A Posthumous Business Lesson from Dad
Just prior to my dad’s death in 1994, my career was somewhat uncertain. I was a relatively new executive vice-president at New York Life Insurance Company, hired from the outside in a conservative organization that much preferred to promote from within. I came to the company with a hard-driving management style that was much more focused on aggressively tackling problems and achieving ambitious objectives than on celebrating successes. I had a well-deserved reputation of setting unrealistic expectations and micro-managing employees without giving recognition to, or expressing appreciation for, achievements.
To use a medical metaphor, I found myself frequently concerned that the corporation would ultimately reject me as an unwelcomed foreign substance within the body corporate.
It was in this emotional state of vocational apprehension that I faced the experience of bidding farewell to my much-loved father. Our entire family was driving home from Michigan to Connecticut after an emotional and spiritually awe-inspiring two-week visit with my ailing father when we received the call telling us he had passed away. The news was not unexpected; just days earlier he had experienced a near-death transcendence into the world beyond, and he had been eagerly awaiting his own final passage. His subsequent testimony to us about the love and bright beauty of the other side had given us hope and courage, feelings that helped to ease us through the news of his passing.
We still had over 100 miles to go to return to our home in Connecticut and there was an eerie silence in the car for the remaining two hours of that trip. All that could be heard from my five children was an occasional sob and some sniffling as they remembered Grandpa and fought back tears. My eyes watered as I worked hard at paying attention to my driving. It was difficult.
But in that moment of grief, I felt Dad and my love for him. My mind ricocheted back over decades of images: Dad working so hard day and night for his family; Dad playing the trumpet professionally in the evenings; Dad working! And suddenly I realized that Dad was the source of my work ethic.
The images of Dad kept coming, and as we got closer to home and the traffic got heavier, it became increasingly difficult to concentrate on my driving. It was dangerous, but it was impossible to control the images. Our family meant everything to Dad, and he worked very hard to make life as comfortable as possible for Mom, my brother, and me. How much he had sacrificed for us, with so little time for leisure activity or even for family vacations. Our one family vacation flashed into my mind—images of Dad trying desperately to pretend he could be an outdoorsman and knew how to fish.
More and more, the memories rushed in: Dad attending sporting events to watch his two boys play—something that gave him joy but, at times, also caused family discord, as his expectation of strong athletic and academic performance was more often perceived as demanding than encouraging. This too was a trait I unknowingly took from Dad. It was my M.O. in the workplace.
During that drive, I thanked God for giving me many rapid-fire and pleasant flashbacks of my years with Dad. Those years went by so quickly, and I didn’t tell Dad often enough how much I loved and appreciated him. Having these recollections was an experience that I thought of as a gift from God, helping me to deal with the grief of my loss.
Despite my distracted driving, we finally arrived safely at home—where we almost immediately unpacked, repacked, and arranged to fly back to Michigan to deal with the funeral arrangements.
Back in Michigan, cloistered in Dad’s basement, going through boxes and boxes of personal papers in the days before and after his funeral, I came across a green hanging file containing handwritten notes he’d received while working as an insurance inspector many years earlier. These short, simple expressions of appreciation from his superiors were often nothing more than a handwritten message that said something like, “Fred—nice job on this case.” Alone with my thoughts, my emotions again overtook me as I thought of Dad’s humanness. He was never a manager of people; he was a working employee at the bottom of the organizational chart. How much these small gestures of appreciation from his superiors must have meant to him.
I read and reread many of the short notes. How easy and meaningful a simple expression of praise or appreciation could be. And how much such an expression could mean to an employee at any level. Dad had saved these notes over many years and had probably reviewed them often during his retirement.
I was managing New York Life’s largest business unit, one that consisted of more than 10,000 agents and 4,000 employees. Only eight or ten executives reported directly to me, but I knew hundreds of employees and agents personally. How infrequently I had thanked them for a job well done or had expressed encouragement. Dad was at the bottom of his company’s organizational chart and I was at the top of mine. Sitting in his basement among scattered boxes of papers and that small green file, I was overtaken by a sense of guilt and lost opportunity. How could I be so driven and not understand the human need for recognition and appreciation and encouragement? This was a moment from God. I needed this lesson desperately and it was delivered by God, indirectly by Dad, through the documents he left behind.
