Life Lessons My Father Taught Me About Leadership and Managing Teams

This will not be the traditional type of post where I write about SEO, content, infographics, or web design, but instead, I’ll look back at what I have learned from my father about managing and leading people.

A History

My father grew up in Ridgewood, NJ. His father was a brilliant engineer (who held many patents), and his mother was a school teacher for close to 50 years. He attended Paul Smiths College in northern NY State (Paul Smiths, NY, to be exact) and worked on my grandparent’s farm, where he met my mother during the summers.

Unlike many people today, my father held the same job with the same packaging company (Jefferson Smurfit, which later became Smurfit-Stone and then Stone Container) for close to 30 years. He started in the maintenance department, where he fixed the large machinery, learned the ins and outs of every machine, and kept the factory running. During his 30 years at the plant, he worked his way up through each position at the company, learning the skills needed to succeed and build valuable employees. Because of his success, he was appointed GM of the Northeast Region for Stone Container. A few years back, he took a new position with a competitor and has succeeded there as well. Starting as a production manager, he is now the Regional GM for the company’s seven manufacturing facilities spanning the Northeast and the Midwest United States.

11 Lessons My Father Taught Me about Leading Teams

Although I learned many lessons growing up and am still being taught today, below are 11 things I learned from my father about business, management, and leading a team. Some lessons, you will notice, have stories behind them, some were observations, and yet others were comments said in passing that led me to develop my thoughts.

If You Ask Someone to Do Something, Make Sure You Can Do It, or at Least Know What It Takes

My father worked his way up through the company, learned the skills it took to be successful at each level, and gained powerful insights is one of the reasons I think he is such a great manager and can relate to all levels within a company.

In my opinion, this is one of the most critical aspects of leading a team and where I feel many managers and leaders fall short. If you ask someone to take on a project, you should at least have enough knowledge of how it’s done to understand the scope of the work, the pitfalls that can develop, and what it will take to be successful. This belief was the driving force that made me create a group of test sites nine years ago to learn SEO and has since driven me to learn CSS, HTML, and most other things I might need to ask a team to do. This process of learning-by-doing (which I continue today) helps me gain the insights that are necessary to evolve and become a better leader and manager.

Provide Solutions

If you are going to point out concerns with a process or product, make sure you also provide solutions to that problem. If you don’t offer solutions, you are doing nothing more than being pessimistic and negative. Make sure these are not just opinionated solutions but have numbers and even implementation costs to back them. The more you can prove value in your solutions, the more likely they are to be utilized.

Be Positive

Many things can go wrong for a business or that you’ll suggest to the upper management team that they will overlook or value. My father always said, “The key is to stay positive when faced with adversity. There is no perfect job where everyone will always do exactly what you want or agree with your solutions. So as a leader and a manager, you must learn to roll with the punches and always look on the positive side of things and be persistent”.

Nothing Takes the Place of Persistence and Determination

This is a quote from Calvin Coolidge my father used to instill in me:

Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination are omnipotent.

This quote, which I still know by heart, is one of the driving forces that keeps me pushing forward in the face of adversity or when I am told, “It can’t be done.”

Lead by Example

When I was younger, my father would go to work on the weekends if the plant ran behind schedule, and I would always ask to tag along. He would go in early before everyone would get there for their shift, which started at 6 am (which is one of the reasons I am up each morning at 5 am starting my day).

In the central area of the plant where the large printing presses were and in the rear of the plant where the corrugator was located, the temperature would get well over 100 degrees in the summer.

I remember sitting in my father’s office (which he was rarely in) and seeing a new air conditioner sitting collecting dust. One afternoon, when he returned from the plant floor, I asked him, “Why don’t you turn on the AC unit to cool it down in your office?” He replied promptly and directly by asking, “What type of message would that send to the people working their butt (he used another word) off out on the floor in the 100-degree heat if I, as their leader, was sitting in an air-conditioned office. If they don’t have AC, neither do I.”

Your Job is to Build Valuable Employees and Teams

The adage “There is no “I” in team” could not be more accurate. When transitioning from doing the work to managing or leading people who do it, it is crucial to understand that what you will be judged on will change. The successes or failures of your team are a direct reflection of your success or failure as a leader. This is what makes you a manager and leader, one that builds strong teams and helps employees evolve their skills.

Don’t Be Afraid of Conflict

My father was particular to point out that there is a difference between causing a conflict for the sake of being difficult and causing a conflict to evolve a process or product. Let me explain.

Causing conflict for the sake of being difficult is an adverse action that does not advance a product or process in a positive direction. If you plan on causing conflict to bring attention to a concern or how something might be done better, make sure you stay positive and back your conflicting views with data or information that would explain why you are suggesting the change.

Close the Loop

If you ask someone to do something, make sure you show them the result of what they have done or hold them responsible for not doing what they needed to do. This will not only build trust in your leadership skills and build confidence within your team members, but it will also show that each person on your team has unique value when you’re trying to achieve goals as a team.

Build Confidence

Spending time with my father at the plant, I noticed a wide range of management styles: from micro-managers and managers trying to lead by fear or bullying to those whom I respected more and were closer to the management philosophy that my father held. I can’t entirely explain how he did it, but as I observed my father speaking with team members, his tone would always lend itself to building confidence and instilling in them just how valuable they were while still saying what needed to be said.

Stay in the Trenches, Don’t Separate Yourself

As I mentioned above, my father was rarely in his office. Instead, he was always out on the plant floor talking with the employees, even if it was nothing more than giving them a hard time about their sports team losing or telling some crude joke that could only be repeated inside the walls of the plant. At the time, I didn’t know as I sat in his office playing on his computer that he was building rapport and trust with the employees by being in the trenches and not spending time secluded in his office.

Because of this, I have never taken the opportunity to have my own office. I prefer to be in the trenches with my teammates and not be seen as a leader that manages from a distance.

You May Not be Friends Outside of Work, but at Work, You Will Work as a Team

Growing up, I was heavily involved in sports, mainly baseball and basketball. My parents were always there for support, and, up until I was in junior high school, my father coached each team I was on, and my mother ran the concession stand.

It was a warm day in Ilion, NY, and we had just finished a little league game. There was some conflict off the field between two of my teammates, Shane Mitchell and Carmen Newton, who reared their ugly heads during the game, causing us to lose. I can’t recall the exact reason for the conflict, but I am sure it was insignificant in the grand scheme.

I remember overhearing my father talking to them after the game. He pulled them aside and said, “Whatever issue you two have off the field, it will not come through the gate. Once you step on the field, you will leave your issues outside, respect one another as teammates, and work together as a team to win the championship.” (In case you were wondering, we ended up winning the championship all three years we were all teammates.)

I hope these stories about leading a team give you some insights into managing better or being a leader. I am still in the process of working many of these into my leadership style–and learning more from my father–so that I can evolve as a leader. If you have any personal stories, please leave them below in the comments.

I will leave you with a quote given to me by my father just before I went off to college. I still have it on my desk today.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. – Theodore Roosevelt