Everything I need to know about management I learned from my mother



Dan has been the CEO of BLR since 2011. Dan joined M. Lee Smith Publishers as President in 2003 and then purchased the company from Lee Smith in January 2005. In February 2011, M. Lee Smith Publishers merged with BLR to form a new company doing business under the BLR brand. Previously, Dan was president of Lawrence Ragan Communications, Inc. Prior to joining Ragan in 1995, Dan spent four years with Aspen Publishers as a marketing manager and three years with Center for Management Systems, a privately held information company based in Iowa.

Webinar Transcript

Woman: Dan has been the CEO of BLR since 2011. Dan joined M. Lee Smith Publishers as President in 2003 and then purchased the company from M. Lee Smith in January 2005. In February 2011, M. Lee Smith Publishers merged with BLR to form a new company doing business under the BLR brand. Previously, Dan was president of Lawrence Ragan Communications, Inc. Prior to joining Ragan in 1995, Dan spent four years with Aspen Publishers as a marketing manager and three years with Center for Management Systems, a privately held information company based in Iowa. We are excited to have someone like him joining us at LOV [SP] 2015. Please welcome Dan Oswald.

Dan: I had planned to speak on the management lessons I've learned over the years, but as I put this presentation together, something became very clear to me. Everything I need to know about management, I learned from my mother. Yes, you heard me right. I learned everything I need to know about management from my mother. No, my mother was not the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. In fact, she didn't work outside the home for more than 30 years while she raised me and my three siblings. Yet every management lesson I've learned in my 25 years in business, I had already learned from my mother. If I'd only listened to her, I'm sure she'd say the same thing.

Some of you are old enough to remember the TV classic Father Knows Best. Well, I'd argue that mother really knows best. Think about your own mom or the dozens of TV moms that many of us grew up with, June Cleaver, Carol Brady, Marion Cunningham, or Claire Huxtable. Try to tell me you don't remember getting great advice from some of these TV moms, advice that would serve you well in your job today. I'm sure we have a few skeptics in the crowd. I don't blame you. What is it that a stay-at-home mom could have taught me about management while I was just a boy? Well, let's take a look. Maybe I can win a few of you over.

First lesson I learned from my mother was honesty is the best policy. Let me tell you a story. When I was in the third grade, I got into a school yard fight. It's a long story, and I won't bore you with the details, but the bottom line was that it really wasn't my fault. It was really just a big misunderstanding, really. Anyway, part of my punishment from the principal was to write a note about what I had done and take it home for my parents to sign. The principal thought it was a good idea. On that, we didn't quite see eye to eye. But he, being the principal, prevailed. So I had to get this note signed and back to him before the end of the week.

Well, I had a brilliant idea. I was going to have a girl in my class with the best handwriting forge my mother's signature. I'd have a signed note for the principal, and I wouldn't have to bother my parents with having them sign it. Everybody wins. It seemed like an ingenious plan to an eight-year-old. Doesn't this remind you of a "Leave it to Beaver" episode? Anyway, I went ahead with my plan. Joanne signed the note for me and things were looking up. But as I examined her work, I became a bit concerned. Her signature really didn't look much like my mother's. In fact, it looked nothing like my mother's signature. It looked more like, well, like a third grader had signed it.

I headed off to school that morning the note was due, but I was starting to get cold feet. What if I couldn't pull it off? What if the principal could tell that it was a forgery? I didn't make it off the playground that morning. I headed back home before school started, claiming I was sick. It took me a couple hours of faking illness before I came clean to my mom and showed her the note. She dutifully cut off the forged signature at the bottom and signed the note I had written. I'm sure she had a few words of wisdom for me that morning, but, more than anything, she knew I had learned a great lesson, honesty really was the best policy.

There's a great Marcus Aurelius quote, "If it's not right, do not do it; if it's not true, do not say it." I learned that lesson through this little episode, and my mom didn't have to say much to me. The same is true in business. If you want to be a leader, you need to develop trust with your people. It's often said that a leader doesn't have to be liked, but he does need to be respected. Well, people don't respect dishonest leaders. It takes a tremendous amount of time to build trust with people you work with and only one moment to destroy it. Show me someone who says that honesty isn't important, and I'll show you someone who isn't a leader. If you can't tell the truth, you can't effectively manage people. It's as simple as that. Mom was big on honesty. That lesson she taught me is one that's served me well in business.

Second lesson I learned from Mom, treat others with kindness. Be considerate of others. How many of you had a mother who taught you to be considerate of others? That was big in our house. My mother was one of the most kind-hearted people you could ever meet. She often put others ahead of herself. I grew up in the Midwest with about 10 years of my youth coming in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. My dad was a minister and he had a church in the city there. Anyway, my dad was the minister, but it was my mom who wore her heart on her sleeve. Our house was immediately across the street from the church, and only about a half block from the railroad tracks. I can remember as a kid that occasionally one of the hobos from the tracks would knock on our door looking for something to eat. Each time, my mom not only would fix them something to eat and drink, she would invite them to sit down to eat. Most weren't comfortable coming in the house, so she'd invite them around back to sit at our picnic table while they ate.

