I just finished a story on the teen summer job market and one thing I kept hearing from business owners was that kids today just aren’t independent, and as a result don’t always make the best employees. One woman who owns a water ice shop in Dover, DE told me parents come in to ask if she has jobs for their kids instead of the kids coming in themselves. “That’s a bad sign,” she said, when it comes to how they’ll perform on the job.
Are we not hard enough on our kids? Do we do everything for them to the point of progeny paralysis?
In the last installment from my book, “From the Sandbox to the Corner Office,” I share one CEO’s experience with stern parents who toughened the executive up for life.
“He who has never learned to obey cannot be a good commander.” - Aristotle
Sit down with a leader and ask them about what has influenced them. More often than not, you’ll probably get an earful about their parents. The early years watching their mothers and fathers live their lives and experiencing their parenting skills, whether honed or not, is what in many ways made them the CEOs, presidents, and head honchos they are today. Often their leadership styles mirror those of their first leaders – mom and dad.
So what better way to start off this book than with the sandbox years. You know, the years we all look back on fondly, or not. The years when we were naïve, unaware of the real world around us. No thoughts about careers, status, or money. The only ladder we were thinking about climbing was the one connected to a rickety slide in our backyards. Somehow the men and women in this book eventually went from the path to the playground to an upwardly mobile path to leadership, and many believe it was their parent’s that guided them. Not by design, but in how they raised them, with stern discipline and unwavering, loving dedication.
One thing that has stood out for me after all these interviews is the majority of the executives I have talked to about their childhoods have had tough disciplinarians as parents. They didn’t, as so many parents do today, take crap from their kids. It may be a function of their age. The average age of the nation’s CEOs today is 56, which means many of their parents grew up during the depression and had no time to coddle children. In fact, many of these executives reluctantly admit their moms and dads were firm believers in corporeal punishment. A switch from a tree seemed to be a popular side arm. Time Warner’s CEO Richard Parsons surmised that a switch was preferred because it would sting but not do any permanent damage.
While many leaders say they feared their parents, they stress that it is was more a fear that garnered great respect; and for the majority of the chieftains interviewed there was never any doubt their mothers and fathers loved them intensely. One of the overwhelming themes among them was a home filled with unconditional love, a love that gave them confidence in themselves when they went on into the world on their own.
For many of the parents of these leaders, their lives were filled with sacrifice, working two or three jobs, setting aside their own ambitions and focusing on providing for their families. These sacrifices in many ways shaped their children who are still humbled by their parent’s choices and who, in part, set out for greatness in their careers as a way to honor their parents.
And sometimes it’s the lack of supportive parents that drives leaders, as the head of the United Way, Brian Gallagher, discusses in this chapter.
A surprising fact that I did not expect when I began the interviews, was that many of these leaders, male and female, tended to be most influenced by their fathers or another male family member. Having written a lot about the glass ceiling and why there aren’t more women in the upper echelon of corporate America, I couldn’t help but think that the women who did make it probably had a strong mother propping them up. However, while moms are also mentioned, it is the dads that come up most often when they talk about the lessons they learned and who inspired them to succeed and believe in themselves. IKEA’s president of North American operations Pernille Spiers-Lopez may have said it best: “Show me a happy, successful woman and behind her is a supportive dad.”
Fran Keeth, former President and CEO of Shell Chemical and Executive Vice President of Shell Chemicals global operations
You just didn’t lie to Fran Keeth’s father. Somehow, says Keeth, he would figure it out and when he did look out. He was a man that did not scream, yell, or get emotional but he did believe in corporal punishment – a switch from the family’s peach tree was his preferred choice of weapon.
While she admits it might sound odd, she says her dad spanked her, her sister, and her two brothers in “a loving way.” He would say, she recalls, “‘this is going to hurt me more than it does you. Do you understand why I am going to give you a spanking?’ And you better not say ‘no.’” There were rules in the Sexton house, and you had to follow them, especially the no fibbing rule. “You were better off telling him the truth no matter how horrible but it took me a while to figure that out.”
Like most kids, she had a great sense of self-preservation so she figured “if I could get away with it, I would lie. But I could never get away with it.”
When she was in first or second grade she lived with her family on a house on stilts and she used to crawl under that house to play. One day she took a doll she had gotten as a gift for Christmas that would cry when you squeezed it. Since she was always very curious, she decided to cut the doll’s head off and see what made it cry and found a tiny diaphragm in the neck of the doll that when air went through it would make a “wheezing” sounds. Hence, the crying.
So she has this diaphragm and a headless doll, and her dad asks her where she got the speaker. “I said, ‘I found it.’ When that didn’t work, I said, ‘somebody cut the head off my doll and when I found it I took the speaker out.’” That didn’t go over either, says Keeth, so, “I had to finally confess that I intentionally took that doll and cut the head off.”
She was spanked with a peach tree switch on the back of her legs and sent to her room.
But it wasn’t all about punishment at Keeth’s home growing up. Her father also gave her exposure to ideas by sharing his work with her at a very young age. “One of my first memories is of my father was bringing home schematics of the refinery he worked at and showing me the drawings, explaining them to me. I was probably eight or nine at the time,” she says. “The refinery was building a benzene unit at that time and dad would work on the design on the floor of our house. He talked me through it. The inflows and outflows, what temperatures were, what products come off at what level. He was so excited about it.”
That excitement infected Keeth, who has always looked at work as something fun, not drudgery, because of her father’s passion for no matter what job he did. Her father was not an engineer by education, but he worked his way up, coming back from WWII and getting a job as a truck driver at the refinery. “I would think driving a truck would be boring, but for dad he always left you with the feeling that it was fun and that he really enjoyed it.” He then worked in the maintenance department and went on to make the unprecedented jump to refinery manager. “He just loved his job. And he talked to me as if I knew what was going on. Maybe no one else cared and I was his only audience. But no matter what, that stuck in my mind.”