7 Ways Fatherhood Makes You Better at Your Job, According to a Career Coach

Colleagues and direct reports need clear expectations and context for decisions, just like toddlers.

by Peter Gandolfo
A father holding his little son on his shoulders and looking up at him

On the surface, my roles as father and businessman seem unrelated. I am an executive and career coach, and in my experience of being coached myself, I’ve learned that the two identities are intertwined. The strengths and learning edges that show up in my professional life are also present in my personal life. Even though I’m more than 20 years into my career, lessons from my three years as a father of two have made me a more effective executive. I’m compelled to share seven of them:

1. Embrace the good with the bad. I recently took a day off to spend with my 3-year-old son. I let him pick the agenda. Inspiration in the grocery checkout lane landed an inexpensive kite, and we spent a magical hour wading in the ocean waves while I taught him to fly it.

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Before we continued our day with his first visit to an ice-skating rink, I took him for a quick pizza lunch. It was a disaster. He refused to eat, pressed random buttons on the soda fountain, and made the experience unpleasant for everyone around us.

As challenging as the lunch was, though, it didn’t diminish the wonder of kite-flying or the joy of ice skating.

At work, few things are a complete success or an utter failure. Acceptance of this helps me see the bright spots in presentations that weren’t a home run. It also keeps me humble when the ratings from a workshop are glowing. A willingness to let the good and the bad coexist helps avoid black-and-white thinking and emotional roller coasters.

2. Clear feedback is compassionate. It’s my duty as a father to let my sons know, kindly but firmly, when their words or actions are out of line. And because they’re so young, I know my words must be simple and clear.

At work, I used to think that softened delivery of feedback to direct reports was kind. I failed to realize that sugarcoating doesn’t help anyone. If I really care about a person, I owe it to them to be clear and honest. And I know I can trust myself to give this feedback in a caring way, just as I do with my sons.

3. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Raising my boys consistently presents new challenges. First, I had to keep them alive while surviving on two hours of sleep! Now, I chase little speed demons who don’t understand that running too far ahead of me isn’t funny or safe. Years from now, I will deal with the more emotionally complex situations of raising teenagers.

Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, in her book Mindset, talks about there being two states: fixed mindset and growth mindset. People with a fixed mindset believe their abilities are a fixed trait, meaning they don’t have to work at them. Those with a growth mindset embrace lifelong learning through new experiences, ideas and challenges. In more recent years, in researching the collective mindsets of organizations, Dweck and three colleagues found employees in companies with a fixed mindset pursued fewer innovative projects because of a fear of failure.

If my work isn’t making me a little uncomfortable, then I’m not pushing myself enough. I remind myself that my sons learned to walk by falling down — a lot. If I want to grow, I must embrace failure, knowing I will learn from it.

4. Avoid surprises. Whether it’s changing a diaper or leaving the playground, my boys need advance notice. If I just spring something on them, they are likely to throw a fit. Such transitions are insignificant to me, but not to them. I need to keep things moving, but they need a sense of security and predictability.

Similarly, colleagues and direct reports need clear expectations. I always explain what needs doing and why, and I set clear deadlines. I also explain the reasoning behind these plans. Team members, particularly millennials, value understanding how they contribute to the goals of the organization.

5. Adapt to the audience. My older son is motivated by dessert and threats of closing his bedroom door at night. My younger son could take or leave sweets, and he is completely fine with the bedroom door closed. He responds to gaining or losing access to his toy cars. I’ve had to tailor my parenting approach to each of them.

Too often, managers issue orders and expect their direct reports to do all the adjusting. I find it more productive to meet in the middle. I see employees as customers, and I take to heart Peter Drucker’s questions “Who is your customer?” and “What does your customer value?” These questions are from The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask About Your Organization, and he used them in consulting corporate leaders.

Yes, employees need to adapt to my working style. But I make reasonable adjustments based on how they like to work and how they best receive feedback. This keeps them motivated and engaged, which makes my job as a manager much easier.

6. Build the team to round out strengths. There was never a discussion with my husband about which roles each of us would play as parents. I naturally stepped into managing operations for the family. I plan meals, schedule lessons, keep up with immunizations. I was recently out of town, and my husband brought one of the boys to a swimming lesson on the wrong day, even though it was on the calendar.

He, on the other hand, is the dreamer and maker of magical experiences. He plans great vacations, makes sure birthday parties are original and fun, and chooses cute and unique clothes for the boys. While each of us can play different roles in other parts of our lives, it just wouldn’t work if we both tried to play the same role at home.

At a recent conference for Hudson Institute coaches, Todd Kashdan, professor of psychology at George Mason University, introduced me to defensive pessimists (DP) and strategic optimists (SO) in a talk on the importance of both in teams. I later learned that these terms originated in the research of Nancy Cantor. The DP’s role is to anticipate everything that could go wrong. The SO’s role is to believe inherently that things will work out right.

A team exclusively of DPs would be paralyzed ever to move forward. A team exclusively of SOs would always be at risk for crashing and burning the minute something threw them off their trajectory of certain success. But when a team has at least one person playing each role, that’s a powerful combination.

When I introduced this concept to colleagues, it gave us all language to understand a dynamic we’d observed for years, and it allowed both the SOs and the DPs to see the value in their roles instead of feeling apologetic.

7. Set personal goals. At 34, I was newly single. Too old to put off my dream of becoming a father and too young to give up on it, I set a goal of becoming a father by age 40, though I had no idea how I was going to make that happen.

Having a goal, however, gave me the clarity to make decisions that moved me in the right direction. I passed up long-term international assignments and avoided dating people who didn’t want kids. Eighteen months later, I met my now-husband, and our first son was born six weeks before my 40th birthday.

Goal-setting isn’t new to management, but few leaders think through their individual strategic plans. I’m not referring to career planning facilitated by human resources. I mean asking yourself specific, detailed questions: Do I want to be in the same company or career in three years? What information should I gather to bring clarity to possible paths? What experiences will prepare me for my desired future?

Having goals doesn’t guarantee that they will come to fruition, but why not increase the chances?

In closing, the lessons I’ve learned from fatherhood have been valuable in helping me become more effective in my professional life. My commitment to lifelong learning will help me embrace future challenges, and I will continue to look for connections between these two roles that are important to me.

Peter Gandolfo is a certified executive coach, career coach, and founder of Gandolfo Group Coaching & Consulting. He’s passionate about helping men achieve professionally while being present fathers and about creating a more diverse workforce by helping leaders develop their authentic leadership styles. He lives in Los Angeles with his husband and their two young boys.