Often time, managers think they need to be tough or that kindness and management don't mix. I'm here to tell you that's wrong. I'm a big believer in servant leadership. Leaders need to be prepared to put others before themselves. They need to be considerate of others. But never, ever, ever do you break rule number one in an attempt to follow rule number two. You need to be honest with people. You cannot let your kindness stand in the way of honesty. Some managers dodge the difficult conversation and use rule number two as the excuse. That's plain wrong.

Think about a performance review. Some managers don't want to be upfront about any potential issues the employee might have. They're being considerate of that person's feelings. Wrong, wrong, wrong. The considerate thing to do is to tell the person what they're doing wrong, so that they have an opportunity to correct it. By not telling them, you're punishing the person, not being kind. By telling them and giving them the opportunity to correct the behavior, you might be providing them with the opportunity to save their job. What could be more considerate than that? I'd make the same argument about firing people. It's often the kindest thing you can do for a person. Should you be considerate when you do it? Certainly. But being kind and considerate doesn't mean not dealing with issues. It means doing it the right way.

Third lesson my mother taught me is be prepared. I know it's the Boy Scouts motto, but it was something my mother obviously knew and passed on to me. Let me tell you a story. How many of you are from Iowa? Well, my teenage years were spent in Iowa. Iowa in January can be brutal. At least that's how I remember it. Snow blowing across the cornfields, the snowdrifts covering the roads. Well, I turned 16 in September of my junior year of high school. My girlfriend was a farmer's daughter, and she lived 12 miles outside of town. It took a combination of county highways and gravel roads to get to her house.


So November rolls around and I've only being driving a couple of months, when one day I pop the trunk on the family car that I was allowed to use, and inside the trunk was a box. And in that box was a collection of items that included a candle, a pair of wool socks, a pair of gloves, a blanket, and a few other items, probably some rations, if I know my mom. So I went to my mother, "Mom, what's all this stuff in my trunk?" "Oh, that's your emergency kit just in case you have car trouble or find yourself in a ditch between here and Pam's house."

She was very matter-of-fact about it, and I probably didn't give it much thought at the time, but she had been thinking ahead. I was prepared for a winter emergency before the first flake of snow had fallen. Managers need to have this skill. They need to be prepared for any eventuality that might arise. You might not need to prepare your own emergency kit, but you need to make sure you've thought through all of the possible outcomes and have given some thought about what you might do if things don't go exactly according to plan because we all know things don't always go according to plan.

When things go awry, the manager who hasn't given any thought to the possibility of this is the one who panics. "What am I going to do? I didn't expect this." You need to be prepared. Often time, your team members are like that 16-year-old Dan. I didn't have a clue. I never even considered what it might be like to end up in a ditch half way between town and my destination. You may have people who have not thought through the potential pitfalls, and therefore won't be ready when things take a turn for worse. But the prepared manager will be ready.

Lesson number four: Patience is a virtue. My mother had the patience of a saint. The crap she put up with from me and my brother, well, it was a lot. I have a younger brother. We are exactly one year and one day apart in age. A friend of mine once asked my mother what she was thinking when she became pregnant with my brother when I was only three months old. With a smile came a response, "Obviously, I wasn't." We tested her patience on a daily basis, and she was unflappable. I wish I had inherited that gene from her or had learned that lesson that she taught by example on a daily basis. Patience is not my strong suit, never has been. But there have been times that I wish it was.

As a manager, I'm not always the best teacher because I want to keep jumping to the end. "This is what it needs to look like." "Yes, but how did you get there? How do I do it?" Sometimes instead of taking people through a step-by-step process, I want to jump in and show them. And when I show them, it's done and done by me. How convenient for me? I once worked for a CEO who was also short on patience. I was still in my 20s when I dropped by his house one evening. At some point, our conversation turned to what he was doing. He said, "Let me show you." Much to my astonishment, this 50-year-old man pulled out a needlepoint piece he was working on. "What's that?" I asked. "I'm teaching myself needlepoint in order to learn patience," came his response. "I'm going to give it to my mother when I'm done." He knew that patience wasn't his strong suit either, and he was determined to improve. As a manager, patience is a virtue. Whenever you're dealing with people, you need to learn to be patient. Whether you're trying to teach them or lead them, you need to take the time to slow down and fully understand the people you work with.

