In praise of fathers

Francis W. McCarthy 1922-2003

I got the news that my father had passed away when the phone rang at 1:30 AM in the morning.

We all knew it was coming. In fact, I’d been making arrangements to get a place in St. Augustine, FL where he and my mother retired after a lifetime in the northeast so I could spend more time with him. But the news was still a shock. I had just seen him a week before.

The timing was a bit rough. I had carved out a week to finish the sales letter for a big System Seminar that was coming up in just two months. (The Cleveland one.)

That planned week got telescoped down to the hours between 1:30 AM when I got the call and 7:30 AM when I got in the car and drove the 115 miles to Newark Airport to catch a flight to Florida.

When I left, the letter was 92% done, close enough for me to be able to steal a minute here and there to finish it when I got to Florida.

First Lesson from my Dad: When people are counting on you, get the job done. No excuses.

A different world

Some entrepreneurs come from entrepreneurial families. My dad, God bless him, didn’t have an entrepreneurial bone in his body.

He grew up on the wrong side of the Depression.

His family was part of the 25% of the country that didn’t have a steady breadwinner in an era before safety nets. So his financial goal was not riches or business success, it was getting a good job he could not be arbitrarily fired from.

Though he and his brothers were bright, hard working young men, college was out of the question for them – but then World War II came along.

At an early point in his Army career, his sergeant announced that all the enlistees in his unit would be taking an aptitude exam.

A rumor spread that scoring high on the exam meant being assigned to a tough project and a lot of hard work, so ‘the group’ agreed to deliberately blow it. My dad bucked the consensus. He decided to give the test his best shot and let the chips fall where they may.

He scored sky high on the exam and was chosen to receive training as an engineer, something the military was in desperate need of at the time. As a result, after his basic training, he spent a good part of the war in college. His colleagues were sent right into combat.

Second Lesson from my Dad: Be your best. Don’t dumb yourself down to fit in with ‘the group.’

Present at the creation

After the war, like so many other GIs, my Dad got the opportunity to go to college and get a degree.

With his family (his Mom, Dad and younger siblings) counting in him, he didn’t screw around. He finished his BA in a year and a half, taking a double load of courses each semester and taking classes through the summer.

The goal was to get a paycheck as soon as possible so like a lot of new college grads, he took the first job offered to him. He became an auditor for a company that manufactured film and dyes.

Somewhere along the way, he discovered computers and I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t know the details, but by the mid-1950s, before I was born, he entered what at the time was one of the rarest of professions: computing.

I remember visiting the places he worked as a kid. Computers in those days were roughly the size of refrigerators. Through a glass window on the top half of the box, you could see two large reels with tape, like a big tape recorder, going back and forth sort of like a washing machine.

This was the era before disc drives and random access memory. It was also the era before cathode ray tubes (CRTSs), also known as computer screens. If you wanted to know the contents of a computer, you had to print it out and read it on paper.

If you wanted to get a computer to do something, you had to write very specific, detailed instructions, one instruction per card and feed the cards into a machine. If you made one mistake, the process wouldn’t work and then you had to print out the entire program and read it line by line to see where you’d gone wrong and try again.

My Dad’s specialty was building and managing computer systems for big companies.

At various times, he was the top computer man at Knights of Columbus Insurance, Mattel Toys (great fun for us kids), Blue Cross/Blue Shield California and finally Blue Cross/Blue Shield New Jersey where he had 300 employees working under him and huge rooms filled with computers.

How did he do it? How did he make the transition from a lowly auditor from a struggling blue collar family to one of the top MIS (management information services) people in the insurance industry?

That’s easy. He worked his butt off.

Third Lesson from my Dad: Hard work moves mountains.

You grow by helping others grow

My grandfather intended to be a professional military man, but World War I changed his mind about that. When it was over, he decided he’d seen enough carnage to last a lifetime and entered civilian life.

One of the things he was famous for when he was in the Army was breaking the ‘color barrier’ and setting up a program to teach black recruits from the South how to read.

In those days, the gap between educational opportunities available to whites and blacks, especially those from the South, was enormous. Slavery had only been abolished just 50 years earlier and lynchings and terrorist organizations like the Klu Klux Klan were in full flower. Racism in the military at that time was still rampant and institutionalized.

