Five Success Principles I Learned From My Father

Starting in the late 1940’s, my father, William P. “Bill” Montgomery applied the tough lessons learned from a Great Depression childhood and World War II Marine Corps service to build a successful career in the group health insurance field. As I started my own career in 1977, Dad occasionally offered helpful suggestions, but much of what I learned from him came from observing his example or listening to his informal comments on the business world. Here are five of Dad’s principles which charted the course of my career.

1. Do the Things Failures Don’t Like to Do

Early on, Dad gave me a little brochure based on a 1940 speech by Albert E.N. Gray. Its premise was simple: Do the things failures don’t like to do. Outdated and corny in today’s culture, right? Perhaps, except that it works.

As a 22-year-old I had little idea of how a successful person would act, but it was easy to see how a failure would approach the job. We’re surrounded by examples of the wrong approach. Failures don’t drive 400 miles for a promising appointment; they don’t take ownership of their mistakes; they don’t work the extra hours to finish a job the right way; they don’t put conscience and honesty ahead of expediency when doing so will cost them something; they’re so afraid of the little failures that they fail big. The list is endless. Since reading that brochure in 1977 I have consciously applied the principal thousands of times, and especially in situations where I couldn’t see a clear path to success.

Whenever you reach a point that you are not sure what to do next, ask yourself what a failure would do in that circumstance, and do the opposite.

2. Always be Improving

Have you ever met someone with twenty years of experience in a field, only to realize later that in reality have about one year of experience repeated twenty times over?

This principle could also be called, Invest in your Future. As I began my career, Dad pointed me to a difficult industry designation that involved ten courses and offered testing only twice a year. He suggested I get settled into the job for a year and then start taking one course every six months. He pointed out that I’d have my first industry credential in six years without disrupting my career and family. At age 22, six years seems like a long time, but the time was going to pass anyway, and the slow and steady approach paid off. I’ve continued to apply this principle throughout my career. Constant, incremental improvement is part of maintaining an optimistic, forward-looking view of life. After 40 years, it is amazing how the small steps forward have added up without putting much of a time strain on work or family responsibilities.

3. Family Comes First

To this day, hearing the words, “Son, I’m proud of you” is one of the greatest rewards I have ever received. One day I will hear it no longer.

My father was a successful, hard-working businessman but he was an even better father. When he was not working or traveling on business, he was building sand boxes, wooden toys, or tree houses to keep his two sons (and later, a less mischievous daughter) occupied. Later, as my career developed, he frequently reminded me, “Make sure you spend enough time with your wife and those two sweet children.” My father proved family and work don’t have to be mutually exclusive. As Dad approaches age 93, few people know who je worked for or what he achieved in business. His wife of 69 years, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren know his real legacy is us.

4. Surround Yourself with Good People, Even if They’re After Your Job

My father climbed through the ranks to a top corporate position for a major group insurance company. He mentioned once that some executives tend to surround themselves with yes-men or weak performers to avoid being challenged. Dad’s belief was the contrary. Regardless of those subordinate’s motivations, he said, they would do better work and probably push him to better performance as well, both of which would only help him reach his objectives.

I’ll add one brief corollary to this. Don’t be afraid to share credit for your good work with those around you. People will be more willing to share it right back with you. Besides, you probably do depend on others much more than you realize.

5. Honesty is Good Business Policy

I am rarely impressed when I hear a business person boasting about how honest they are. In fact, I generally check to make sure my wallet is well-secured as they blather on about themselves, so I won’t talk about myself here. What I will say is that my mother and father are the two most honest people I have ever met. Hands down. They both treat personal integrity and character as table stakes in life rather than an aspirational concept.

An honest, straightforward approach to business can be costly at times, but this article is about principles of life success rather than shortcuts. I am impressed when I come across an individual who seems to have a solid moral compass and quietly follows it, and that is the sort of person most of us would love the opportunity to do business with.

Soon after my father’s ninety-first birthday, he and I sat together on the back porch discussing a couple of business issues that were troubling me. He listened, asked pointed questions, and then cut right to the heart of the matter with keen observations. I think I’m starting to get the hang of this business thing, but I still need a little help from my mentor every now and then.