Lessons from being a dad for a start-up business leader

Being a dad is just like running a start-up business – you set the direction, nurture and adjust as required, and always have one eye on the future as well as today. Often the kids are more of a challenge than a business, but sometimes not. Father’s Day yesterday brought this clearer into perspective for me.

Father’s Day was inaugurated in the United States in 1910 by Sonora Smart Dodd to celebrate her father, the Civil War veteran William Jackson Smart, a single parent who raised six children. Sonora wanted to recognise her father, and to compliment the existing Mothers Day celebration. She original suggested June 5, her father’s birthday, but the celebration was deferred to the third Sunday of June, which is now fixed in our calendar.

It did not have much success initially. In the 1920s, Dodd stopped promoting the celebration because she was studying, and it faded, but in the 1930s Dodd started promoting the celebration again, raising awareness at a national level. She had the help of the Father’s Day Council, founded by the New York Associated Men’s Wear Retailers to consolidate the commercial promotion. Americans resisted, perceiving it as just an attempt by merchants to replicate the commercial success of Mother’s Day, but the trade groups did not give up, and today Father’s Day has become a second Christmas for the men’s gift-oriented industries.

I’ve been a father for more than 23 years, and have two children, James and Katie, now threatening to leave the domestic payroll but clinging on, and I have loved every messy, noisy, chaotic minute of it. But when it first came to my attention that there were these beautiful, cute, little people dependent upon me, I was deeply scared by the prospect of fatherhood, unsure if I’d do a good job, worried I’d fail and let them down.

I can tell you this: being a father is the scariest thing I’ve known in my life. All of a sudden, I was 29 and in charge of a fragile human life, so precious and dear but so flickering and vulnerable, and I was completely unprepared. It was the most terrifying experience ever. And it’s been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. More rewarding than running a triathlon (well, I imagine it is, I’ve never done one).

I now see a father not as a shaper of clay, but a herder of cats. A father isn’t molding a child into the perfect ideal of a human being he’d like him or her to be, rather he’s nurturing, guiding and loving, as they grow into whatever they already are. So for men who are becoming fathers, and women becoming mothers (because there’s not much difference other than anatomy), here are my thoughts on herding cats, and the parallels to growing a start-up business.  Just know that I’ve violated all of these fatherhood ideas repeatedly, and learned these lessons along the way.

Your first job is simply to be there and love them Of course, we need to keep them safe, fed and clothed, and anyone can do that with a bit of effort. What’s important is whether the child grows into an adult who is loved.  At the end of the day if you can say that you were there for your child, and she or he felt loved, then you’ve succeeded.

For your start-up business, it’s about the shaping, the caring, the loving too, guiding it through those embryonic moments as it takes its first steps. What you do in the early days of your business are important to give it the best start in life.

Your example is more important than your words We often tell our children to be considerate as we yell at him, and so he doesn’t learn to be considerate but to yell back.  My son James, then aged 12, once left me a note asking me to be more consistent.

Being a business leader is all about setting the example, your behaviour, attitude and conduct should be a role model for others to follow. Leading from the front and showing the way ahead is just like being a dad.

A hug is more powerful than punishment A hug accomplishes your main duty (to love), and is more powerful than any punishment. When a child behaves badly, this is a mistake, but what’s more important than judging and punishing is understanding. Empathy. Put yourself in their shoes. What would help you in that situation? Have compassion. Give a hug.

Hugs in business are good to celebrate success, but take an empathetic approach to your business, rather than punishment when things don’t work out.  Talk about the problem, get folks to understand why their behaviour wasn’t so great, it’s about learning rather than retribution, and empathy starts with your example.

Trust them As his dad, let him take risks and fail, and show him that it’s OK to fail. Don’t give him the neuroses of worrying constantly about safety, of making a mistake. He will fail, and your reaction to that failure is more important than the failure itself. You must show him that the failure is just a successful experiment, where you learned something valuable. If you trust him, he will learn to trust himself. He will grow up knowing that things can go badly but trust that all will turn out OK in the end. That’s a trust in life that’s incredibly valuable.

Creating an environment of trust to your start-up is invaluable, a culture where it’s acceptable to take risks, try new things out, see what works. Things will go in a different direction but support curiosity and don’t create a fear of failure.

Let them be who they’re going to be You aren’t in control of that. You might care deeply about something but she doesn’t. You might think what she cares about is trivial, but that’s who you are, not who she is. Let her express herself in her way. Let her figure out things for herself. Let her make choices, mistakes, take care of her own emotional needs, become self-sufficient as early as she can.

A start up needs leadership, it doesn’t need micro-managing, create the vision, values, purpose and strategy, let people get on with stuff within the framework you’ve set, don’t make it claustrophobic, give folks space to breath and grow.

Engage Take walks and have talks, gaze up at the stars with them and wonder about the moon. Listen to their music and dance with them. Ok, maybe not. Pack it in dad! Do puzzles together, bake cakes together, get into their blanket forts, pretend to be a Jedi, tell them stories you made up, sing badly together. I’m good at that.

