CEO Stories with Paul Sullivan, The Company of Dads
Former New York Times columnist Paul Sullivan talks about the concept of a “lead dad,” his new business, The Company of Dads, and the conversations that should be taking place between workers and employers as everyone adjusts to the new realities of hybrid work.
“LEAD DAD” DEFINED
A lead dad, according to Sullivan, is a father who takes the primary role in parenting – the one who fields the emails from the school, organizes the kids’ extracurriculars, and is the primary parent for everything from doctor appointments to pet emergencies. Sullivan, a self-described lead dad (he coined the phrase) says a lead dad isn’t necessarily a stay-at-home dad or one with a lesser job. But a lead dad needs to have the flexibility to be available in a way that the other parent can’t be.
The Company of Dads is Sullivan’s new business, with the name having not only a literal meaning but being a play on the idea of lead dads needing a community. Community is one of the three pillars of the business, along with content and commerce. Sullivan acknowledges that being a lead dad can be lonely – in part because it’s not a traditional role for fathers, and because for some men, there is stigma attached to the role. He hopes in building a community, he can help erase the stigma.
CHANGING THE CONVERSATION
Workforce trends are already playing a part in making the role of lead dad more “acceptable “– and accepted. “We’re never going back to 2019” in terms of strict workplace schedules and hours, Sullivan contends, and companies need to start figuring out how to accommodate the needs and demands of employees accustomed to the flexibility afforded them by the pandemic.
Read Full Transcript
Paul Sullivan: The Company of Dads
Welcome to Extraordinary People, Extraordinary Stories, our podcast for This Is Capitalism. I’m your host, Patricia O’Connell.
What do call the father who handles the PTA meetings, organizes the kids’ extracurriculars, and is the primary parent for everything from doctor appointments to pet emergencies?
According to Paul Sullivan, that’s a lead dad — the unsung hero of parenting. Paul, a lead dad himself, is confident that he’s in good company. And that’s the premise for his new business, The Company of Dads.
And he is here today to talk with us about what being a lead dad means not just for the dad but for the women of the family as well and what it means for each of their careers.
POC: So Paul J. Sullivan, thanks for joining us today.
PS: Hi, Patricia. Thanks for having me.
POC: Well, Paul, I have known you for a long time and I have seen you in lots of incarnations — being a columnist at The New York Times, writing for the golf magazine — and I always knew that you were a two-parent, two-career household. And then I noticed about six months ago was it, Paul…?
POC: You started this… I was almost going to say movement but in some ways I guess that’s what it will hopefully become around an idea called being a lead dad. The name of your business is actually very clever, The Company of Dads, because I realize that it’s not just about commercializing this idea but about giving lead dads a community. So Paul, first tell us what is a lead dad?
PS: A lead dad is the primary parent, whether he works full-time, part-time, or devotes all of his time to his kids. And in doing that, in taking that role, which is a very non-traditional role, he is there to support his wife in whatever her aspirations are. And so the whole goal is for everyone to fulfill their own potential.
POC: What does that mean, being the primary parent, and does the other parent kind of bristle at that idea?
PS: Yeah, I mean, with my wife Laura and I, I mean, we came to it naturally. Being a columnist at The New York Times gave me fake flexibility because I had an incredibly rigid schedule. I knew every Wednesday at 5:30 I had to file a column. I had to come up with somewhere between 1300 and 1400 words and file it.
But that was in a way liberating because, as we started having kids, it gave me the ability to step into the role that is usually occupied by, or at least historically in our society, by a mom, or a caregiver. And it really stepped up when my wife started her own firm in 2013.
It just became clear that for her to do, for her to fulfill her potential, she wasn’t going to be able to be the mom who was getting the calls from the school in the middle of the day or reminded to respond to all of the emails to make sure your kids were at the playdates. And so I just sort of naturally assumed this role.
The bristling part is an interesting question. I mean, she is very much involved as a mom but everybody who is going to be successful and fulfill something, there has to be some sort of trade off. And so with Laura and me it was okay, I had the schedule whereby at The New York Times I could say, “Hey, could I talk to you at two o’clock or can you make a call at four o’clock?”
With Laura, she has a much more client-facing job. She works in asset management and so whenever somebody called her, they called her. And so if it was 8:30 in the morning when we were getting the kids ready for school, she had to take the call. If it was 5:45 at night, and we were trying to sit down and have dinner, she had to take the call. So I stepped up in this role as what I came to call lead dad.
