The father trap: How nearly all businesses fail

This is a guest post from David Willans, one of the two speakers at ‘What to Expect When They’re Expecting‘ on 22nd June 2017. 

A brief story

Two years ago, at 10:30pm I was on my way back from London City airport after a big client meeting in Zurich. My cabby was John. He’s a proper East-Ender, late 40’s. Born and bred in the East End. He would have made pro for West Ham until an injury ruined it. We talked about our kids and what it means to be a dad (something of a preoccupation with me). His kids were 21 and 12, boy and girl respectively. Mine are 5 and 8, both boys.

The weekend before was his son’s 21st. He told me about a moment early in the evening when he was sitting with his dad. His son came up, gave him a hug and kiss, told him he loved him then bounded off to the bar.

John turned to his dad and said “Do you remember what you said to me when I was 8?”

Without a pause, the old man said “Yes, you went to hug me and I said ‘no son, men don’t hug, we shake hands’. Biggest mistake of my life.”

John’s dad wasn’t doing what he thought was right, he was doing what he thought was expected of him. What he though it meant to be a man, because men don’t show affection, men are strong. Men don’t hug. Following an ideal he thought was important cost him and his son a price no-one should have to pay. But many do because the stereotype of the ‘traditional’ dad who brings home the bacon and lets his wife lead on childcare is very strong.

At home, the trap John’s dad fell into is starting to be sidestepped by many dads. A government survey found that over half of men (57%) thought that being more involved in the baby’s life would be a good thing for their whole family. Of course this doesn’t mean that they do it, but if what I see on the streets every day is anything to go by, dads are stepping up.

What’s happening in the workplace?

But in the workplace, it’s a different story. Far from avoiding the trap, men are falling victim to it in droves. Only 4% of eligible couples took Shared Parental Leave in the first quarter of 2016. 39% of fathers felt resentful towards their employer about their work-life balance, and 47% want to downshift into a less stressful job to get a better balance. I’ve run lots of workshops for new dads in City firms. Without fail, 25% of a room of 12- 15 dads are thinking about leaving the City because work just doesn’t work for them as a dad. These are firms largely run by men who, playing the odds, many of which will be fathers. When asked why, the sentiment falls heavily towards the expectations men believe they have to live up to. Just like John’s dad.

So where do the expectations come from? The mainstay of my work is in organisational development, a fancy way of saying getting organisations to work better. Over many years of this work, I’ve learnt that expectations of behaviour come from the people at the top. And many of those people are men, playing the odds, many of those men will be dads.

Does your company measure up?

What we do is a far more powerful message than what we say. While many firms talk about being supportive of parents, how many actively live by these words, and what can you do about it?

If the people at the top are ‘leaders’ who believe that, because they had to sacrifice their family at the altar of their career, so does everyone else, I suggest you get out, quickly.

If the people at the top are leaders who recognise the world has changed and want things to be different, then there’s hope. But the stats hint that these good intentions aren’t delivering change. If this is the case, then these enlightened old men at the top need to know that their intentions aren’t working, and they’ll need help changing – an opportunity.

What can dads do?

Then, of course, there’s what us dads can do about it. Dads of newborns, pre-schoolers, juniors, secondary schoolers and kids who have flown the nest. We’re the men who have the chance to be real leaders because real leadership is about working for what you believe in, especially when it’s hard. We’ve got to back each other on this one, support men who are trying to make work work for the firm and the family, and do it ourselves.

The business case

In case you’re worried about how wise this is, a bit of business case can help calm the nerves. A big chunk of working dads are unhappy and many are thinking of leaving. Throw the tech-fuelled talent drain, and the still challenging situation returning mums face, and you’ve got storms of triplet proportions. And having seen friends with twins, I can’t even imagine what it’s like to deal with triplets. Analysts Oxford Economics put the cost of hiring and getting a new recruit up to speed at up to £30k per employee. Put that into your firm’s context and the numbers should be enough to make any senior exec sit up and take notice.

Thankfully we live in a world where this is not an impossible situation. With the tech at our fingertips, it’s possible to work from anywhere. Yet as one dad I spoke to said “You can change the tech, and they have, I’m always on, but I’m still judged on what I’m seen to be doing, rather than what I actually deliver. Changing the culture is a different matter entirely.” If there was ever a cause to stand up and be counted for, having a great career and being the best dad you can be won’t be far off number 1.

It’s on us, dads.


David WilliansDavid Willans advises businesses on how to grow with a strong culture through clarity of purpose and values. He’s advised organisations big and small, from TripAdvisor to O2, Crisis to WhereIsMyTransport. He runs Being Dads, exploring what it means to be a great dad in today’s world, which has been featured in The Guardian, The Early Hour and The Good Men Project. He’s also speaking at ‘What to Expect When They’re Expecting‘ on 22nd June 2017. 

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