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Nine Business Leaders Share The Best Lessons They Received From Their Fathers

In honor of Father's Day, we asked business leaders to share the most useful thing they learned from their dads.

Nine Business Leaders Share The Best Lessons They Received From Their Fathers
[Photo: Elzbieta Sekowska via Shutterstock]

Father may not always know best, but he often imparts wisdom—either directly or by example—that his children remember and use in their careers. From staying true to who you are to embracing uncertainty, here are nine things CEOs and business leaders learned from dads:

"Don’t get distracted."
—Jim Koch, founder of Samuel Adams

"My dad gave me both the worst and the best business advice when I told him I was considering quitting my consulting job to start a brewery," says Jim Koch, founder of Samuel Adams and author of Quench Your Own Thirst: Business Lessons Learned Over a Beer or Two. "When I first approached him, he told me it was a terrible idea. In fact, he told me the business would never succeed and the big guys would eat me alive."

Koch ignored his concerns and went ahead with his plan. Later his father graced him with the best business advice he says he’s ever received: "He said to focus on the quality of the beer over all else: ‘Make a good beer, and don’t worry about the marketing. People drink the beer; they don’t drink the marketing. Don’t get distracted. Just worry about the beer,’" Koch recalls. "I promised him I would."

"Don’t be a follower."
—Russell Simmons, entertainment mogul

Entertainment mogul Russell Simmons says his father, Daniel Simmons Sr., inspired him by being connected to the streets and the suffering of black people in America. Simmons Sr. worked for the New York Board of Education as a public school administrator and later became a professor of Black History at Pace University in New York.

"He was a man of culture, an artist and a poet," Simmons shared in the book Dare to Be Extraordinary: A Collection of Positive Life Lessons from African American Fathers by William Middlebrooks and Leslie Gordon. "He gave me a road map by example, and he was cool, that’s why I wanted to be like him."

Simmons credits his father with giving the piece of advice he used to make his own life choices: "He said: ‘Do you. Don’t be a follower. Don’t be a sheep.’"

"Have a strong work ethic, but put family first."
—Rosalind Brewer, president and CEO of Sam's Club

Sam's Club president and CEO Rosalind Brewer grew up in a blue-collar household in Detroit, the youngest of five children. Her father held three jobs and had a strong work ethic, Brewer told Real Simple: "We were never allowed to sleep late," she said in the interview. "I’m still an early riser."

While her father worked long hours, he made it to every one of his children's recitals or events. Brewer said it was her father’s commitment to family that guides her work decisions. When she accepted the position with Sam’s Club, for example, she commuted between the headquarters in Arkansas and her home in Atlanta. She tries to make it to her children’s sporting events, and has nightly chats with them via Skype.

"You’re never too young to prepare."
—Denise Morrison, president and CEO of Campbell Soup Co.

Denise Morrison, president and CEO of Campbell Soup Co., said growing up with her father, Dennis Sullivan, was like getting an education in business. The AT&T executive would bring home models of phones and talk to his daughters about product development and marketing. When the girls wanted something new, like a bicycle, they were required to write business plans.

"He was educating us about so many things, from pay for performance to the importance of changing jobs often to gain broad experience," Morrison said in an interview with Bloomberg. "He said he saw the world opening up for women and wanted us to be prepared."

"Change is constant."
—Ariel Nelson, cofounder of Jack Erwin

Ariel Nelson, cofounder of the men’s footwear company Jack Erwin, says his father, Jack Nelson, cautioned him to never feel defeated as well as undefeatable. "He said, ‘It is important to understand that when you stand on the mountaintop one day, you can be in the valley the next, and that when you are in the valley, there is always hope that you can soon be on the top of the mountain. Neither euphoria nor despair should ever rule,’" he says.

"Don’t micromanage."
—Julie Smolyansky, CEO of Lifeway Foods

The best lesson Lifeway Foods CEO Julie Smolyansky learned from her father was to not repeat the mistakes he had made. Michael Smolyansky liked to be involved in every aspect of the company, and would frequently roll up his sleeves to fix machinery when there was an issue.

"It was his baby," Smolyansky told BizJournal. "Every employee came to him for everything. No one felt empowered to make a decision or make a mistake."

Smolyansky took over the business in 2002 when her father died of a heart attack, becoming the youngest CEO of a publicly traded company. She recognized that her father’s methods weren’t the most efficient way to run a business, and she made the decision to hire the right people and give them authority to complete their tasks.

"Focus on what you can control."
—Ken Chenault, CEO of American Express

The best advice American Express CEO Ken Chenault ever received came from his father, who told him to not make excuses and focus on what you can control.

"The only thing you can control is your performance," Chenault shared during the VIP Distinguished Speaker Series at McCombs School of Business. "If you think about that advice, and I think about it almost every day, it is a very empowering statement, because what it says to a person is you can really make a difference . . . It also says that you can come up always with a lot of excuses and reasons why you can’t do something. But if you can really focus on your performance, you can accomplish a great deal."

"Plan for the worst."
—Don Smithmier, CEO of The Big Know

Don Smithmier, founder and CEO of The Big Know, an online teaching platform, lost his father when he was just 8 years old. A small business owner, he died in an accident and didn't have any written agreements or contracts with his business partner.

"When all was said and done, my mom—a sudden widow with five kids—received absolutely nothing from his business, even though it was beginning to take off," says Smithmier. "The lasting lesson for me was about planning for the worst. When my partners and I started our business, the very first thing I insisted on was a Member Control Agreement that specified what happens if one of us dies or becomes disabled."

The partners also took out life insurance policies so that the business could provide for the partner's family in the event of a tragedy.

"Embrace uncertainty."
—Ariel Kaye, founder of Parachute

Ariel Kaye, founder of the bedding company Parachute, says her dad’s wisdom helped give her the courage to start her own business. "My dad likes to say, ‘Success is being comfortable with uncertainty,’" she says. "There’s a great deal of risk involved in building a brand as an entrepreneur."

Kaye says she’s had moments when she second-guessed herself, but her dad’s sage advice reminded her to persevere. "It helped me to remain committed to Parachute’s mission . . . even in those times of doubt," she says.

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