My dad was a hard working business owner.  He worked long hours and had great  success as a retail baker.  He did it, first and foremost, to be a good provider for his family and to help his sons to have a life that was better than the one he had.

career mentorsIn his youth and as a young adult, life was pretty good for Dad.  He worked for his father in the family owned Terrell Baking Company, a thriving commercial/retail enterprise in that small town east of Dallas.  As a young man he had money to spend, nice clothes, and a fancy yellow car with a rumble seat.  The family also owned several farms in north central and east Texas.  They worked hard; Dad was a talented cake decorator. His brothers and father built a good business supplying bread and pastries to country stores in several counties, the precursor of the modern-day commercial operations like Mrs. Beard’s.  They enjoyed their success and the future looked bright.  In later life my dad ruefully admitted that if you believe in fate as a moderator of ego and confidence then he was a prime candidate for one life’s difficult lessons.

In the Great Depression, the family lost almost everything. They were forced to close the bakery and sell off their land holdings just to survive.  They retreated to a hard scrabble farm near Whitesboro, Texas, a town aptly named then for its views on racial integration. Gone was the nice car.  It was replaced by a team of mules, plows, and something called a peanut thrasher.  My dad and his brothers spent many hot, dirty days in the fields trying to eke out survival.

So what did I get out of this?  Some great DNA when it comes to hard work, dedication and determination.  What I did not get was a lot of great career advice. My father’s own perspective was necessarily shaped by the demands of the here and now, or perhaps the next month, and his own experiences.   He apparently was not able to sit down with me to have those important father-son talks about what I should consider doing with my life.  He could not talk to me about how to best use my skills and passions to move forward or how to dream big.  There were just a lot of passing hit-and-miss conversations as opposed to the nurturing, coaching guidance.  He did not have that experience with his own dad so there was not much of a mentoring roadmap for him to follow.  I do not say that with regret.  I will forever be grateful for the example he set and the values he drilled into my soul. We talked a lot, and we argued about politics.  Things could get noisy around the dinner table, especially after the plates were cleared and the coffee was served.  Maybe if I had wanted to follow my in father’s footsteps at the bakery the career talk might have been approachable, but I was not talented in that line of work and quite frankly, didn’t have the interest.

The important personal lesson here is that I have come to understand that the subtle forms of modeling behavior and values is the real parental mentoring, whether it is intended or not, and that we are not aware, nor do we appreciate, that it happened until much later in life.

When I started a family I smugly vowed that I would do better at guiding my sons towards successful business futures, encouraging them to work hard, be honorable and think big.  That didn’t last much past the first talk which they probably do not even remember.  The second, and one or two subsequent conversations, were not fulfilling for me, and I am sure my wonderful sons were bored to tears. Disappointed, I stopped trying to be their career strategy guru.   What I got, however, was a great lesson: that parents rarely can be successful giving their children sterling career advice.  What they can do, and this begins before most parents know it, is to be a model of good values.  You can challenge them and try to guide them in the right direction career wise, but it is more important to realize that they will learn far more by what they sense and see.

What parents can do is set the moral example and then introduce their kids to potential mentors who they might actually listen to.