To say my dad and I had our differences is one hell of an understatement. We had some real knockdown drag-outs, over the years. Most of it stemmed from how brutally hard he pushed me to make something of myself.
When it came to making sure I didn’t end up with the kind of crappy life he’d had, the guy was as resolute as granite. He had absolutely no sense of humor about it. And that made him a tough man to love.
Don’t get me wrong. I certainly understood his motivation. I just didn’t like his methods. After all, I was as stubborn and willful as he was. I couldn’t stand having anyone tell me what to do. I guess the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
Anyway, we both mellowed with age and, on his deathbed, I told him the one thing I’d never thought to say before. How much I appreciated what he did for me. I told him that I owed all my success to him, what he taught me, and how he taught me.
Which is really funny because, until the words came out of my mouth, I didn’t even realize they were true. And the truth is that he didn’t just talk a good game. He wasn’t a “do as I say, not as I do” sort of guy. He really walked the talk.
If you had to give the lessons I learned from this guy a label, I guess it would fall under the heading of old-school work ethic. But in this case, as with so many things, labels don’t cut it. Too many critical nuances get lost.
Whatever it was, it kept me on the straight and narrow. It enabled me to make the best of what I was born with. And it helped me to achieve more and live a better life than I’d ever hoped or dreamed.
Now, here’s the thing. I’ve known hundreds, maybe thousands of business leaders and executives over the years. I swear they grow on trees here in Silicon Valley. And, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say most of us must have had the same dad. All I know is, if you want to make it in this world, the same basic lessons apply no matter who you are or what business you’re in.
Here are some of the lessons I learned from watching my dad, for all you up-and-comers out there.
Show up for work, ready to work, every day. When I broke my leg in high school, my dad was actually annoyed that he had to miss a day of work to take me to the hospital. I swear the guy never missed a day. So even after all the red-eye flights, parties, events, and late nights out with customers that are common in executive life, I always showed up ready to work the next morning. No matter how crappy I felt, I always did my job.
Meet your commitments. When the guy said he was going to do something, you could bet your life he’d get it done or die trying. I’m the same way. Whether it’s a commitment to a customer, my boss, an employee, or the board of directors, I get it done. Of all the characteristics that matter in the business world, that’s probably the most valuable.
Do the right thing. I don’t remember my dad ever using words like ethics or moral compass. I just knew that his sense of right and wrong was pretty rock solid. So, when a public company got caught up in the stock option backdating scandal that plagued the tech industry years ago, just one member of the executive management team walked away unscathed. Yes, that would be me.
Quit your whining. My dad had a crappy childhood, a worse job, and not the best marriage, either. I knew he was miserable but he rarely talked about it. I just knew. And, to be honest, this was the hardest thing for me to learn. What can I say; I was a born complainer. That said, when it comes to work, if things don’t go your way, go home, have a few drinks, learn from the experience and move on.
It isn’t about you. One of the most important things to understand about the business world is this: It’s never about you. Business is about business. Everyone has a boss and every company has customers and shareholders to serve. The only way to actually become a boss, an executive, a business leader, is to understand that your stakeholders come first. Business comes first. Not you. That’s why humility is such an important leadership trait.
Don’t take yourself too seriously. My dad worked for the post office in New York. Growing up, I was able to glean that the politics, backstabbing, and CYA mentality in a government bureaucracy was enormously stressful. The only way to handle it was to tough it out, have a thick skin and a sense of humor. Look, people sometimes act like idiots. It’s the human condition. Don’t take it personally.
Never give up, never surrender. My dad grew up with very little in a tough neighborhood. So did I, but I suspect he had it far worse. When it comes to life on the streets of an inner city, you can’t win every battle and defeat can be humiliating. It can really beat you down. But through it all, my dad never gave up and never surrendered. He went down fighting to the last. It’s no accident that so many great CEOs and leaders grew up with nothing but adversity.
I guess what I learned growing up, what I label as “work ethic,” is becoming less and less common in our culture. It’s slowly being replaced by political correctness and a sense of entitlement. That doesn’t bode well for the future of American business, American culture, or America, period. Sad to say but, in a way, it’s good that my dad didn’t live to see it.
Steve Tobak is a Silicon Valley-based strategy consultant and former senior executive of the technology industry.