The call came at 2:45 a.m. It was my mom, her voice sounding like it came from underwater. It seemed that my father had had a heart attack and stroke. He was unresponsive. Perhaps I’d better come to the hospital.
When we arrived, I found the smartest man I have ever known staring, unblinking, at the ceiling.
The medical staff was attentive and kind, but grim. During the first 48 hours, it was clear that they did not expect my dad to survive.
The April weather seemed to mirror my frame of mind. Two days after Dad was taken ill, we were hammered by a merciless storm, and four feet of sewage took out our furnace, hot water heater, washer and dryer. It felt like my heart was on ice, so our cold house and frigid tap water seemed fitting. And the wreckage in my basement paled next to the wreckage of my father’s brain.
The worst part of the whole experience of my father’s hospitalization was that I wanted to call my dad to talk about it.
But then Dad rallied. Ultimately he was pumped full of anti-seizure medications and admitted to the ICU, hallucinating but responsive.
Within hours, he had moments of lucidity.
Within days, his cognition returned.
Within weeks, he was back in the classroom at Oakton Community College, delivering hour-long history lectures without notes.
It turned out that he’d had neither a heart attack nor a stroke, but was suffering from a rare form of encephalitis that had triggered episodes of cardiac arrest. The swelling in Dad’s brain appears to be dissipating. Though the medication he’s taking is pretty punishing, it looks like he will be okay.
So we got a reprieve. But that week, I had a glimpse of a future without my father, and it was gut-wrenching.
I am a perfectly competent businesswoman who can balance a $1 million budget, but I still call my dad whenever I must calculate percentages. I know how to do the calculations myself, but I still don’t feel certain until my dad confirms them.
I don’t feel certain about a lot of things until my dad confirms them.
My dad is the one who actually understand my day-to-day life, and remembers all the details. Once I tell him who the players are, I don’t have to explain again. He remembers my friends and my husbands’ relatives, my college roommates and my favorite professors, where I am doing volunteer work and why. He knows the name of my boss and my boss’s boss; understands which projects I love and which ones drive me to distraction. He reads anything I write cover-to-cover—including every annual report. If I mention in passing that I have an important presentation or meeting, I know he’ll be thinking about me on that day, hoping it goes well.
If I am honest with myself, I will admit that my greatest professional goal has been to make him proud.
Dad was a refugee from Nazi Germany who helped support his immigrant family while putting himself through college. In his first career he was a CPA with a Big Eight accounting firm, eventually headed up Human Resources at a mid-size firm and then served as CFO for a major nonprofit. He served at the helm of the local school board and the boards of nonprofits for as long as I can remember.
He was my first and most important mentor. I learned my most enduring business lessons from him, or through his example.
The first was to set a professional standard of excellence. Today there’s a lot of talk about developing your personal “brand,” but Dad demonstrated that most of that can be accomplished by taking pride in your work. An exceptional track record is its own reward—and nowadays it’s also your strongest marketing tool.
Dad also taught me to take responsibility and have integrity. He showed me the importance of developing a strong backbone. If you make a mistake, he said, own up to it and fix it. If you have a concern or bad news, don’t surprise your boss; share it. Don’t pass the buck. Reject subterfuge. Speak truth to power. And remember that your word is your bond.
A companion lesson: Be honorable. How you conduct yourself in business is not separate from how you conduct your life; it actually constitutes much of how you conduct your life. If you are successful but ruthless, or successful but deceitful, or successful but unethical, you are not successful.
Dad also was a mensch as a manager. He knew that how you treat people matters, especially if they are your subordinates. Some decades ago, when Dad was head of Human Resources, one of the firm’s deeply valued staffers submitted her resignation so she could care for her dying father. Dad was horrified and asked her to please stay with the firm. Just take off as much time as you need, he said, and come in when you can. Dad was a pioneer in launching family medical leave and flextime.
If you want to be a leader, he said, support and protect your staff. Give them credit for their achievements and take the blame for their mistakes. Never, ever thrown a subordinate under the bus for a decision upon which you signed off.
I see this as one way to pay forward the opportunities that I have as a Jew living in the 21st Century, opportunities of which my grandparents could not have dreamed. It is also a way for me to attempt to repay the women who came before me, hammering away at inequity and that glass ceiling and making it possible for me to have had this career.
Someday—hopefully not for many years—my father will be here only in spirit. But the code of conduct he imparted in the countless people he mentored along the way, including his children, will long endure.
Happy Fathers Day, Daddy.