Perhaps my favourite Mark Twain quote is one which I’m currently living through as my two sons enter adulthood and our relationship goes from a father/son one to a different standing. Always the wit, Twain reportedly commented that:
When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.
While my sons still comment relatively frequently about my idiocy, we have reached a place where, at least from time to time, they recognise that I have something to offer. While I’m sure they’d be quick to downplay both the quantity and quality of things that I actually have to offer, I’m going to celebrate my elevation to something resembling a mentor.
The role of mentor is a privileged one – a chance to take one’s lifetime experience and use it to help others avoid making the same mistakes we made. The chance to pass on something of ourselves to others and the chance to live vicariously through those having experiences we might just be a bit old and jaded to have.
It is a theme I was noodling over just the other day after going for a run with my son. On the way home we decided to call in on another running mate. Walking around the back of his house we saw him and his retired father enjoying a cup of tea during a short break in some weekend DIY jobs. In his inimitable style, old man Higgy was helping the young ‘un replace some decking around his house.
Higgy is what you’d call a good bloke. I’m sure he wouldn’t be offended by my comment that he’s not (to my knowledge) built any empires, been a captain of industry or chased fame and fortune. What he has done, however, is to raise a good solid couple of kids and work his entire life to give them a good education and a start in life. In his retirement he spends his time being a granddad and a particularly useful home handyman for his offspring. He’s what every Kiwi used to aspire to be: a good bugger. No airs and graces, just a good solid bloke.
But what, you might ask, does parenting have to do with running a business? And are there lessons from parenting success that can be parlayed into learnings for those in the business world? Well, it strikes me that what we might just be missing in a business context is the sort of guidance that Higgy gives to those around him in a more personal context. Let’s call it the wisdom of age.
I’ve been thinking about the role of being a guide and mentor of late as I contemplate the recent collapse of the Silicon Valley Bank, the latest in a long string of ignominious Silicon Valley failings. While there are complicated reasons the bank failed, some of those reasons can be articulated as being a little bit too arrogant and not learning from history. It’s a theme that occurs again and again in Silicon Valley – I’m just enjoying watching Super Pumped, the dramatization of the rise (and fall) of Uber. It’s something of a theme for me – I also enjoyed the tales of woe that were the collapse of Theranos and WeWork.
So what traits do these organizations display and how do we change their way of thinking and acting? I’d suggest that they all, to a greater or lesser extent, have a founder or leader who has absolute clarity and certainty of their direction and would rather not waste the time getting good counsel to help refine their ideas. Instead they display that hubristic tendency to dismiss others as dinosaurs or lacking innovative thinking. But sometimes those dinosaurs, or those who would urge a modicum of caution alongside the innovation, have a very valuable role to play.
In the corporate world, that role falls to boards and advisors, the people who should be gently steering founders and leaders to refine their decisions and cogitate on unintended consequences or other options. Alas in the business world it seems that many people remain firmly fixed in Mark Twain’s 14-year old version of himself, not yet mature enough to accept that those around him might just have thoughts worth considering.
I’ve been fortunate to work with some great CEOs and business leaders and, without fail, the difference between those who are great, and those who are good at best lies in their ability to listen, to ponder, and to course-correct based on varied feedback. It’s something worth pondering and flies in the face of the current theme de jour of total and utter confidence and aversion to showing weakness.
But in the same way that my running mate will get a much better result on his deck due to the help and advice of his old man, so can business leaders benefit from the thoughts of those around them.
Ben Kepes is a Canterbury-based entrepreneur and professional board member. He has an annoying tendency to proffer advice.