Each moment you have with your child is a moment in time, and then they grow up and move away, and start to become their own person and figure out who they are and get hurt and need your shoulder to cry on, but then don’t need you anymore. In the end, fatherhood is being there until they don’t need you to be there, until they do again.

Engagement is business means ‘being there’, having an intimate relationship with people in your start up, which recognises them as individuals, not just workers.

From bloke to dad I found this transformation exciting and it seemed the next logical step in my life. I felt I’d done my share of pubs and larking around and was ready for something more. Of course becoming a dad helps the process of growing up because you are forced to acknowledge that in the eyes of this small being, you are in charge.

Responsibility for your people, taking a paternalistic perspective, is a vital element in securing the growth of your start up. Your decisions inside the organisation have a direct impact on their lives outside of the organisation, recognise and accept this.

Tired and testy In a universe far, far away, people sleep all night. I know this, because I was once of this tribe. Then I became a parent. Babies cry when they’re hungry, when they’re too hot, too cold, need changing or a cuddle. I recall pacing the bedroom at 4am with both kids in the early days as they howled the place down.

You spend the first two years helping them to walk and talk, then the next 16 years telling them to shut up and sit down. Like all aspects of parenthood the key is patience, unlimited patience. I’d be lying if I said I’ve never run out of patience or felt I couldn’t cope. The thing is, it takes a while to learn.

You need patience with your start up, there will be similar sleep deprivation experience and times you doubt your ability to cope. The thing is, it takes a while to learn here too.

Handle with care I held both James and Katie a lot in the early days. As a man, it’s easy to feel useless around a new born. I mean, it’s not like you’re built for breastfeeding. A more primitive instinct I’ve yet to experience and it made me feel more like a bloke than downing a pint in five seconds ever did. Cuddling is good. At first, though, you’ll feel like a clumsy, clueless ape-man, petrified of picking up your own child in case you drop them or pull a tiny arm off by accident.

With your start up business, you need to be gentle, hold it close to you, shape and nurture, give it a cuddle too, look after it and help it enter the world.

Have baby, will travel When James was first born, I was scared to leave the house with him on my own, I mean a pram was a difficult vehicle to navigate and it held such a precious cargo. Tackling a zebra crossing became an epic quest, a trip to the supermarket made Neil Armstrong’s jaunt to the moon look easy. And as for the park, well, Bear Grylls, eat your heart out.

However, you get used to it, and the first holiday to Whitby was great fun, even if he didn’t like the feel of cold wet seaweed on his feet, The only way to learn is to get out there and try.

With your start up business, it’s all about getting out there too, talking and pitching to potential customers, don’t be scared about the new journey, it’s all part of learning and finding out what works.

Offloading your offspring I’ve not always found it easy to leave the kids for an evening. The first time we left Katie with a babysitter was a disaster. We fretted about her throughout the first course, rowed through the second and were home before pudding.

Katie was happily asleep when we got in, but I woke her anyway just to make sure she hadn’t slipped into a coma. Like most new parents we raised imagining the unimaginable to an art form.

After a time, your start up is starting to walk and talk, and you have to let other people have a part of it, and trust them with it. You have to leave it on its own for a while to start to find its feet.

The sky’s the limit Of course, I’ve got a dad too, and I’ve often been minded by the saying ‘by the time a man realises that maybe his father was right, he usually has a son who thinks he’s wrong’. My father gave me the greatest gift anyone could give another person, he believed in me, and taught me that I could do anything and be anything I want to be.

We never know the love of a parent until we become parents ourselves. I get my ‘always go the extra mile’ sense of determination from my dad, if you’re going to do something, do it right. Then do more.

The attitude of ‘keep going, never stop’ and pushing yourself to reach beyond your expectations is needed for your start up. Believe in yourself and your potential, and make business as usual a stretch based on unreasonable demands on yourself to create something very special.

James is now 23, Katie is 19, and both are bright, funny and argumentative in a positive sense. These days the separation anxieties are all mine. I love it that I can now admire them for real rather than imagined achievements, congratulating them for the tuneless recorder solo never came easily to me.

I like it that in many ways my job as a father is done. They have a clear sense of right and wrong, an inner self-belief as to where they are going in the world, and an emotional confidence that I never had at that age. I also quite like it that they think they know more than me. Even though they don’t. I’m not old, I’m retro, and I am always fundamentally right, and they know this.

Being a ‘business dad’ in a start up business is a similar journey, with the emotionally highs and lows, hopes and dreams, self-doubts and pride. Like a family dad, the job is never really done, you’ll always be there.

Now my kids are able to see me as a person as well as a dad. They know my strengths and weaknesses almost as well as I know theirs. Then again there are still some weaknesses I try to keep hidden. Such as writing sentimental pieces like this. But, luckily, as no one in my family ever reads a word I write, that shouldn’t be a problem!