An Interview with Recovering "CEO Dad" Tom Stern
Jan 24, 2019
It’s been a long, strange trip that’s brought Tom Stern to where he is today. He began as a stand-up comic alongside pals Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno, then went on to launch a wildly successful executive search firm. As a type A entrepreneur with an obsessive drive to succeed, he became the dysfunctional creature he dubbed the “CEO Dad,” a father who treats his family like a corporation. Stern’s turning point came in 2002 when his wife was brutally attacked in their California home while thugs held a gun to Stern’s head—with their five-year-old child witnessing the horror.
Today Stern is a self-described “recovering success addict” who devotes his energies to balancing work and family. He recently spoke to me about his new book CEO Dad: How to Avoid Getting Fired by Your Family (Davies-Black, 2007) and the upcoming animated prime-time TV series he’s creating for CNBC based on the CEO Dad character, while sharing his unique observations about life, work, success, family, and the pursuit of happiness.
Shari Lifland: Everybody’s talking about work/life balance these days, but it seems most companies are still talking, not walking, the talk.
Tom Stern: If we want to be honest, here’s the root of the problem: corporations reward people who work too much. They love those people. But if the leader is a CEO Dad type the behavior he’s modeling is imbalanced. If he’s a control freak, if he can’t stop working, if everything is about his job, if he’s been divorced four times, that’s the model he’s presenting to his people.
Going forward, organizations are going to have to understand that it is in their best interest to make balance a business priority. I think businesses are hopefully on the verge of the epiphany we had about drugs. In the past there was no drug testing; what you did on your time was your own business. That’s no longer the case. We are going to have to recognize the downfalls of lack of work/life balance and realize that there is a business case for intervening. People who work too much tend to have really bad personal lives. Their families become unhappy, their children have problems that are distracting and emotionally draining, their wives are angry all the time. Obviously, job performance suffers.
It’s not just how many hours you’re putting in or how much you’re churning out. There’s the quality of your work. And studies show that compulsive workaholism does not produce a better product.
Here"s a really important theory of mine: I believe the family is a grounding mechanism. Your family will talk to you in a way people never would in business, especially if you’re a high-level executive. A lot of it is really healthy because it contains the ego. It reminds you of your place in the world. If you’re not connecting with your family, you don’t have that critical grounding mechanism. And for certain personalities that can lead to immense arrogance and ethical management issues.
SL: Since the hallmark of CEO Dad-itude is the need to control, will the species eventually die out?
TS: It’s hard to imagine this type of individual dying out, at least in a patriarchal society. What we’re talking about is the “driver personality.” This is the guy who gets things done, and society will always need that person. We may no longer be in the industrial age, but there are always going to be deadlines, there are still going to be slackers, people who shy away from power. So we’ll always need the kind of person who will just jump in and act. The question is, how many of those people will be compulsive and obsessive? Because CEO Dad is not just a driver personality, he is an overdrive personality; he’s driven to get things done. There is a difference between having drive and being driven. Being driven means you’re being controlled by something. You’re the vehicle; you’re not the driver.
SL: In the forward to your book CEO Dad, Stephen R. Covey writes about the need for leaders to move from control to release. But why would anybody in power want to give up control?
TS: The fact is that none of us is in control of anything. We don’t control our thoughts, events in the world, or other people’s behavior. In fact, the only things we control are the choices we make. If you accept that as a leader, you loosen the reins a little bit because you don’t wake up in the morning with the expectation that you’re going to control everybody’s behavior. Otherwise you create a gap between expectation and reality, which causes anxiety, which causes fear. And fear drives really poor management. So we all have to recognize that we do not control results or other people. As obvious as that is, we often don’t behave that way.
SL: You’re developing your CEO Dad comic strip for an animated series on CNBC. How are you similar to/different from Frank Pitt, your CEO Dad?
TS: Well, first of all, I’m three-dimensional. And I don’t have to wait to dry every morning. OK, to be serious, I’d say there’s night and day difference. Frank Pitt is living under the illusion that he is in control, that prestige, power and money are what make the world go round and that he can treat his family like an afterthought. But he is narcissistic enough to believe that if he swoops in at the last minute, with his incredible charisma, forcefulness, and powers of persuasion, he can convince them to love him. I know from experience that if you neglect your family, there are wounds that do not heal overnight and that there are consequences.
