For most things I do, I think about balance. Balance is a hugely underrated attribute in this world. Take politics, one person says one thing and the other takes the polar opposite view. In life it's rarely ‘either-or’, it's always ‘and’.
With parenting there are these generational models we get ourselves stuck in. When I first became a dad 15 years ago, it was all about Gina Ford and sleep training. Then you find out she didn’t even have kids! This was a command and control parenting model, much like the old command and control approach to leadership too. This is ‘either-or’.
These days a much more balanced view is the order of the day. If your child sleeps in your bed for the first six months it doesn’t matter, what matters is your whole approach. In the past you were pushed to be a certain sort of parent, a dad had to behave in a certain type of way, so did a mum. I think with a more diverse society comes a more diverse way of looking at parenting.
I think you become a better leader by being a better father and you become a better father by being a good leader. It’s about being aware of the people around you. The ‘either-or’, old school leader compartmentalises work and home. They are task, not people focused.
Modern leaders need skills like emotional intelligence, coaching, and a question orientated rather than dictatorial approach. This is also how I think you raise kids well. That doesn’t mean I go home and behave like a CEO, I’d get told off! I mean you’ve got to have the right conversations, even if they are uncomfortable. As a CEO that’s the nature of the beast, you have tough conversations many times a day and learn that it's rarely a good idea to delay that conversation. Raising kids means working well with your partner. This means you need a strong foundation of shared understanding. Understanding each other means you don’t feel as much of a conflict between self, work and family.
Take how you manage your time between family and work. I feel comfortable that I’m present enough with my senior clients and my team. I attend enough industry events and my profile in the industry is good enough, so I don’t need to do things for the sake of it. When it comes to networking or being out in the evenings, I focus on where the business value is, rather than going out for the sake of it or to enjoy myself. If things get too out of balance my wife tells me. I don’t feel attacked because I know where she’s coming from and she knows I’m trying to get the balance right.
We can only do this because we’ve spent time talking about what’s important to each of us. It’s something I didn’t do when I was younger, so in my first marriage, when we had kids, it became hard. My wife's world was focused on them, but my world was expanding with work, international travel and everything. I was being challenged for not being a more present dad. It was a time of conflict as opposed to working to find the right balance.
One of the things I'm very good at doing is ruthlessly prioritising. I change things many times a day sometimes on late notice (ask my wonderfully patient EA Amy!). You have to, if you want work and family to work together. I try to be at home for breakfast or bedtime a few times a week, so I’m not just seeing my baby at the weekends. This is a change from my older kids, back then I used to work every hour god sends in the week to make sure the weekends were free to be with them. Now I want more balance.
I know that if I get up early enough, I do a Twitter blast then I can spend time with my baby before going to work.
The other big thing I do is be very deliberate and planned with my time. When I got divorced I knew I just wasn’t going to be there for my older kids as much as I wanted to be. I knew I had to make sure I was there for the important things in their lives and had made the space to build relationships with them. I contracted with myself and with my new wife that I would prioritise being there for important moments in their lives over anything else. I've managed that 90% of the time I think. It’s hard to do but so very important.
Sometimes though, when you're just there a lot of the time, you don’t think about whether you are genuinely present in the moment. I get it wrong sometimes and have told my kids to call me out on it. They say 'it's our time' and they’re right.
Being the CEO of an organisation of 850 people, I’ve thought a lot about how to create a culture that lets our talent be better parents. It’s a hard thing in agencies. I was brought up in a culture of presenteeism, jacket on the back of the chair type of thing. People used to ask why you weren’t coming in at the weekend.
I decided early on I wanted to get to a senior position so I could change that old school culture. It so desperately needs to change to get the right talent because more and more people want flexibility in their work. They want to make their own decisions about how to spend their time. Like a few more hours at home in the morning and work later, and not to feel judged for that. You need a bit of trust and empowerment with structure too. You can’t just all be about margin, you need to be about nurturing and protecting talent. If you look after your people, they’ll look after the margin. That’s the kind of culture we’re trying to creating here at Havas.
You have a fifteen year old and a new baby, what’s it like going back to the early years again?
There’s an interesting dynamic there, when you're older. Age changes the way you think about being a dad.
When my first daughter was born it was an incredible euphoric moment, this person relies on you, a wonderful moment. I remember trying to express this utterly new feeling in some way. Being an English Lit. graduate, I wrote a poem. It was back in my late 20’s. I wish I had it now, but the lasting memory is of this amazing feeling.
The gap between my eldest and youngest is 15 years, with 13 year old twins in there too. The older kids were with my ex-wife. They don’t live with me, but I see them every other weekend and if possible during the week. I miss them, but a new baby has brought back both the challenge and excitement of having kids in the house.
We joke as a family now about that time now, which is great. Particularly when I introduced them to my now wife. I set it up as she's a friend staying at the house. My 13 year old son finds it particularly hilarious to refer to her as 'the lady’. The fact that we can all joke about it together is such a good sign, because it shows my kids, my wife and I all have good relationships.
The moment of telling them though was really tough. The strongest memory I have is going home one night not long after I had separated my first wife. I was picking up some stuff, had a suitcase in my hand. My son, then about 6 or 7 saw me. He thought I was coming back. Then, in a moment he realised I wasn’t. It was horrific. The look on his face. I find it hard to talk about, even today.
The divorce itself was the right thing to do. Everyone tells you to make the call as early as possible and tell the kids. In the moment, you don’t understand just how resilient kids are. I took a long time to do it and was finding all sorts of reasons to be out the house. But making the call early is advice I’d give now. As long as the kids know you love them, you tell them and show it and are present as much as possible, they can get through it. You have to make the effort to check in every day. I interact with my eldest kids several times a day via Snapchat which has also helped me master the platform and stay young !
You beat yourself up as a dad who decided to leave. How will that change them and how will that influence their relationships in the future? I thought my eldest would be most affected, for a year, she was angry with me but not old enough to be really angry. Now though I see her flourishing in life, absolutely flourishing and it feels good. It doesn’t remove the guilt though, but it’s amazing to see.
To have been there at the important moments. To have helped them recognise who they are. To have helped them think bigger about the world and to know they’re growing up in a big, wide world of possibilities. To have had the hard conversations with them to keep them on track. And of course for them to know that they are loved.
Being a good role model is important too. The norm is still that the man, generally, works more than the mum. This means that men often have to do things that go against the traditional idea of being a dad. You have to be there doing things equally (like housework and cooking) because you have to be the role model for how a dad should look like, not how it has been stereotyped. For how you want them to act as parents themselves in the future.
It’s the most wonderful gift life gives you. With men it can often take a little too long to recognise that. You've got all these other stimuli going on, but it's being a dad that gives you true satisfaction and happiness. Work is necessary to protect and provide for your kids, but it will be the time you spent as a dad that you'll always remember.
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