Do CEOs make lousy dads (and moms)?

Your career doesn’t have to be work

Do CEOs make lousy dads (and moms)?

The author of a new book on CEO dads (he is one) thinks so, and tells Fortune’s Anne Fisher how to become a better one. One step: Don’t text clients from Disneyland!
FORTUNE Magazine
By Anne Fisher, Fortune senior writer
June 14 2007: 9:09 AM EDT

(Fortune) — Here’s to dads! With Father’s Day almost here, surveyed hundreds of working fathers and found that 58% think their employers should do more to accommodate the demands of fatherhood; 71% of those with a child under age 5 took a paternity leave when it was offered. The poll also found that, if money were no object, 68% of fathers would consider being stay-at-home dads.

But there’s one group in corporate America who would doubtless scoff at that notion: CEOs. Tom Stern, a former comedy programmer at HBO who is now CEO of Los Angeles recruiting firm Stern Executive Search, spent many years as a hard-driving, no-time-for-family kind of guy, until a rude awakening in 2002: Armed robbers attacked him and his wife Lisa as they pulled into their garage, nearly killing her.

What’s the right work-life balance strategy for you?

1. Which of the following statements best describes you?
I’m comfortable having others do home and yard chores for me.
I prefer to do things myself.

“It was like a light bulb came on. I suddenly realized what really matters in my life, and how much I’d been taking it for granted,” says Stern, who has since reshuffled his priorities to put his family first. He’s also written a terrific (and funny) book, CEO Dad: How to Avoid Getting Fired by Your Family (Davies-Black, $19.95), with cover blurbs from his old pals Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno. (See Some excerpts from a recent chat with Stern:

Q. Why do successful executives so often fall short when it comes to personal relationships like marriage and parenthood?

A. It’s not that CEOs are cold and uncaring – it’s just hard to bond with a kid via e-mail. And those bedtime memos! Not good! And of course, if you used to work at Enron, well, you tend to drift away from your family while you’re in prison. But seriously, a lot of executives have a driving desire to be admired, which is why they’re drawn to roles of authority in the first place. Children don’t care about your title. You have to relate to them in a totally different way, and it’s a hard adjustment.

Also, at work, everything is quantifiable. But with your family, you can’t measure and control things: It’s much more amorphous, and that can be frustrating. And then there’s pure ego, the need for power and recognition. Work is the place to get those things, so work becomes all-important.

I know. I used to be the kind of guy who would be texting clients while riding the Matterhorn at Disneyland with my daughters. It was nuts.

Q. In the book you note that “a CEO dad’s brain operates differently from a normal person’s brain.” Is there a cure?

A. In my own case it took a traumatic shock, but usually there has to be a build-up of consequences. Our society rewards narcissism and greed, so as long as you’re being stroked at the office, your spouse and kids can become annoying background noise. The only real cure is to decide that you’re going to make as many plans and goals with your family as you do at work.

Create a mission statement for the family: What kind of family do you want? What will it take to get there? Approach it as you would a business project. Do a customer-satisfaction survey at home, and really listen. The playroom has to become as important as the boardroom. But there is no one-size-fits-all cure that will work for everyone. The first step is really just to see that you need to do something before it’s too late.

Q. What kind of feedback is the book getting from other CEOs?

A. It’s hard for CEOs to admit to any kind of vulnerability or failure. They’re eternal optimists, too: “Next quarter will be better…” People are defensive about this personal stuff, which is why I use humor in the book, as a non-threatening way of overcoming people’s resistance to thinking about it. Some CEOs who have read the book ask me if I’ve achieved perfect work-life balance. But it’s not something you achieve and, that’s it, check it off the to-do list. It’s a constantly evolving process of setting priorities every day. It’s like the old joke, How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the light bulb really has to want to change.

Q. How has your family responded to the change in you?

A. They like me better. I play with my kids now. I don’t take work calls at dinnertime anymore. I’ve accepted that, at home, I don’t have the control over events that I have at the office, which is why most CEOs have trouble with family life. You can’t fire your kids, although I am thinking of transferring them, as soon as I find the right storage facility.