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Lessons Learned…From My Father

​Earlier this month my father and namesake retired at 77 years young after a 55-year career in science. That same day I was asked about the leadership of a CEO at a local company.

This isn’t a unique question for me. In my role I’m asked daily for my take on Chicago’s tech companies and, even more so, about the strength of their executives. What companies do I think I will be successful? What’s unique about what they are doing? How’s the team? What makes the executives great? Having worked with 1000s of both good and not so good executives, I’ve developed my own perspective on what makes them successful.

As I provided my point of view about the local CEO, I prefaced the conversation (as I usually do) with the characteristics I feel make a great leader. As I hung up the phone I got to thinking about how much the qualities of my father as a leader in his field played into what I believe to be important. As a scientist he would shudder at the comparison to a business executive … but leadership holds no bounds. Sorry, Dad.

Here’s what my father, the scientist, taught me about great tech CEOs:

Accountability: In science, your funding is contingent on doing what you say and making sure what you say is true and valid. The same holds true in business. Great leaders know that they have to hold themselves and their teams accountable for their own decisions, work and results.

Tangential Thinking: The best executives I’ve worked with look beyond the obvious. Science is about finding what hasn’t been found. Great executives are ones that look at the world slightly askew and ask not why, but why not?

Persistence: We all know that aside from a few lucky souls, it’s hard work that wins the day. My father’s seminal work didn’t come until 20+ years into his career. He was relentlessly persistent in driving towards the next breakthrough. The best executives are ones that drive towards success through ongoing effort and diligence.

Reflection: Reflection is a quality is short supply these days but one that great executives rely on. Every Saturday morning my father went into the lab and read his research from 10 or 20 years ago. He knew that his future research was heavily reliant on the past. He believed that seeing where you’ve been and remembering what came before was a critical part of the building process. The strongest executives are the ones who quietly consume the past to push the future.

Shared Success: Science is a publishing game - the best publish on a regular basis but the leader’s name always comes last. As with scientists, the best executives I come across are the ones that realize that the success is driven by a collective team of which they are just one part.

Mentorship: On the wall in my father’s office hangs a picture of a tree. Each leaf representing someone that’s worked in his lab as a graduate student, postdoc or colleague. It was put together by those same people. Successful executives are ones that realize that in order to achieve their success they are growing a tree. By growing branches, they are not only building the next generation but they are strengthening their own presence.

Great leaders no matter the field hold these qualities (and certainly more). My father will read this and ask me if I was writing his obituary. No, just reflecting on how lucky I have been to gain perspective in places that aren’t always obvious. Thanks, Doctor

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