More of CEO dad’s pain is self-inflicted

Your career doesn’t have to be work

More of CEO dad’s pain is self-inflicted

29 Jun, 2007,

When work-life balance issue is reaching crisis proportion, it is understandable that it is being turned into a book, comedy TV show and cartoon strips in the US. Behind it is Tom Stern, 51, author of CEO Dad: How to Avoid Getting Fired by Your Family. The book, written with a lot of humour, was released in April. Its 30 minutes animated TV show will soon run on business channels even as Stern gets invited for primetime TV shows.

Stern comes with rich credentials to look at the issue — his father, Alfred R Stern, driven and serious — was a powerful CEO and a pioneer in the US cable television industry in the 1960s. And Stern senior ran the house with the same authority with which he ran his company, unable to connect with his son in a fatherly way — the core of what CEO Dad is all about.

Stern earned his spurs as a CEO of a recruitment firm, slogging hours, making millions and finally waking up one day to realise that he was hurtling down the same path that his father tread when he was growing up.

Now he is a “recovering success addict” helping the word spread around. “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. The playroom has to become as important as the boardroom for CEO dads to be successful,” he says. Stern spoke to Malini Goyal from Los Angeles, about CEO dad-itude, the toll it is taking and few ground rules he has learnt first hand. Excerpts:

How would you describe CEO Dad-itude

It is a natural expression of the imbalances that exist in a patriarchal society. Much of the world is still run by men. And many have this exaggerated sense of priority and control — they always want to be the best, be in charge, get a priority status, are sure they are right and that they know it all. They want to set the agenda — at work and even at home. This often leads to passive aggressive control they want to wield even when they are not doing stuff at home.

Is this a gender thing — only about CEO dads and not moms?

You don’t have to be a CEO or a man to suffer from CEO Daddism. I have used it only as a symbol. Many women, who have risen to the top despite odds, are work obsessed, very rigid and agenda-driven. It is a personality type that I am trying to describe, most commonly found among dads. And it is more prevalent as one rises higher up the corporate ladder. But you could even find a waiter suffering from CEO Dad-itude

Why are successful execs often unsuccessful in their personal lives?

I am no expert on this. But my personal opinion is that obsession with success has a role to play in this. As CEOs in office, they are in control, have the commands, can compete aggressively and measure their achievements step by step. But you can’t really measure any of those things at home. There are no flowcharts and you can’t legislate or send a five-part memo to your family. All this makes things very difficult for CEO dads to operate at home.

How does family fit into a CEO’s life?

In hours spent working, a CEO is surrounded by “yes” people. But home is where nobody is awed and they don’t suck up to him. There is chaos, irreverence and you can’t always measure performance there. It’s a place where people know who you are and they provide a good grounding mechanism. Its an organisation where you can be very real and authentic and you don’t need to have a business agenda and constantly justify your action. As a CEO loses touch with his family, he gets less grounded.

What contributes to CEO Dad-itude?

It is this deep-rooted insecurity. Remember, being at the top there’s only way you can go —down. So, there’s a need for constant validation from various sources — from how many times they get mentioned in WSJ, they titles, their salaries, the size of their cabins, their quarterly reports. Somewhere he begins to seek all that validation even at home.

What affects a CEO dad’s relationship with his children?

Children by their nature are self-centred, and they constantly want validation in whatever they do. They want to come first. And if you as an adult have a kind of ego-centricity — that at its core is infantile — you will, at some level, resist children’s needs. And in worst cases, even compete with them.

How much would you blame Blackberry, cellphones and a global 24/7 world for some of these problems?

Technology is great at expediting things. It also reduces the sense of hierarchy. But remember, it does not have a conscience; it is like a freight train, running without any stops and brakes. So, the responsibility of containing it is completely in the hands of human beings. It is like having a relationship with an infant who does not know rights and wrongs. We need to learn how to make technology take a nap.

Your CEO Dad cartoons are becoming popular in the US media. Do you see any parallels between Dilbert
& CEO Dad?

Dilbert is a victim of his environment. CEO dad is a victim of himself. More of CEO dad’s pain is self-inflicted and he is the perpetrator of his own demise, whereas Dilbert would be less abused if he created better boundaries.