But in terms of The Company of Dads and actually starting it, you said at the top that it was about community, and community is really the essential part of it. Because census data shows that more and more men are taking on this primary role.
So in Covid I realized that as a parent, as a lead dad, I didn’t have a community. And you think about all the other types of parents and they do have a community. A go-to-work dad traditionally commutes on the train, drives to work, he has the buddies he has lunch with, grabs a drink with after work, plays golf with, he’s got his community. Stay-at-home moms, they have community within their community — their kids’ school, house of worship, any clubs they belong to. Working moms are obviously working but you’re always reaching out, schools are always reaching out to working moms to try to include them, so they have a community.
But as men who are lead dads, who are this primary parenting role, there isn’t that ready-made community. And there is a bit of a stigma.
POC: At what point did you decide to formalize both the roles, if you will, and then to formalize it in terms of trying to do a business around it? And what does the business look like?
PS: Yeah, honestly, I think it was back in 2013 and ’14 when she was starting her business. We just realized that there wasn’t another way. Now we are deeply practical people, both I’d like to think fairly secure in ourselves, and so why not switch things around? She has always been a higher earner than me so it just made sense. Like, why wouldn’t I want to do this?
But like, was it always smooth, was there a moment, sometimes is there resentment, her of me and me of her? Of course. I mean that’s a natural component of this.
So fast forward to Covid when my three kids are learning from home and so I’m as busy as I can be and I start thinking, you know, however organized I am this is difficult and I wish I had a community that I could share this with.
And I knew that talking to men about it, I probably wasn’t going to get an honest answer because you know, guys who have come up to me who I’ve known for years, after it came out that I was starting The Company of Dads, they want to be involved but they don’t want their names used.
There’s a bit of shame of having this almost maternal role. So I said, okay, guys aren’t going to be honest with me but if I can find some senior female executives who are moms, I can ask them.
And as I talked to different women about this, I talked to his one woman, a CMO, who said, yeah, my husband is a lead dad, this is a great idea.
And it was really after that conversation that it all clicked, that The Company of Dads would adopt the almost classic Disney model of content, community, and commerce. And those are really the three pillars. If you think about it, the content is talking about what it’s like to be a lead dad, creating that feeling, people feel less alone; the community…it’s online right now but the goal is to have it be in person; and of course commerce is…
There is a whole seminar component to this for companies that are looking to solve one of their biggest HR problems right now. We are never going back to 2019, and the world of work and family can never be totally separate again.
POC: When you talk about doing webinars for companies, what solution are you trying to make them aware of?
PS: If you are a manager and you’re trying to now solve for how do I get my top- performing employees to be as productive as they can be and stay here, because we have a tight labor market, high wages, if people feel like suddenly they have to be forced back to work or they have to be forced to work at certain times, those top performers are going to bristle.
The first podcast I did was with a professor at the University of Georgia who, during Covid, analyzed dual-income families and how they were making this work. And they had all different types of solutions and the one that she found that worked the best was not one parent doing it all – shock, that worked horribly, caused a lot of resentment – but it was one parent doing the most of it and the other parent pitching in when needed and that led to the highest level of not just family satisfaction but work satisfaction.
And the part of this study that always stuck out to me was that the people who were less productive were the traditional men who just tried to work all the time and not do any of the parenting roles. They were actually less productive at work. And that was kind of a spark to me of why there is this company angle to this, this corporate angle to this, because worker productivity is affected now more than ever by trying to find that balance between family and work.
The hypothesis is that it’s because there was so much relationship strain and so much distraction that it didn’t work as well as those guys thought it might work and that what worked better was a role where men played a bigger role in the parenting and were open about it and talked about this is what I’m doing.
Now here is the other part of this study from a different professor is that there is still this inherent bias in companies where if a mom asks for time to do some parenting there may be some grumbling but the working mom is given that time. If the working dad asks for that time to do some parenting, the study out of Northeastern University shared that if he asked for too much that is going to stigmatize him and that’s going to be seen as him not being committed enough to work. So, so much of what The Company of Dads is trying to do is change the conversation and change what is considered normal on multiple levels.
