Your kids are your paramount investment
By Luke Johnson
Published: September 28 2010 22:37 | Last updated: September 28 2010 22:37
Are high-flyers any good at the “ultimate start-up” – bringing up children? Or is the conflict between relentless ambition and sound parenting simply too great?
I ask this because, with three children under six years of age and various business involvements, balancing the competing demands on my time is a challenge. I get the priorities wrong sometimes – but suspect I’m not alone. Most entrepreneurs I know work 60- or even 80-hour weeks. When they get home they are often exhausted from the struggle of building a company and trying to fulfil their dreams. Being the perfect mum or dad in such circumstances is not easy.
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Research shows that today’s parents spend far more hours a week with their children than in the past. Fathers in the 1950s and 1960s were not expected to devote most of their leisure time to their offspring – it was assumed they would be playing golf or watching football or down the pub rather than ferrying their children to birthday parties or taking them to swimming lessons.
I once heard an astute PR man observe that the two aspects of life that suffer if you fully embrace the role of modern-day father – assuming you take your career very seriously – are friendships and hobbies. The old generation of bosses played it differently: they would spend their holidays and weekends sailing, shooting, skiing, playing squash and tennis, and at dinner and house parties. No doubt the loss of such non-familial relationships and pursuits makes one a less rounded individual. But it is probably better to endure those sacrifices than act as some sort of Edwardian figure – distant, unemotional and barely aware of the detail of your children’s lives, packing them off to a boarding school, effectively subcontracting their whole upbringing.
Of course, by their nature entrepreneurs are highly competitive, and that urge does not diminish outside the office. So certain dynastic magnates appear to display their prowess by having extra-large families – populating the world with their superior genes and proving they can afford to bring up so many boys and girls. And, inevitably, high achievers want their own little darlings to be top of the class, superb at sports and welcomed into the right universities.
All that takes not just money but personal effort and participation, too. Being head of a family is not like managing a business – you cannot delegate bedtime stories, school parent evenings and all the other small delights of parenthood to staff. And compensating for absence by spoiling children with material possessions is a very poor substitute for actually being there. The most impressive offspring of the high achievers are those who enjoy close bonds with their parents, and understand the importance of self-reliance and the obligations of wealth. As Elizabeth Gaskell said: “A wise parent humours the desire for independent action, so as to become the friend and adviser when his absolute rule shall cease.”
The always-on nature of commerce today does not help the cause. Clients and deals will not wait – if you want to get ahead you are expected to be available to answer e-mails and mobile calls at all hours. I am sure many children of the rich and powerful hate devices such as BlackBerrys, for they have induced a form of attention deficit disorder among many fathers, who are endlessly distracted from the school play or carol concert.
As children mature, so entrepreneurs can relate to them about their work. You can never tell which children will reject their parents’ vocation, and which will embrace a similar career path. Many of the most enterprising individuals I’ve met learnt about business from close relatives as they were growing up – such an education is vastly better than any MBA. But often the burden of inheritance can undermine lives. I think every entrepreneur would agree with William Thackeray when he said: “I would rather make my name than inherit it.”
Being a great parent is harder than building a business. And in truth the result endures far more than any financial construct. Ultimately, companies and money come and go, but children really are the future.
The writer runs Risk Capital Partners, a private equity firm, and is chairman of the Royal Society of Arts
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2010.