I've never been a big fan of business books. Aside from Malcolm Gladwell's The Outliers, I can't say tomes like Who Moved My Cheese have provided me with much of anything concrete in terms of helping me improve my firm.
What has proved invaluable, though, are the industry gatherings I've attended at which entrepreneurs let down their hair and share the issues keeping them up at night. Those networking sessions, in addition to the personal advice I've received from other leaders who lie awake nights worrying about the same things as me, have enabled me to stay at, or near, the top of my game.
There's another big factor in my success that often goes unmentioned, even at these sorts of events: My kids. I'd go so far as to say they are key reasons for my success--even though they're neither aware of the roles they've played nor compensated for their help. So, in a sort of a reverse Father's Day homage, here are five things my kids taught me about running a business:
1. Roll with the punches.
During her high school years, my daughter, Catharine, went through a particularly brutal bullying period. Shunned by a few of the more popular girls in her class, Catharine nonetheless maintained her cool, ignored their taunts, and graduated with honors. I watched her roll with the punches, and copied her devil-may-care attitude after such seismic events as the dot-com bust, the post 9/11 business inertia, and the 2008 Stock Market crash threatened to bring down the curtain on my business. Cat's resolute demeanor instilled a similar quality in me, and helped me rally the troops when the chips were down.
2. Put people at ease.
I've never been very good at business or social events in which I'm a stranger. My son, Chris, though, reminds me of a young JFK. No matter where he goes or who he meets, Chris is always personable, engaging, and able to put strangers at ease. Indeed, it was my son's natural grace in front of crowds that first compelled me to study stand-up comedy. Knowing I lacked his natural command of audiences, I've purposely performed comedy in order to begin acquiring some of those very same talents. And it's worked. I've become far better at building rapport and deepening client relationships as a direct result.
3. Become a subject-matter expert.
Catharine is positively insatiable when it comes to learning more about the antebellum South and Tudor England. Don't ask me why, but she never ceases in her quest to read more books, articles, and blogs about each. Cat has even visited most of the war's major battlefields and arranged private tours for herself. That voracious appetite for becoming a subject-matter expert has driven me to reformulate my firm and focus our services and offering in three clearly defined areas. It's also driven me to insist our top managers become, like Cat, subject-matter experts in various fields, including financial services, business-to-business, and all things related to the so-called "mom" audience.
4. Avoid the pack mentality.
Despite intense peer pressure from their respective friends, neither Chris nor Catharine pierced their lips, ears or other body parts. Nor have they tatted up their bodies. That reluctance to follow a pack mentality toward the latest trend has steeled me in my resolve not to embrace what every other public relations and strategic communications firm does simply because they do. Instead, I stay laser-focused on the wants and needs of clients and prospects. So, rather than advising clients to immediately immerse themselves in all things digital, we counsel them to first listen to make sure their audiences even want to engage in social media circles. Listening first, last, and always has subsequently become our unique clarion call. And, guess what? It was inspired on that matter by my kids.
5. Weather the storms.
Both of my kids have sustained serious setbacks in their quest for success. Catharine endured back-to-back downsizings that put her out of work. But, she picked herself up and is now a star. While he awaits word from various Ph.D. programs, Chris is pursuing a back-up plan that calls for him to launch his own rock-climbing gym. That sort of flexibility and resiliency is critical to an entrepreneur when the phone rings and your largest customer tell you it's all over (which has happened to me on more than one occasion). Watching Chris and Catharine battle their demons has helped me fight my own.
So, the next time you're looking for best practices, do the unexpected: observe your kids (or nieces and nephews--just take a moment to appreciate a generation younger than yourself, hard as it may be) as they handle success and failure. If you're lucky like me, you'll learn some invaluable lessons for improving yourself and your business.