Making business travelers feel at home has helped make Marriott International one of the world’s largest hotel companies. But last Father’s Day, the company unveiled a program to help an overlooked group of its own employees feel better at home – and at work. That neglected group: working fathers.
Donna Klein, 51, is the driving force behind Marriott’s fatherhood initiatives. Starting in 1990, she developed what has become one of the country’s most celebrated array of work-life programs. But the more Klein evaluated those programs, the more she realized that they were ignoring a vital constituency. So she teamed up with James Levine, 52, director of the Fatherhood Project at the Families and Work Institute, to launch two major initiatives for working dads.
“We’ve focused for the last two decades on working mothers,” says Levine, a leading academic guru on fatherhood and work. “But we haven’t even developed a concept of the working father.” What do working fathers want? “Two things,” he says. “They want to provide for their kids, and they want a close relationship with them.”
Most working fathers believe that those goals are in conflict. Klein insists that they’re not. “People have an understandable tendency to see this as a zero-sum game,” she says. “They think that devoting time to and being good at one goal – your job – necessarily means doing less well at the other – your family. But if people feel productive and worthwhile as parents, that self- esteem carries over into the job. And many of the techniques that help people succeed at work can also help people succeed with their kids.”
The initiatives launched by Klein and Levine teach fathers from different parts of the company how to lead richer lives with their families. One is “Effective Fathering,” a course aimed at frontline employees. The other is “Daddy Stress/ Daddy Success,” a seminar that targets executives. Both raise questions that every working father should ask himself. Here are three of those questions.
Do You Pass the Fatherhood Test?
What gets measured is what gets attention. That’s one of the defining aphorisms of business life. And it applies to life outside of work as well. Levine worries that many men don’t have a clear understanding of successful fatherhood. The ultimate goal, he says, should be to remain engaged in your children’s lives. Levine says that when he asked his daughter, now 27, about her fondest memories from childhood, she cited their Sunday morning strolls to the bakery – walks that Levine barely remembers. “Kids are looking for a sense of connectedness,” he says. “You have to enter into their flow, not expect them to enter into yours.”
Levine suggests taking a test to measure just how connected you are:
1. Who are your child’s three closest friends?
2. What does your child like to do with each of those friends? Have you met them? What are the names of their parents?
3. Do you know who your child’s doctor is? Does your child’s doctor know who you are?
4. Do you know who your child’s principal is? Does the principal know you?
5. Can you honestly say, “I know what encourages my child the most,” or, “I know when my child is disappointed.”
Stumped? Don’t feel too sheepish. Many working fathers can’t answer these questions. “Mothers are almost always able to answer these questions,” says Klein. “If a father can’t answer them, he may want to shoot for a new level of involvement.”
Do You Know What Your Kids Want?
It’s the eternal lament of working parents: There just aren’t enough hours in the week. Klein and Levine argue that being an effective father is about more than devoting time to your children. Sometimes, in fact, less time is better than more. In 1994, Levine’s group conducted in-depth research on what children want from working parents. “We suspected that what kids wanted was more time,” he says. “But what they actually wanted was for their parents to be less stressed” – even if that meant the parents spent less time with them. “You can’t help your kids unless you help yourself,” Levine argues.
Do You Have the Tools of the Trade?
Even the best intentions don’t count for much without crisp execution. When it comes to mastering both work and home life, little techniques can count for a lot.
Travel presents a classic challenge. Klein and Levine recommend that on-the-go fathers create “leave-taking” rituals to help kids feel more connected: Ask them to help you pack; create fun geography quizzes based on the cities you visit. Klein and Levine also urge traveling dads to use technology: Encourage kids to fax you their homework or drawings. Get them an email address. As for parents, don’t arrive home from a business trip and pose the standard question: “What’s new?” You’ll get the standard answer: “Nothing.” Instead, use the phone to get updates. Then, when you get home, you can start in the middle of the family conversation.
Marriott’s fatherhood program is wildly popular. “We’ve had a greater demand for these courses than we’ve had for any other,” Klein says. Levine isn’t surprised: “When companies put this issue on the table, men come out of the woodwork.”
Peter Carbonara firstname.lastname@example.org contributes frequently to Fast Company. You can email Donna Klein email@example.com and visit the Fatherhood Project on the Web www.fatherhoodproject.org .