Thanks, Dad

The past year has undoubtedly been one of the most deeply interesting years of my life. Being a first-time CEO and turning 40 (just on Friday) have been two major events in the past year, and throughout it all, I’ve been thinking a lot about my dad’s incredible influence on my life. As I was thinking about what to do for Father’s Day for my dad, I wanted to write down what I’m thankful for, because it’s something I think about a lot in my daily life but have never really written down. These are the things that you shouldn’t keep to yourself, so here are some reflections on my dad. I’m writing it publicly because I hope it encourages anyone reading this to show their appreciation for their fathers more often than I have.

Aside from being a father, my dad is a civil engineer and has been the county engineer for my home county (Pitt County, NC) for as long as I can remember. Before that, he ran his own engineering and land surveying business for many years, so he understands both business and government. He worked his way through engineering school at NC State and it took seven years because he kept running out of money, so he would work for a while and save money, then go back (if I remember correctly, he did everything from tobacco farming to being a short-order cook to selling cookware door-to-door). I wasn’t born yet when all of this was going on, but I know from my time with my dad that no one is more determined than he is, and no one will work harder than he does to achieve a goal. He’s not flashy about it and he literally never complains, but underneath that quiet demeanor is a bulldog who will blow through obstacles, over and over again. He’s a nice guy, but anyone who mistakes that for softness or lack of determination will be surprised, and in a big way.

In his work life (from what I can tell mostly from the outside), he approaches things with a lot of practicality, always seems to find win-win situations, and is incredibly solutions-oriented. That’s good and all, but the one thing that stands out from my childhood and even now when I visit home is just how much affection people have for my father. We can’t go anywhere without someone coming up to him with a big smile, always glad to see him and always with a story for me of something nice he has done for them. In his professional work, his work with the church, and in his day-to-day life, he is extremely generous and thoughtful. People love my dad in a way that is really remarkable and hard to describe in words, but if you know him, you totally understand why.

My dad is a doer, through and through. He gets things done and I think about the way he does it in everything I try to do. In a talk I gave in Sydney recently about courage, I made a reference to Teddy Roosevelt’s “In the Arena” speech. Here’s a key excerpt:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

When you read this, it’s easy to think of TR’s speech in the context of grand political figures and epic battles, but when I read it I don’t think of it that way. I think about my dad and how it reinforces something that my dad consistently taught me in word and deed, something I think about every single day: when a hard job needs to get done, you’re always going to have people who criticize how you’re doing it, but the important thing is getting the job done. You should always be on the side of getting a job done, not just talking about how it should be done or passively criticizing the people doing the work. That just doesn’t help move things along (not to mention it’s just plain annoying.) Pick up the shovel and dig. If you’re a leader, show how to dig with the shovel in hand. Not only does this help get the job done, it builds loyalty, trust, and greater capabilities in people. I learned that from my dad. He always does what he says he’s going to do. It’s a high standard that I aspire to in my daily life.

My dad recently won a national award from NISH (an organization that helps create employment opportunities for people with significant disabilities) that shows so many key aspects of his personality that make him a great father and overall person. I found a press release in an MS Word document but decided to post it on my blog to make sure I never lost it. Here’s the gist:

“Phil Dickerson may be known locally for his engineering expertise and dedication to effective County Government, but few citizens are aware of the impact his soft spoken words and energetic deeds have had on the lives of people with significant disabilities,” said Bob Jones, ECVC President [ECVC is a a non-profit with a social mission “to help people with disabilities attain a higher quality of life through achievement of their vocational goals.”] “Repeatedly over the years, he has acted in the best interests of the county while also helping to create jobs for people with disabilities. He is deserving of this award because of the longevity and consistency of his advocacy for the employment of people with disabilities throughout Pitt County.”

Thanks to Dickerson’s involvement, ECVC’s custodial, recycling, and prevocational operations provide 51 full-time and 29 part-time jobs for people with disabilities. While ECVC has benefited directly via a county contract to process 48 million pounds of materials annually, the benefits of the ECVC and Pitt County partnership work both ways. ECVC’s recycling operation produced approximately $600,000 in cost savings last year for the county.

“Phil Dickerson is a remarkable advocate for both Pitt County government and people with disabilities who are striving for the independence and respect they earn from employment,” said Bob Chamberlin, President and CEO of NISH. “It is the commitment and support of community leaders such as Phil that are so essential to the success of the AbilityOne Program and its mission to provide meaningful employment opportunities for people with disabilities.”

There was also a presentation at the local county commissioner’s meeting, and one sentence in the minutes of the meeting (PDF) in which the presenter of the award described my dad says a lot about him: “Mr. Dickerson not only designed the system, he wore coveralls and work gloves while helping with the manual labor needed to construct the system.” That is how he operates, and part of what makes him a great man, as a work colleague, a member of the community, and as a father.

The award and the program behind it also shows his thoughtfulness about people and doing good in the world, all while making sure the numbers add up. When you look at the award, he did a set of truly innovative things in such combination that it is almost startling when you look at it:

  • created 80 full and part-time jobs for disabled people
  • saved $600K annually for local taxpayers
  • delivered a recycling program where the county has consistently been number 1, 2 or 3 in volume of waste per capita recycled in North Carolina for ten years

So he built a program that both did good for the community *and* delivered stellar bottom-line results that anyone would be happy with completely independent of the social good. (It’s this kind of example that really inspired me in working to help Etsy become a Certified B Corp, which I talk about here). This didn’t happen in San Francisco, Seattle, New York, or Portland. It happened in Greenville, NC and my dad made it happen (along with many others he carefully thanked, as the meeting minutes show). Again, a high standard to aspire to.

Throughout my childhood, I helped my dad on many things, and we were never without work to do. I wrote about my dad and how he taught me about business in my note to the Etsy community last August:

As a kid growing up in North Carolina, my older brother and I ran a very successful lawn care business, often working six days a week in the thick North Carolina heat. (Sunday was for church. We mowed the church lawn for free, so even on our day of rest, we knew that 100 of our fellow church-goers would be critiquing our work.)

My dad didn’t just give us the equipment to start and run our business. He explained the basic principles of business to us when we started out, loaned us the money to buy our lawn mowers and operate the business, and made us pay the money back from our earnings — with market-rate interest! We carefully saved our summer money because we knew my dad was expecting payments throughout the winter when the grass didn’t grow and we had no business. Those were good life lessons, and I can’t thank my father enough for that experience. (Thanks, Dad.)

We were expected to earn our keep, and throughout all of it, my dad always told me that he was going to make sure that my education was paid for. My dad was a licensed land surveyor and we surveyed vast quantities of land together on weekends when I was in high school, literally chopping through woods with machetes and fording streams, stepping on snakes and encountering all sorts of other wildlife in the process. I complained frequently and my dad mostly (and rightfully) ignored my complaints, gently reminding me that we were making money to send me to school. He absolutely delivered on that promise, sending me to an expensive private university even though our family didn’t have a lot of money. While we were out there surveying, my dad even made sure to teach me some trigonometry despite my complaining, which made my later trig classes make total sense (while others were staring at shapes on paper, I was envisioning plots of land!) He was a patient teacher, despite the fact that I often didn’t deserve the patience.

I could go on and on because my dad has done so much for me it is incalculable. Suffice it to say that my dad is a remarkable man and an inspiration to me, and I appreciate everything he has done for me in my life. Thanks, Dad.