Managing Up: Your Parents


July 31, 2007

by Marshall Goldsmith

I was teaching a one-day leadership course for a large health-care company at the Oakland Convention Center. There were about a thousand managers and union leaders in the room. One woman, sitting near the front, was given a microphone and rose to speak to me – and to the entire room.

It takes a lot of courage to speak up in front of a thousand leaders – including top executives – so I was curious to hear what she was about to say.

“I have read many of the things that you have written and have been to your course a couple of times before,” she said. “There is one thing that you have always left out in your teaching that I believe you should add.”

I leaned forward with interest to learn what I had been leaving out for all of these years.

A Better Son or Daughter

“You always talk about the value of asking direct reports, ‘How can I be a better manager?’ Or asking co-workers, ‘How can I be a better team player?’ Or asking customers, ‘How can I be a better supplier?’ And even asking partners or children, ‘How can I be a better partner or better parent?’ The one thing that you have left out that you should start teaching everyone is to ask their parents, ‘How can I be a better daughter or a better son?'”

She went on with her personal story. “After my last course with you, as you suggested, I asked my daughter, ‘What can I do to be a better mother?’ We had a wonderful discussion. Then I thought, why not call my mother? I called and asked her, ‘What can I do to be a better daughter?’

“Mom said: ‘Now that Dad is dead, I live all alone. Every day I walk up that long drive to go to the mailbox. Almost every day there is nothing in the mailbox. This makes me feel very lonely. It would mean so much to me if you could just send me some cards, or pictures, or notes – so that when I walk to the mailbox there will be a little something inside.’

“After our talk, I started sending cards, pictures, and notes to my mother so when she walked to the mailbox there would be something there. What did that cost me? Nothing. What did that mean to my mom? Everything. Please teach the people you meet to ask their parents, ‘What can I do to be a better daughter or son?'”

Key Advice

I still get tears in my eyes when I think about this woman and her mother, and I have included her story in almost every class I have conducted for the past year.

One of my good friends is the CEO of a Fortune 50 company. Every year, I teach in a special, high-potential leadership program that he sponsors and attends. He had been to my class many times but had never heard this story until recently. He is getting ready to retire in a few months. At the end of the program, he looked at all of his high-potential leaders and said: “This may be the last advice you will hear from me. My mother is very old but still very much alive. I am going to call her and ask, ‘What can I do to be a better son?'”

He went on. “If you have parents who are still alive, please call them and ask, ‘What can I do to be a better son or daughter?’ Your colleagues at work are very important. Your parents are even more important – and you may not have that much time.”

If your mom or dad is still alive, ask them: “What can I do to be a better son or daughter?”

This is good advice for three reasons:

Good for Everyone

1. It is good for them. Even if they say, “There is nothing you can do to be a better son or daughter,” they will be happy that you cared enough to ask.

2. It is good for you. The No. 1 regret that children have when their parents die is: “Why didn’t I let them know how much I appreciated all that they did for me?” Show how much you care before it is too late. Later on, you will be grateful that you did.

3. If you have children, asking your parent(s) how you can be a better child is good for your children, too. You know that old person – your parent – whom you are calling on the phone? In an incredibly short period of time, you are going to be that old person. Do you want your children to call you? Remember, their understanding of our values does not come from what we say; it comes from what we do.