What I learned from my father about being a great organizational leader

Well, it’s not Monday. And this isn’t exactly a column about why your company may need an outsourced Chief Marketing Officer. But it being Father’s Day, I wanted to make this week’s post about my dad. Because not only did I learn a lot about life from my father, I also learned how to be a great leader. Turns out he and I are a lot alike after all these years, and it’s his lessons and wisdom that I continue to turn to when I have questions about life, parenting and business.

A little background. My father’s been in the printing industry for over 45 years (sorry Dad, but the numbers don’t lie). He started as a salesperson at the long-defunct G.W. King in Baltimore, and worked his way up into a leadership role at the long-defunct Wolk Press by his late 20’s. He went on to help run several printing companies, essentially as COO, before a final wave of consolidations put him essentially back where he started in sales when he was in his early 60s. Not the way he’d ever planned on ending his career.

It was then that life took the turn that it typically does – he was presented with an opportunity to be the Executive Director of the Print & Graphics Association of the Mid-Atlantic (PGAMA). It was there that he was able to take everything he’d learned as a leader, as a salesperson and as a person and turn it into the job it seems he was always meant to have. He took a typical trade organization and injected new energy and life, by relying on the relationships he’d spent 40 years building. He’s injected new sponsorship opportunities, grown membership and motivated a staff to new heights. At nearly 70 years old, he’s as excited and energetic about this job as I’ve ever seen him, and frankly I can’t imagine him ever wanting to leave it. It’s the perfect final act to a Hall-of-Fame career.

So, what have I learned from Jay, and how does it apply to what I do for a living? Three things (I could go on, but I learned early-on that people tend to think in three’s. Plus, it’s Father’s Day, so you probably have other plans.):

  1. Sales isn’t about being a great salesperson. It’s about building great relationships. Good relationships aren’t transactional – they are mutually beneficial. If someone buys from you once, and has a poor experience, even the best salesperson isn’t going to be able to convert again. There’s a reason my clients have been with me for multiple years my entire career – and continue to call me when new challenges arise. I learned from my dad that relationships matter, and putting the time into building strong ones pays off for all parties.
  2. You don’t always have to win to do what’s best for an organization. Compromise is the key in life. I watch many organizations where as the funnel gets tight at the top, both leadership and staff compete with each other to get ahead. Sometimes that means doing what’s best for you at the expense of someone else. Well, my father taught me that sometimes you win by letting someone else win. That motivating a team to push in a singular direction for success means making everyone feel like a winner and working hard as a leader to pull everyone up with you. When I work with an organization now, it’s never about me being the hero. My focus has to stay on enabling the team – coaching, teaching, motivating – to reach new heights. And by bringing an outside perspective to everything I do, I’m work hard to keep the focus on us versus on me.
  3. Make your decision about what you are willing to do, and then do it. Life is full of tough choices. And, it’s easy to spend a lot of time deliberating, debating and wondering before making a decision to move forward. When you’re inside an organization, sometimes a lot of that is stalling for time – hoping for a MacGuffin to fall out of the sky and provide the easy solution for you. It would be nice if things really worked that way, but rarely is it the case. Throughout my father’s career, I watched him make choices and decisions and take action – even when those actions may have been detrimental to his own success, but were the best things for the company. These are lessons I’ve tried to apply both in life and in work. As an outside resource, I know my engagements are for a limited time. Stalling won’t get me anywhere, and usually it ends up souring a relationship as clients wonder what they are getting for what they are paying. I try my hardest to come in, help organizations make strong decisions, and move forward in a direction that makes the most sense based on what we know. And trust that they’ll call me again when the time is right (see point #1 for details).

So thanks Dad. Not just for being a great father (and grandfather to my kids), but also a great mentor, leader and example for me professionally. And, a wonderful reason to write a blog post.

Happy Father’s Day everyone!