I spent the first fifty years of my life thinking that I had not learned a thing from my Dad. In fact I spent more time wishing he had been someone else and what I had missed out on than taking some time to try and understand the man. My Dad was a semi-functional alcoholic from as early as I can remember until the day he died and truth be told, we never had even one meaningful conversation. The most exciting time of his life was his stint in the Navy in WWII and for the rest of his life all I can remember him talking about was the war and how much he hated his job.
He hated the people, the building, the owners, the equipment, his projects, his boss, his co-workers and overtime. They were mean, they had everything while he had nothing, the sales people were all crooks and liars, his boss was stupid and got promoted for all the wrong reasons, and the owners were wheeling money out the back door in the middle of the night and by God if only they let him run things he wouldn’t be the way he was.
A year or two ago I was being interviewed for a talk show and the woman interviewing me asked me why I saw things differently than other executives; what caused my career to take me to the C-Suite and ultimately to the Chief Executive seat when other better educated or more experienced people were available. At that moment, in that flash of a second, with that one question from a host whose name I can’t even remember, I saw what my Dad had given me. He had given me the gift of critical thinking.
My Dad questioned everything, deeply, and he believed nothing. With that as my constant example, without one word ever being spoken about it, he had given me something that people spend thousands of dollars trying to get, (and rarely do), and years of study trying to figure out. The innate ability to see even the best situation critically while at the same time not being critical of the situation, the people, the organization, or even the outcomes of all or any of those actions.
I relived that moment not long ago when my wife and I were having dinner with a prominent financial guru and having just facilitated a stressful yet successful organizational turn, he asked me the same question; “why are you able to do what you do?”… My wife, knowing this is a question that absolutely embarrasses me like no other, answered for me. She said, “Ed just sees things differently.” She said it so matter-of-factly that it plausibly answered the question. I spent the rest of the evening running that through my head and trying to come to grips with it.
So let me make an attempt to explain what I see.
Let’s say we go to the Fair. Everyone is excited, there is music, there is excitement, there are rides, food, animals, shows and exhibitions; lots of unusual noise and movement, some anxiety perhaps over the scary rides. You are overwhelmed by the senses of sight, smell, taste, hearing and touch. Everyone is focused on the experience and fun, the bright colors, the laughter and the camaraderie; the feeling of the event and the in-the-moment experience. Everyone that is, except me.
On the way in I noticed that there was no premier parking. There was space but it was a service not available. It would have been worth double the normal parking rate. Tickets were not sold on line thereby creating a relatively long ticket line. The owners tried to mitigate wait complaints by having a colorful band playing upbeat carnival style music. Nice but paying one more ticket attendant and getting people into the Fair to spend money was far more valuable than paying a bunch of musicians whose music still did not solve the lengthy wait to enter. (Mental note to see if the COO of the operation was competent.) It was a hot day and once inside the gates, you had to walk all the way through the mid-way to find bottled water. (Mental note to have water vendor near front gates.)
I could go on and on like this all day long without the need or desire for any kind of mental break or the need to carry a notepad. I can be a Grandfather, help my grandkids walk around the Fair, go on rides, have lunch, enjoy the shows, everything, (almost), that everyone else does. The difference is, the recording device in my head never shuts off and the internal commentary just keep going on and on and on.
My wife will tell you that she has to repeat everything twice; that I am often detached from the experience at hand, and that I over analyze everything. She will tell you that I can easily miss the emotion of the moment, and that I am incredibly hard of hearing. She will also tell you that I can fix things faster than anyone she’s ever met, that I can figure out just about everything, and that she’s never met anyone that other people can rely on more for positive outcomes.
I was recently at a Board Meeting for a young entrepreneur for which I provided the angel lift when almost immediately following, the company was purchased by the B group, a combination of Venture and Private Equity money. They were gracious in terms of asking me to remain on the Board after the deal was done. In the first Board Meeting I realized that although the resumes for these new Directors were strong enough to field a reunion at Harvard, when you dug in a bit, there was no real operating experience. In today’s environment, it is not uncommon to have an entire brigade of financially centric Directors and a token operator making up the dynamics of many corporate Boards. All the financial participants naturally want a seat to protect their interests leaving not a lot of room for operators.
The challenge of the Board was that the young Entrepreneur Founder was a brilliant technologist but like many of his contemporaries, he had never actually operated a business. In this company, without experience managing the sales channel, things often got away from him. In this case, that meant that he lacked the focus of defining a target consumption community and sticking with it. The result was constantly over promising and under delivering on the gross revenue side because the CEO kept moving the target from minnows, to sharks to whales and never executed on any target!
The Board’s reaction was that they loved the idea that the fledgling was attracting the interest of the whales and they encouraged the bravado and expense of going after them. This lasted two more Board Meetings until a private investor meeting was held and a discussion of the credibility of the young Entrepreneur was called into question. This was not a question of credibility! This was simply a question of helping the company attain the focus of client attention and having the sales team focus on landing clients rather than changing the target in hopes of making up revenue lost. Some quick advice and sound pipeline tracking processes quickly put the entire team back on track.
Seeing things differently has offered me a completely new perspective on my Dad. In recently trying to put his career together, I am getting to know him better and trying to understand the complications that made his life what it was. Clearly PTSD played a major role in his outcomes and outlook and while it traumatized his life, it has helped mine. Maybe that is the most unselfish gift a Father can leave his son.
Ed Jenks is a 25 year C-Suite Executive, a CEO turn-around specialist, Executive Coach and currently Sr Business Strategist at TJGI Consulting. Jenks resides in Solana Beach CA with his wife and business Partner of fifteen years Sharon who is one of the Nation’s leading Executive Behaviorists as well as a professional canine trainer.