POC: Well, for what it’s worth, I’ll just throw in as a person who does not have children that not having children so often meant that you got the bad shifts in journalism, it meant there was no legitimate excuse for you ever to not come in. There was the idea of a dad going to his kid’s game was more important than my doctor’s appointment.
PS: So there are a couple things I want to unpack there. I’ve gotten some blowback from moms who have been doing this for a long time and they said, “You know, why can’t we be lead moms?”
You should call yourself a lead mom if that’s what you’re doing. But just remember I’m one guy and I’m trying to focus on lead dads. And you look at all the statistics of dual-income parents and the second shift that the working mom has and how do I put an end to that second shift? So that’s to say that I’m coming at this from the perspective of the dad.
But what you said is also very true. Because if you’re a company you’re trying to think about equity. If I give these parents a break, what about somebody else? And I said, you know what? I think The Company of Dads can lead in one area and if other employees say, “Hey look, I get it, they’ve got to balance this, they have some kids, but guess what, I’ve got a sick parent, I need to take care of that parent, what about me?” Or “Hey, I have my doctor’s appointment, what about me? How do I balance this?” Or “I’m sick and I need to tend to whatever my illness is.”
So in that sense, I mean those are not areas that I am specifically looking at but I think The Company of Dads can lead in that area because it’s the same overarching issue. Most of us who have white-collar jobs have been able to work from home for the better part of two years.
And not being at home is an option, so how do we now reintegrate into the workplace where we’re used to, “hey at two o’clock in the afternoon, we have to go do X and we’ll make up our work at nine o’clock at night and you won’t even know.” How do we do that when we return to an office?
POC: I’m hearing two things: One, that I think every cohort, whatever that may be, needs to figure out what their needs are, both personal and professional, and figure out a way to ideally get those met. And if you have a spouse, a partner, that does mean that it has to drive a conversation between the two of you.
I remember reading early in the pandemic that even though men were home more, talking about two partners traditionally working outside the home, now doing that work inside the home — the women were still doing the disproportionate amount of the housework.
PS: Look, not every man who has children can be a full-on lead dad, but if he’s doing 5 percent or 10 percent of what’s happening in the home around managing the house with the kids, if that 5 or 10 percent could be increased to 35 percent or 40 percent, that would be a game changer for that family. It just would.
So there is this idea of a lead dad boot camp of teaching them some lead dad tips so that the world of 2022 just works a little bit more smoothly and it’s not a junky version of the world of 2019.
POC: So is that one of the things you’re trying to do is help them understand how to be a different kind of not just lead dad but also a different kind of participatory partner at home?
PS: Yeah. There are plenty of men who have come up to me and said, “Look, I don’t know if I can be a full-on lead dad but what can I learn from this?
I picked the phrase “lead dad” very intentionally because it’s proactive. And what man who is a parent wouldn’t want to be a lead dad? You don’t want to be a passive dad, you don’t want to be an absent dad, none of these are good terms. So if you can get those men who are working to do a little bit more it has a huge impact.
When you think about that statistic about women doing more at home, there’s also another statistic out there that women get passed over, women with children get passed over for a lot of promotions or they are under promoted or they are under-compensated.
POC: Or they are not even considered for the promotion.
PS: They’re not even considered, exactly. And one thesis is that still in 2022 there’s this implicit bias that they may go have kids, they may leave the workforce, and the man is still the primary breadwinner. And I was talking to this guy the other day, a lead dad down in Atlanta, they moved there for his wife’s career. He had been a teacher and his wife moved from a satellite office to the home office. Big job.
And she came home one day and said, “You know, I don’t know if my boss knows I’m committed.” And this guy, this lead dad, said…he turned to his wife and said, “You know what, tomorrow, go into your boss, casually find a way to say this and say, `Hey, just so you know, by the way, my husband is the lead dad, my husband is the primary parent and so anything that comes up with our three kids, he’s got this, he’s going to handle it. We moved here for my career. I am all in, I’m all in, I’m 100 percent committed.’”
And she did that and he said in the past year she has been promoted twice. That’s why I’m trying to normalize being a lead dad because if we could be more vocal about it, we could be more honest about it, it could help shape things, not just for men having a community but for working moms, for women trying to fulfill their own potential at work in the corporate world.
POC: I know we’re casting far into the future here, Paul, because I think your youngest child is four now? So let’s look ahead to when…Astrid I believe is the youngest?