SL: So you’re kind of Frank Pitt who has seen the light?
TS: Yeah, but I’d like to think that I was never quite as bad as him. My one-line description for CEO Dad is “His family would be everything he wants it to be, if he weren’t in it.”
SL: Is CEO Dad-itude just a guy thing, or is it an equal opportunity affliction?
TS: Certainly you don’t have to be a man, or a CEO for that matter, to have this problem. This pertains to anybody who believes that work will fix him and that he"s in control. When a person is in that state of mind, he doesn't consider the consequences, just like somebody who drinks and then gets in the car. But because we have a patriarchal society, and leadership and business have more often been associated with men, the syndrome tends to reside more easily in men. But it’s a human condition. Now that we have more women in the workforce and more women CEOs there’s more opportunity for it to cross gender lines.
SL: Part of your mission is “to make sure that everyone, no matter what their rank, has a few laughs along the road to success.” It’s one thing for the CEO to say he’s leaving early to attend his child’s school play—who’s going to tell him no? How can a mere manager or assistant make sure that he or she is there for the family?
TS: Part of this question has been addressed through innovations like flex hours and telecommuting where people can create a more flexible lifestyle as long as they deliver on the job. But not all of the people who work in a company can go to Colonial Day. (Editor’s note: Stern skipped his young daughter’s “Colonial Day” at school to participate in this interview). One could say, look, when you’ve worked yourself to the bone or you’ve developed so much talent that you go to the top, there are certain perks that have been earned. One might say that the best leaders are those who don’t behave any differently than those beneath them, right? But that’s rare. If your middle managers and assistants can’t do everything during work hours, how do they behave when they come home? My daughter is not overly upset because I’m missing Colonial Day, because when I’m at home I’m present. I’m not gnashing my teeth about something that went wrong at work.
My mission statement is this: business will not rule my well-being. That’s a gigantic decision, one that a lot of people do not make. Once I make that decision a lot of things are possible. I can suffer disappointments more fluidly. I can be more present for my family. I can create boundaries. I can turn off my cell phone. But what’s harder is to turn off your business.
SL: You describe yourself as a “recovering success addict.” But now that you’ve become a successful author, humorist, comic strip writer, radio host, and so on, don’t you risk a relapse into CEO Dad-itude?
TS: It’s kind of like a recovering alcoholic working as a bartender, right? First of all, now my work has to be something that I want to do. Part of it is to understand that success doesn’t really deliver on the promise. The true success addict, like the drug addict, operates under the belief that success will fix him. “Oh, if I could just get that promotion.” “If I could just close that big deal.” But it’s just not true. Success is just a result. All success does is open doors and it create options. It does not equate to a sense of well being.
SL: If the tragedy that befell your family hadn’t happened, do you think you would have changed?
TS: I’d like to think that I have enough introspection that I would have grown. But I think it probably would have taken a divorce. What I lost with the attack was a sense of safety and the sense that I could take my family for granted. Most change, especially for people who are really hard-driving, is about consequences or loss. It’s like we discussed earlier, why will companies change? If we can prove to them that it’s in their best interest. It’s the same with individuals. My hunch is that if the attack had not happened, I probably would have had to separate from my wife and realize, oh, no, I’m about to be divorced. Had it gotten to that point, I do think I would have changed.
SL: Do you miss the corporate lifestyle?
TS: No. I still enjoy helping people find new opportunities, but now I’m a comedic evangelist. I believe that thoughtful humor can nudge people towards different thinking.
SL: Are you happy?
TS: Happiest I’ve ever been. My ability to be there for other people has increased. I think a lot of happiness comes from tuning in to other people. And I didn’t know that before.
To find out more about Tom Stern’s book CEO Dad: How to Avoid Getting Fired by Your Family (Davies-Black Publishing, 2007), and to read CEO Dad comic strips, visit www.CEODad.com