Lesson number five: Teach by example. I think it's obvious by now that I think my mom provided an excellent example for me and my siblings. She was a pretty soft-spoken person. But her actions spoke volumes, not only about who she was, but also what she expected of us. A manager is the same. What you do says a lot more about who you are and what you value than what you say. As a person climbs the ranks in a company, more and more people watch to see how he behaves. They're watching for cues as to what is important, and they mimic those behaviors.

I once worked for a manager who was very concerned about appearances. Hear me out on this because you might think I'm about to contradict myself. This is how she approached the end of the work day. She would wait until her boss, the CEO, had left the building before she would leave for the day. Her expectation was that her direct reports, me included, would wait until she left before we'd head home. Our reports, in turn, would wait for us to leave the building, and so on. The message she inadvertently sent was that what you accomplished didn't really matter nearly as much as putting in the time.

To me, she was encouraging a clock puncher's mentality. It's not what you get done, it's how long you stay. And every person in the department knew it. They were watching. And the behaviors you reward are the ones you're going to see. She rewarded long hours over productivity. Hers was an easy game to play for anyone with the patience to wait her out every night. As a manager, be aware that you're being watched. It comes with the territory. If you know how you want your people to act, you better be prepared to act that way yourself because they're likely to emulate your actions.

Number six: Respect others. It's a simple rule. Didn't all of our mothers teach us to respect other people? Mine certainly did. It was just expected of us. My mother also taught me that respect is a two-way street. You need to give it in order to get it. Too many times I see managers who don't seem to understand this lesson. They believe that respect comes with the title. I'm here to tell you that it doesn't. All too often, managers do themselves a great deal of harm by not respecting everyone else in the organization, and I mean everyone. They feel like they've achieved a certain amount of success, and with it, should come respect. They've got the big office, the key to their executive washroom, or prime parking spot. And with them, they think should come respect.

First of all, those things are all crap. But the expectation of respect based on a title instead of actions is wrong. Nothing bothers me more than to see someone disrespect a coworker based on perceived status. Do any of you remember the Smith Barney commercial? Smith Barney makes money the old-fashioned way, they earn it. Well, I believe you need to get respect the old-fashioned way. You need to earn it. And it's not earned with a promotion. It's earned by treating others with respect.

Lesson number seven: Associate with good people. I can't recall if my mother ever said those words to me, but it's still a lesson I clearly learn from her. Let me tell you a story. When I was in high school, I started dating a girl from a neighboring town. Let's call her Sally. Anyway, I'd been going out with Sally for a month or two when my mother asked when she was going to get to meet Sally. Well, that was not about to happen. I knew that Sally wasn't someone my mother would approve of. But dating someone without my parents meeting them really wasn't allowed either. So I had to break up with Sally before I had to bring her home. I probably stalled my mom for a few weeks or a month until one day she asked about Sally, and I had to tell her she'd never get to meet her because we had broken up. Sally wasn't the type of person my mom would have approved of.

There are many reasons for associating with good people. I'm reminded of the scene in the movie As Good as It Gets starring Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt. Nicholson's character tells Hunt's that he has a compliment for her. He doesn't tell he likes her hair or likes her dress. He doesn't talk about her personality. So what's the complement he has for her? He tells her, "You make me want to be a better man." It's a great quote. That's one of the benefits of associating with good people. They raise the bar. They help you aspire to be a better person. I've had the good fortune of associating with some good people throughout my career. They've provided me with great opportunities for learning, development, and career advancement. By carefully choosing my partners, I've really enjoyed what I've done, and the people I've been associated with.

Early in my career, I was approached by a head hunter about a position. I decided to interview for the job, and ultimately was offered the position. But it required relocation and I felt the risk with the position was significant enough that I turned down the offer. About six months later, I gave a presentation at an industry event, and the CEO of the company was in the audience. He approached me in the lobby of the hotel and asked if I'd reconsider coming to work for him if he doubled what I was making. Now, I was a young guy, and doubling my salary was enticing. I told him I'd think about it. I went to see one of my mentors and told him about the offer. My specific question was, "Am I crazy for not jumping at a job that pays twice what I'm making today?" His answer, "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is." And there was a reason that you turn down the offer the first time. Have those reasons changed? If not, then I'd tell you to trust your gut. I did trust my gut. I turned down the job for a second time and never regretted it once.

Let me tell you another story where I didn't trust my gut when it came to someone I did business with. A number of years ago, I sold a business. It was a business that I was told I wouldn't ever be able to sell. But I found a buyer willing to give me the deal I was looking for. The buyer took over the business and kept all the employees, except one. I thought it was a great win-win situation. The thing is I really didn't like the guy who I was doing the deal with. He was arrogant and difficult. I'd say a bully would be the best way to describe him. But he was doing the deal I wanted and keeping all of my people on payroll. So what if he was a jerk? I ignored the warning signs.


