How many of you have been admonished for this by a family member? I certainly have, but it my case, I consider it a compliment.
My dad was a larger-than-life, gregarious man with a booming voice, twinkle in his eye and warm personality to match his big bear hugs. A chemist and Navy aerologist by training, he was a manufacturer’s representative by profession working in the rubber and plastics industries (think The Graduate, only without Anne Bancroft).
Like his father, my dad was self-made – what we now call an entrepreneur – and he worked hard to build on the successes of his father and make a good living and life for his family.
Here are some of the things he taught me:
- Work hard and do your best, always.
- Maintain personal integrity and earn trust.
- Communicate honestly and with candor.
- Listen and respond thoughtfully, don’t simply react.
- Think through a problem and work to a solution.
- Take time to be quiet, to disengage to re-engage.
- Prioritize family and ensure a fulfilling life outside of work.
I have, at times, forgotten some of these lessons, namely, how to turn off from work and focus on other things, like hobbies. My dad was a gifted woodworker and he detoxed by descending into the cool quiet of our basement to make furniture and carve birds. I’ve had to learn how critical that kind of down time is to re-centering myself.
Because he ran his own business and was his own boss for most of his career, my dad’s perspective towards his customers was always as an invested but objective outsider. In addition to his keen technical abilities, he honed his skills of observation, analysis and strategy to understand the challenges they faced and present them with considered solutions. He didn’t believe in B.S. “Don’t tell someone what you think they want to hear just to make the sale. Tell them the truth about what’s needed to solve their problem.”
I took his lesson about candor to heart, maybe, at times, too much so. My third grade teacher once told my chagrinned parents I could be “brutally honest.” This followed a heated exchange on the softball field during recess one day when Mrs. Carlson served as referee. She’d made a bad call, which I felt compelled to point out to her. I have since learned to tone it down and try to deliver information in ways that people can hear – what my coach calls the “Happy Sandwich” method: Say something positive, then say the hard thing, and finish with something positive again.
What my dad didn’t teach me, though, was how to be successful in a politicized environment, which, let’s face it, is just about any organization of more than five people! Kidding aside, I don’t mean playing politics as manipulation, rather the ability to hold your own in a group of influential people with disparate agendas. Cheryl Conner, who contributes to Forbes magazine, offers some helpful suggestions for “positive politics” in this recent post.
Her advice: Create a mutual support network among your colleagues. Be generous – share credit and success. Keep your counsel and don’t gossip. Express any concerns truthfully, honestly and, I would add, privately. Play by the rules and don’t expect special treatment. Stay true to yourself and your values. And, yes, keep your enemies close, and keep documentation, just in case.
This points to what Conner notes as “workplace diplomacy,” and what my dad modeled simply as “straight talk” – how you say something is as powerful as what you say. The good news is this skill can be mastered with practice, and it’s never too late to learn.
Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse, June 2, 2014.