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Don’t Work With Jerks: 5 Lessons I Learned From My Dad

posted by – June 19th, 2013

dad article

In the spirit of Father’s Day, it seemed only fitting that I write a post highlighting some of the terrific lessons I’ve learned over the years from my dad. I’ve already written about this a bit in my post about 5 Mentor Archetypes, since my father is the quintessential “Advisor” – always there in my corner with a story, idea, or tip to help me. I featured a few of his lessons in that post, such as “Always wear your nametag on the right.” That way, when you shake someone’s hand, your nametag faces them – an easy way to make sure you present yourself well to new people.

I consider myself very lucky to have grown up with my dad. He has always been a terrific male role model who believed in me, told me I could do anything, and taught me so many things – everything from 60s labor folksongs to the difference between growth and value stocks.

Here are a few of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned from my dad over the years:

1. Don’t work with jerks. This is one of my dad’s “three rules of business.” (The other two are “sooner is better than later” and “more is better than less.”) By saying, “Don’t work with jerks,” my father taught me a key lesson for the future of my career – life is too short to spend it working with people you don’t respect or who don’t respect you.

My key takeaway from this lesson over the years was understanding which parts were in my control. Sometimes it’s possible to change the behavior of others around you, to model how to create more collaborative teams, etc. And sometimes, it’s not that easy. The thing to remember is that you have a choice and a voice in who you work with. If someone is treating you poorly, and attempts to resolve the situation don’t improve it, you can always consider moving to another team or even another company.

As a leader, I also consider it my responsibility to make sure people on my teams treat each other with respect, even when their perspectives are different, so that no one is forced to choose between their company and their personal integrity.

2. Break down questions. Growing up with my father was a bit like growing up in a constant consulting interview. Any time we asked a quantitative question, my dad would respond, “Well, let’s think about that…”

I remember a classic example where we were on vacation at a hotel that placed a box of four mints on the pillows at night, rather than the standard two individual mints. I casually asked my father, “I wonder how many mints they end up wasting.” He answered, of course, “Well, let’s think about that.” We then launched into a long discussion, estimating everything from the number of rooms in the hotel, to the seasonal occupancy rate, to the average number of mints consumed per person, until we had an estimate of the annual number of mints that went to waste.

While these types of conversations sometimes seemed like a waste of time during my childhood, it turns out they have served me quite well in life. The ability to break down big questions into smaller parts and to estimate the answers to questions you don’t yet have enough data to solve is extremely useful in a wide variety of careers and general life moments. My team and I use this skill regularly now in choosing which projects to prioritize. Since we rarely know the impact of something before we build and launch it, we first estimate impact and then test to see if our hypothesis was correct.

3. Never start a sentence with an apology. This is my father’s pet peeve. It really bothers him when people begin a presentation, a pitch, or really any sentence with an apology, like, “This might be a bad idea, but…,” or “I’m not an expert, but….” My dad says it immediately removes your credibility with others such that, even if your idea is good, people are predisposed to think it isn’t.

Growing up, Dad would tell me and my sisters that he saw this happen more with women than men, and he didn’t want us to grow up to be women who apologized for our ideas. We should do our best to make sure our ideas were good, base them on data & insights, make them creative, etc. – but no matter what, we shouldn’t apologize for them before stating them. Some ideas may be better than others, and that is ok.

Of course, this is not to say, “Never apologize.” There are plenty of times when it makes sense to apologize and to accept responsibility for something you’ve done wrong. It’s just that the beginning of a proposal or idea isn’t one of them.

4. Disappointment can be more effective than anger. I was always a rule follower when I was young. I worked hard to impress teachers, got a job at a young age, and generally was a “good kid.” I knew, though, that as a teenager, one of the unspoken “rules” imposed by my fellow teenagers was that I should rebel and try something that pushed the boundaries. So as a junior in high school, I threw a huge party when my parents were out of town. And I immediately felt so guilty that I called my parents the next morning to report myself.

What I remember from the situation, though, is how my dad handled it when he came home. Instead of getting angry and grounding me or doling out some other punishment, he took me for a walk around the block. He explained how after earning their trust over all those years, now I had lost it, and I had to work to earn it back. Ouch. That I still remember this conversation so many years later shows just how effective a strategy it was. I was far more upset that I had disappointed him than I likely would have been if he’d been angry at me.

I often tell this story to managers who work on my teams. When managers comes to me asking how to handle a situation where someone on their team has underperformed their expectations, I tell them that sometimes just expressing your disappointment in that person can be a more effective strategy than getting upset. Be expressing disappointment, you also express that you believe the person can do better. It shows you do have faith in them and in their potential.

5. Be present. When I look back on my childhood and young adult years, in addition to all the tips and lessons my dad taught me, one of the things I remember so clearly is that he was always there. He showed his love for me and his appreciation for the things I did by showing up to support me. Even in the middle of a work day, if I had an important event, my dad was almost always there.

He took this to somewhat of an extreme when I was in college and a coxswain on the crew team. Dad would often schedule business trips in different states in order to be at our races. My friends from the East Coast couldn’t believe that my parents from California would regularly show up in Philadelphia, Boston, or Providence to see us race – but over and over again, there they were.

When I reflect on it, I am struck by how present my dad has always been in my life. I think about this now with my own children and try hard to make sure they have the same feeling about me – that I care enough about them to be there for the events that have meaning for them. I, too, will often leave in the middle of a work day to be at their important events or even to take them to the orthodontist and other everyday activities, all so they know I am present.

So thanks, Dad. These lessons and many more have been so valuable to me. (And Mom, sorry I missed writing lessons from you on Mother’s Day; there are plenty of those too, so I’ll get started on a post for those!)