My grandfather’s reading program did not make him popular among some of his more ‘tradition-minded’ colleagues, but he didn’t care. As the grandson of a man who fled religious and economic persecution in Ireland only to arrive in a city where storekeepers posted ‘No dogs or Irish’ on their windows, he wasn’t going to be part of a system that kept other people down.

My father carried on this spirit in his own career.

Because data processing was a brand new field, the ability to recruit, train and develop large numbers of new people was essential to every corporate MIS department’s success. Because of the sheer size of the operations he managed, my father was responsible for launching a couple of thousand new people into the industry over the course of his career.

He had the same attitude his father had which was that talent, character and hard work should be the only determining factor of a person’s advancement. As a result, the MIS Department of Cross/Blue Shield New Jersey had a higher percentage of black professionals than any other business organization of similar size in Newark, a city which in the late 60s and 70s was almost torn apart by racial polarization – literally.

Many of the people who were brought into the profession by my Dad went on to take positions in better paying industries (working for a state-regulated health insurance companies is no way to get rich. ) It was frustrating to him to lose so many good people, but he was always glad to hear about one of ‘his guys’ going out at kicking ass in another industry.

Fourth Lesson from my Dad: Nothing beats the satisfaction of helping other people find their way and succeed.

Real World 101

My Dad bought computer equipment by the roomful in an era when everything related to computers was super-expensive. He was responsible for spending millions of dollars per year on everything related to running a 300 person corporate MIS department.

To give you an idea of the scope of his budget, when he ran Blue Cross/Blue Shield New Jersey’s MIS Department, he was among the top 10% of IBM’s commercial customers worldwide.

Though IBM wasn’t in the bribery business (they didn’t need to be) many of the smaller suppliers were.

In those days (and I’m sure it’s still true), it was quite possible at the level my father was at to get rich from ‘side deals’ with various vendors. Payoffs came in the form of everything from cases of liquor to all expense paid vacations to the old stand by, cash in a paper bag.

My Dad had a simple policy. He’d only accept a ‘gift’ that he could keep on his desk at work in plan view. Everything else was sent back.

At Christmas time, returning the ‘gifts’ that vendors showered on him was a full time job for one his staff members. They came in fast and furious.

As a kid, I couldn’t fathom why my father would turn down all this ‘free’ stuff. I thought he was dumb.

Now I get it.

The world is full of people who’d like to buy your integrity for a handful of trinkets. Once you start down that slippery slope, it’s all but impossible to turn back.

Fifth Lesson from my Dad: Play it straight. Be your own man and be worthy of the trust other people have placed in you.

Irony of ironies

There were two things I was sure about when I was growing up: 1) I would stay as far away from computers as possible (too boring) and 2) I would never work as hard as my Dad did (too dumb.)

After my father passed away, I was going through his papers and found the photo at the top of this article. (It’s from 1957, almost fifty years ago.) I had never seen it before. In fact, other than visiting him at work once in a blue moon, I really hadn’t given any thought to his work or career.

I’ve since learned that my father was a pioneer in the field of Systems Analysis. Systems Analysis is taking complex activities and breaking them down into clear, easy-to-follow steps

So years after I decided not to go into computers and not to work as hard as my Dad, I find myself spending nearly every waking hour researching, studying and thinking about systems for making marketing and business management better.

I even named one of my companies, a seminar and training business, The System.

I wish my Dad could have seen all this come to pass, but I bet where ever he is, he’s looking down having a good laugh.

If your Dad is still living, don’t wait until he’s gone to think about his accomplishments.

If he’s passed, it’s not too late to study his life and see what there is to learn from him.

And if you’ve got kids, don’t be fooled. It may not look it, but they’re watching you and absorbing every lesson, good and bad. My Dad wasn’t perfect, no one is, but he sure left me with a fantastic legacy in the way he chose to live his life.

Happy Father’s Day to all fathers, sons and daughters.

Here are the Five Lessons again:

Lesson One: When people are counting on you, get the job done. No excuses

Lesson Two: Be your best. Don’t dumb yourself down to fit in with ‘the group.’

Lesson Three: Hard work moves mountains

Lesson Four: Nothing beats the satisfaction of helping other people find their way and succeed

Lesson Five: Play it straight. Be your own man and be worthy of the trust other people have placed in you.

– Ken McCarthy

P.S. For over 25 years I’ve been sharing the simple but powerful things that matter in business – and life – with my clients.

If you’d like direction for your business that will work today, tomorrow and twenty years from now, visit us at the System Club.

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