Can you be a good father if you are running a business?

First published in the Financial Times on 7th October 2014.

Children of high achievers often long for more attention from their workaholic father

Recently I told my nine-year-old daughter that I would be unable to come and watch her netball match, owing to business commitments. Then I read an interview with the former boss of Pimco, Mohamed El-Erian, explaining why he resigned his $100m-a-year job. His 10-year-old daughter gave him a written list of 22 milestones he had missed because of work – including the first day of school, a parent-teacher meeting and a Halloween parade. Even though he had legitimate excuses for every absence, he realised that actually none of the pressing meetings, travelling and so forth really mattered in the long run. So I cancelled my business meeting and attended the netball match – and it was great.

Unfortunately many successful men, especially entrepreneurs, have terrible relationships with their children. I’m acquainted with a tycoon who admitted to having any children at all only after I’d known him a couple of years. He talked of his adult offspring with contempt. They were clearly such a disappointment that he had almost written them out of his life. Like far too many self-made men, he felt his sons and daughters were spoilt, lacking his hunger and work ethic, while also failing to appreciate how privileged they were. No doubt they have some issues with their dad too.

The children of high achievers tend to enjoy material comforts but often they long for more attention from their workaholic dad. Steve Jobs, the most admired entrepreneur of our age, said: “I didn’t want to be a father, so I wasn’t” about his illegitimate daughter Lisa. Meanwhile, she said of Jobs: “I didn’t live with him but he would stop by our house some days, a deity among us for a few tingling moments or hours.” They established a better relationship when she was older. But apparently one of the reasons Jobs authorised Walter Isaacson’s biography was so his various children could know him. But a simpler way of doing that would have been to spend more time with them.

The corporate titan Sir Howard Stringer was practically the first gaijin to run a big Japanese company: the electronics group Sony. It required Herculean ambition and huge sacrifices. Filmed for a television profile at a meeting with staff in a Sony factory, he said to the gathering, “I don’t see my family very much . . . my family is you.” I wonder what his children made of that remark.

One of reasons successful men lose touch with their children is divorce. As they become more powerful, richer and better known, men often decide the woman they married when young is no longer the right spouse. And when large sums are at stake, divorces can leave a bitter legacy.

Wilbur Smith, the 81-year-old bestselling author and multimillionaire, has been married four times, and is still writing novels. He said in a recent interview: “I’ve got three children from previous marriages, two sons and a daughter, but I’m not close to them and don’t see them at all.” I thought it was a desperately sad comment.

In truth, building a company and making a fortune are not easy tasks, and most who do need to be selfish and obsessive. The traits entrepreneurs typically possess – bossiness, impatience, egotism and self-confidence – become more pronounced as they scale the heights. Meanwhile, founding a business also means taking risks, which often imperil a family’s finances – itself putting strain on a relationship. Inevitably children can become collateral damage in such an anxious home.

Forbes journalist Paul Brown writes, “I have probably talked in depth to 3,000 to 4,000 entrepreneurs over the last 30+ years . . . And I have heard entrepreneurs say that they strive for work-life balance . . . But would anyone – including them – say their life is in balance? Well, no.”

Some entrepreneurs won’t even forgo their hobbies. David Kershaw, a founding director of M&C Saatchi and father of two teenagers, wrote: “I am at work-related functions three nights a week and Arsenal and golf still absorb huge chunks of my leisure time . . . my wife has all the pain of daily management . . . I’m certainly no role model.”

Every entrepreneur knows about trade offs, and consciously or not, many decide that personal glory is more important than domestic bliss.