of commerce, the politics of the office and the shortcuts to getting things done.
Fathers are often portrayed as tyrants in family businesses, playing one child against another in the style of Jock Ewing on 'Dallas'. Most fathers who operate family businesses are, in my experience, pretty good at facilitating transition to the next generation. They know when to speak up and when to step aside and let children make their own decisions. Even dads who aren't owners or managers can provide good insight into life at work. And good advice, too.
My own dad wasn't some grey-flannel-suited business guru. He worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad as a freight conductor. But, like most fathers, he understood the workings of business. As a teenager, I was given lots of advice by my dad but I didn't pay much attention. Possessing the arrogance of youth, I thought I knew everything and figured that I was far more savvy than my dad. (As I grew older, I was amazed to find that my dad had gotten a lot smarter!)
When I was about 16, he told me, "I don't care where you work or what kind of work you do, just pick a career you enjoy. If you've got to spend one-third of your life at work, it better be something you love to do. And, if you ever find that you don't like it anymore, go do something else." He said it casually and probably wouldn't have even remembered saying it but it made a profound impression on me.
My dad's words have influenced my career choices and changes throughout my working life. When I told my parents that I was resigning from my mid-level corporate job and moving my wife and kids across the country to run my own business, my mom was worried. "But you're giving up all that security." My dad was very supportive and told her, "This sounds like a good thing and he needs to take the risk and do it. Otherwise, he'll always regret not taking the chance."
So, the next time you see your dad, sit down with him and solicit his opinion and advice about your most pressing business problem. You may be surprised at the answers he can provide. If you're a father, be available to your children, set time aside to spend with them and be prepared to offer the wisdom of your school-of-hard-knocks experience.
The last time my dad saw my business, I owned a struggling little four-employee company. He died shortly thereafter. He didn't live to see my company grow and prosper but, because of his advice over the years, he had helped plant the seeds of its success.
I wish he were here today. If he was, I'd still be asking for his advice.
Addendum: My dad also served his country as a U.S. Navy radar operator during World War II. His supply ship, LSM 448, was commissioned in January 1945. While he didn't talk much about his wartime experiences, I know that he traveled to Guam, the Philippines and to Japan. Just after the atomic bomb was dropped, his ship delivered a company of Marines who were part of the occupying forces. He had a map of Nagasaki, showing the areas to avoid - too radioactive.
LSM 448 usually carried supplies, tanks, half tracks, fuel and other supplies to wherever they were needed.
One of his shipmates told me of a typhoon the LSM 448 experienced "at Okinawa in October 1945. It was the most violent and destructive storms of the century. When the storm approached the island, we were ordered to put to sea to ride out the storm. The wind was blowing about 200 mph and the rain was so heavy you could not see anything in front or to the side." The LSM came very close to sinking. My dad got out of the Navy around May 1946 and, like most vets, quietly returned to normal civilian life.
When I was only four years old, my dad built a spectacular Lionel model train layout for me to enjoy at Christmas.