On the same day that I discovered my dad’s file of notes, I came face to face with my past. I was taking a break from the tedious work in the basement and, still in awe over the lesson I had just learned, I drove over to the nearest shopping mall. Walking through the mall, I noticed a man who looked very familiar.
“Are you Fred Sievert?” he asked.
“Yes,” I answered, instantly recognizing him. It was Alan Lauer, an employee who had worked for me many years earlier when I was an executive at Maccabees Mutual Life Insurance Company in Southfield, Michigan. It was wonderful to see him.
“Fred,” he said pounding me on the shoulder. “Fred Sievert! I still remember when you called me after a presentation I made to our executive management committee. Do you remember that?”
I confessed I did not.
“During that call, you told me how much you appreciated my work and how confident you were in my knowledge and abilities,” he told me. Then he went on to say that my call had meant a great deal to him and that it had caused him, a relatively new employee, to conclude that he had chosen the right position at the right company that had the right leadership.
What a wonderful and reassuring message for me to hear. And how incredibly remarkable that it occurred only hours after I had discovered Dad’s file of complimentary notes and felt remorse over my present-day lack of appreciation.
This could not have been a coincidence. It was just too timely and too improbable. Dozens of times over the years, we had returned to Michigan to visit family and friends and I had been in that same mall on nearly every trip. Never once had I seen anyone I knew. Thank you, Lord, for reminding me of that simple management tip and of how easy it is to overlook.
As a result of this revelation, I started a practice the following Christmas season of sending annual holiday greeting cards to more than 300 New York Life employees. In each card I included a handwritten personal note of appreciation for that person’s work on behalf of the company over the prior year. Since this was a time-consuming task, I started the process well before Thanksgiving each year.
Years later, at a number of retirement parties held for me throughout the country and even around the globe, many people thanked me and told me what those cards meant to them. Many, including my successor as president, even indicated that they had saved a file of their cards. How moving it was to hear that my employees were replicating my dad’s practice—but this time those files contained messages from me. Another posthumous gift from Dad!
Our behaviors and the words we use to express ourselves to our family, friends, and colleagues at work can have a powerful and lasting effect on those individuals and our relationships with them. Our actions and our words can have either a very positive effect or a devastatingly negative one. In the above excerpt from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, his primary admonition seems to be against “evil talk,” but don’t miss in his message the emphasis on “building up” and giving grace to those who hear.
As my career was advancing in the mid-1990s, I needed to be reminded of the impact of my demanding management behaviors. My drive, ambition, sense of urgency, and strong work ethic often caused me to be perceived as domineering and unappreciative of the excellent efforts and results being produced by those who reported to me. A change was needed, and little did I realize at the time how God would lead me to accomplish that change.
As in so many of life’s experiences, when chance encounters extend beyond mere coincidence, it’s likely that God is orchestrating the events and delivering a message. That’s how I interpret what happened to me in 1994.
Think about those improbable coincidences that have occurred in your life, significantly altering the course of your future. What could have happened if what you learned or experienced through those events had not occurred? Try to imagine how your life may have been worse without that divine lesson. My lesson from Dad was really a lesson from God delivered through the papers Dad left behind and the highly improbable meeting with a former employee in a shopping mall on that same day. The lesson for me ultimately was about expressing appreciation and giving encouragement, something I was woefully neglectful of before Dad’s death. God knew where I was failing, and He delivered guidance in a way that was timely and undeniable.
Encouragement and expressions of appreciation can impact relationships in all of our human interactions. My lack of attentiveness to this simple practice in dealing with subordinates in the workplace is only one such example, but there are many. How do you treat your friends, your parents, your siblings, your spouse, your children, or other members of your family? Have you developed a habit of expressing encouragement and appreciation to the important people in your life? Or have you been too often guilty of tearing them down rather than building them up?
God may not have smacked you between the eyes with a clear and undeniable message like He did me, but please learn from His providential message to me as you reflect on your own past practices. Remember: As Paul suggests in Ephesians 4:29, use words that build up, and give grace to those who hear.