It didn't take long before I was hearing from former employees that they were miserable. Many had quit, and others were actively looking for new employment. This continued for a couple of years. Then suddenly, he stopped paying me for the business. He had sufficiently run it into the ground to the point where he could not continue to make the payments. But it doesn't stop there, it gets better. He threatened to sue me to get out of our agreement and said if I sued him, he'd declare bankruptcy because he couldn't afford the consequences of a loss in court. I decided to walk away from the deal and the money he still owed me. I couldn't win. You see, it does matter who you get into business with. Life's too short to deal with jerks. Mom was right, associate with good people.

Lesson number eight: Be an advocate. You all know what this is? It's a mama bear. Do you ever see what a mama bear does when her cubs are in danger? She gets downright mean and nasty. Now, my mom is a pretty soft-spoken person. But she'd stick up for her kids if she felt it was necessary. She wasn't one of the helicopter moms of today, but when push came to shove, I knew she'd be in my corner. She knew how to be an advocate for her kids. Still does.

A good manager knows how to do the same. Part of the responsibility of being a good manager is taking care of your people. You need to defend your team when they need defending. You need to make sure others aren't taking advantage of your people or treating them unfairly. I had a colleague who was greatly skilled at reading which way the corporate winds were blowing and making sure he was aligned properly. He'd be in a meeting and get the lay of the land and then decide what his opinion was going to be. And it was invariably the same as the top person in the room. The problem was that he didn't care who he had to throw under the bus in order to save his own hide. And often, it was his own people. If it became apparent that something had happened under his charge that was countered to the top person's liking, he'd abandon ship in a hurry, letting his crew go down with the ship.

That's terrible leadership, and it will ultimately cost him. Once your team learns that you are only out for yourself, and never willing to take one for the team, they lose the motivation to help you. Sooner or later, what goes around comes around, and they'll sell you out just as you did them. You need to advocate for your people. You may need to take one for the team occasionally. And there will be times when you accept responsibility for something you didn't do or even know about. It comes with the job. Fail to be an advocate and you'll be an ineffective leader.

Lesson number nine: Praise matters. My mom was pretty good at giving her kids a pat on the back. She'd let us know when she thought we were doing things well. She was quick with the praise, and it felt pretty good. As a manager, we should all take a play out of Mom's playbook. I'm not real effusive with the praise. Maybe it's not my personality. I'm about 90% German, and we tend to be a little more serious and restrained. But that's no excuse. I need to be better at it because praise matters. People need to hear when they're doing a great job. They even need to hear when they're not.

I realize sometimes it's hard to find something to be positive about. But you need to work on it. You need to look for reasons to praise your people. Look, I wasn't the greatest kid in the world. My siblings were better students. I got in my fair share of trouble. I didn't always make the best decisions. I talked too much and never listened. Yet, my mom found things to praise me for. I'm sure it wasn't easy, but she did it. That's how I know all of you can do the same. You just need to work on it, as my mom did. And one more note, whenever you can, make the praise public. Say it in a meeting, put it in the company newsletter. Shout it from the rooftop, but do it publicly. It counts for a lot more that way.

Lesson number 10: Do your best. I just said I wasn't the best student. My oldest sister was brilliant. But somehow my mother understood the differences between the two of us. She didn't ask me to match my sister's academic accomplishments. How do you beat straight As? What my mom always asked of me was that I did my best. She measured effort. She wanted to know that I was applying myself. What she didn't accept was a lack of effort. As a manager, you need to know your own capabilities. You need to do what you do well and delegate to others what you don't do as well. You need to expect the best out of the people you manage. You need to know what they are each capable of, and how they can contribute. By knowing yourself and knowing your people well, you can delegate properly, and you can set reasonable expectations. My mom knew that each of her kids had different talents and abilities. What she expected was that each of us did the best of what we had. As a manager, you should do the same.

And I know I said I had 10 lessons that I learned from my mother, but there really was 11. So I'm going to give you a bonus lesson. And that is be passionate about what you do. Every mother wants her child to be happy. Every mother wants her child to do something that they find fulfilling. I'm a big believer that you need to be passionate about your work. If you want to succeed, you need to love what you do. It's that simple. My advice for my kids when we talk about careers is to tell them to find something they love to do. The rest will take care of itself. The famous golfer Jack Nicklaus once said, "I'm a firm believer in the theory that people only do their best at things they truly enjoy." It is difficult to excel at something you don't enjoy doing. That's great advice.

How many of you are fans of classic rock? I'm in that category. And while I was working out one morning, I heard the classic Simple Man by Lynyrd Skynyrd. The song is a mother's advice to her only son. And it includes the lines, "Be something you love and understand. And follow your heart and nothing else." I think that's great career advice for anyone. There they are, my 11 management lessons that I learned from my mother. Each has served me well. Thanks, Mom.