When my son, Matthew, was born, I received a very nice gift from my Mom that has stayed with me for the past 25 years. It was a book called A Father’s Book of Wisdom, by H. Jackson Brown (FYI – he also wrote the mega bestseller, Life’s Little Instruction Book). The book contained thoughts and reflections on what it means to be a father. There was one thought that has shaped my view on fatherhood since the minute I read it…
“Today, fathers are more like friends, because they don’t have the guts to be fathers.”
I was thinking of that line last week as I reflected on what would have been my father, Fred’s, 81st birthday. As most of you know, he passed away last year. Over the past 14 months since his death, I have found myself frequently quoting him to others, both in business, as well as in personal settings. During this holy season, I thought I would share with you The Gospel According to Fred. If you follow it religiously, you, too, can have everlasting life… in business.
“What the @#$% do you think you’re doing?” This is what Fred said to me as I dramatically loosened my tie, unbuttoned my collar and plopped into my seat to join him on the train ride home from New York City after “a hard day” at my summer job. He “explained” to me that I would never know who I might run into while on the train and asked me if my current sartorial affectation is how I wanted to present myself. To this day, I have never loosened my collar or lowered my tie until I am safely ensconced in my closet at home. As Fred further told me, “If your collar is too tight, then get a shirt that fits.”
“Play to your strengths and fix your weaknesses.” Fred became the Chairman and CEO of ISO, Inc (now Verisk Analytics) by understanding where he had a competitive advantage and where he did not. ISO is a very data driven business and Fred knew that numbers and data were not his strengths. He fixed his weaknesses by recruiting the best IT and data talent he could find – including, at one point, paying a Senior Vice President a higher salary than Fred was making and President and COO. His comment to me was a great lesson – “That is what it took to get the best talent. He doesn’t know that he makes more than me. He was the best person and it will ultimately help the company succeed. And, if the company succeeds, then I will succeed.”“I’d pump gas if I had to in order to support this family.” As frequent readers already know, I focus on the balance between business and life. Too many people are “overweight” to one side or the other. Fred never forgot what his first priority was – his family. He knew that he would do whatever he had to do to provide for his family. What is interesting is that such a characteristic also made him a more successful executive. People who will do whatever they need to do to support their family will also do whatever they need to do to excel in business. If you’re not willing to pump gas, you’re likely not willing to pull an all-nighter on the Johnson account, fly the red-eye to pitch the Smith account, or respond 24/7 to the needs of the Jones account.
“I don’t give a “flyin” about anybody other than the 7 people in this family.” Fred kept his head down. He never got caught up in “keeping up with the Jones”, either personally or professionally. A very dear friend of mine who was a mentor to me during my days at Aon (Mickey C – thank you) once said to me on the subject of keeping his own counsel – “Mikey (yes, he got away with calling me that), when I lay my head on my pillow, I sleep the contented sleep of someone who owes nothing to nobody.” At Equity Risk Partners, I banned the use of the phrase “Word on the street is…”. I did not care about who was doing what to whom. As I always told my colleagues, “We play offense. Let the other guys figure out how to stop us!”
“You have to take me…warts and all.” Fred was comfortable in his own skin. He knew what he was and who he was. More importantly, he knew what he was not. Being honest with yourself gives you great freedom. He did not hide his uniqueness, he celebrated it. It became a strength because he was consistent. Family members and business colleagues crave consistency.
“He/She is a hustler.” This was the ultimate compliment from Fred. Some people are born with certain skills. Some people are blessed by God with talent that others can only dream of. But, anybody can hustle. That is just will power and determination. Fred had all the time in the world for hustlers.
“This place is a gold mine.” Fred was an optimist. He saw upside when others saw downside (more on that below). He looked for constant improvement, both in his children and his employees. The gold mines he identified were never as apparent to others. There was a line he always used with me as a child that I have often repeated to colleagues that I mentor/counsel – “I have more faith in you than you have in yourself. Until you reverse that equation, you will not maximize your potential.” The “gold mine” to Fred was achieving your maximum outcome.
“If he is a bad person, just imagine how good you look standing next to him.” To Fred, nothing in business or life was more important than the right values (see Michael Marcon Tweets, Lunch with Mike, ½ Personal). He always approached business and life from one perspective – Act as if your mother is watching. Early in my career, I was asked to accept a promotion that would catapult me into the upper echelons of the company. But, it would require me to work with someone whose ethics and values were universally regarded as “challenged” (it’s Lent, so I will be polite). I was worried about the repercussions of being associated with this person. I was going to turn down the job and “make a stand on principle”. That is when Fred advised me, “If he is as bad as you think he is, just imagine how good you will look standing next to him.” I took the job. I looked good.
“Surprise me.” Despite his penchant for consistency, Fred always knew he could not get stale. I lost count of how many times – ordering dinner (salad dressing, beverage, etc), on his birthday, Father’s Day, and Christmas (wish list), at the movies (popcorn or Milk Duds), buying a car (color), playing golf (course choice), his answer was, “Surprise me.” As kids, we were thrilled when we got to “pick for Dad.” Imagine how an employee(s) would feel and the creativity they would utilize if the answer to their inquiry on some thorny business issue “fork in the road” was “Surprise me”.
“They just don’t realize that this is not a crisis, it is an opportunity.” This is probably the defining quote of all of the one’s Fred said to me. One day, as we were out for a run, I could tell something was weighing on him. I asked what was going on. He proceeded to tell me that his business was embroiled in a significant litigation. His frustration was not with the lawyers. His frustration was not with the attorneys general that were suing him. His frustration was with his team. They were panicking. The “allegations” were severe. The PR was terrible. Then he said, “They just don’t realize that this is not a crisis. This is an opportunity.” He never lost his wits. He never rushed his thought process. He stayed true to his values and he systematically turned the crisis into an opportunity. The incredibly successful NYSE public company, Verisk Analytics, is a direct result of his actions on that day.
As we discussed in our last post, you can choose hope or you can choose despair. Fred chose hope – always. What will you choose?
Michael C. Marcon is the founder and Managing Member of M3K Holdings, Chairman of The Marcon Foundation, founder and former CEO of Equity Risk Partners and former chairman of the Ursinus College board of trustees. He tweets from @mcm7464. Tweet him any of your questions about business, leadership or life.