POC: When Astrid is 15, 16, still at home, presumably but a little more independent, how do you make sure that being a lead dad didn’t keep you out of opportunities for your career or is that just sort of the part of the sacrifice that everybody makes?
PS: That is a great question. And one of the things I say is that being a lead dad or a lead mom, it’s going to end at some point. Now do your kids still need you when they’re in their twenties? Yes, but in a different way. For some people they will be the lead dad for as long as their kids are in school and that’s fine. But for a lot of people, it’s not for a finite period of time, not just while your kids are in school.
And that’s why I said, like, a lead dad is not the same thing as a stay-at-home dad, although stay-at-home dads are welcome to be part of this. A lead dad is that primary parent whether he works full-time or part-time. So he is still engaged, he is trying to fulfill his potential, but maybe at that moment he doesn’t have the job that it as all-consuming as his wife has. And so he takes on the lead dad role but, you know, things change.
And when people say, “Well you know what, I’m always going to be the bread winner, this is not going to change, it doesn’t really apply to me,” I say, “Do you have a crystal ball? Do you know what the future is going to bring?
“What if something happens to you as well? What if you lose your job, what if you get injured and suddenly your wife has the main earning career and you have to take on those lead dad roles?”
And I think a lot of men realize that you don’t want to give up your career, per se, you want to find a way to do it in a more flexible way so that the partner in the relationship who has less flexibility can fulfill her potential.
POC: And not every career lends itself to being a lead dad who is still working.
PS: Well I don’t know. It’s intentional. When I first started talking about this, you know, I worked on the idea for a year before I decided to leave the Times. But I remember talking to my childhood best friend who works at the Home Depot and he is a lead dad.
Now his wife is an emergency room nurse — they live in Texas — and during Covid, like, she was quite literally trying to save people’s lives in the ER and she wasn’t just working her normal three 12-hour shifts.
He was able to adjust his work schedule so that they really were tag teaming, so that he could be the one dealing with the kids and their homework and their Zoom school and then he could find a way to work when they didn’t need him and his wife could be home.
So it’s not just people who have the ability, as I do, to work remotely who can be a lead dad. If you’re really intentional about it, almost any man in almost any career can take on that lead dad role.
POC: You said you almost saw it as the Disney approach, which is content, community and commerce. So let’s talk about the commerce angle of lead dads.
PS: I mean the community drives everything. But building a community is not something…you can’t just flip a switch and suddenly you have a community there.
It’s I don’t want to say a slow process but it’s an interactive process. So as we build it those early adopters, those evangelists, they are driving the expansion.
But short term, what is the business model? Short term it is these seminars. It is both seminars in person and online for companies and it’s also these lead dad hacks, these lead dad boot camps. Long term, build the community and what that means for advertisers, sponsors, selling merchandise, but that’s a long-term plan. Short term, it’s seminars, both for companies and individuals.
POC: Did the phrase lead dad, as far as you could tell, exist before you grabbed onto it?
PS: I don’t know. I don’t believe it did. I believe that because of the Google, because everything in the world is in the Google. And when you check it, it just doesn’t pop up. And I just thought, ya know, stay-at-home mom, stay-at-home dad, it doesn’t really encompass what I’m doing, what I am trying to do.
So I thought what is a really positive way to spin it? And it didn’t come to me overnight. I just thought and thought and thought about it and then my wife and I thought, boy, lead dad, that sounds good. Because you’re leading by example — by example for your kids, for your community of men, and for your wife and her career.
POC: Paul, any last thoughts about being a lead dad, a dad in general?
PS: Well, being a dad in general is a lot of fun. But my thoughts about being a lead dad? If people sit back and say you know what, I think I have some of these qualities, I mean step up, step forward, come to TheCompanyofDads.com.
Anybody is welcome, even if you’re just trying it out because I honestly believe that in this moment, post-Covid, as we figure out what the world of work and life is going be like in 2022, lead dads can make the world just a little bit better.
POC: It does seem though that a lead dad needs a willing partner who is also intentional about this.
PS: Yeah. Look, everything starts with a conversation. I mean, if you don’t start with having a conversation, resentment is going to build up. Resentment is going to build up between you and your kids, resentment is going to build up between you and your spouse, and resentment is going to build up between you and your manager at work and vice versa. The first thing you have to do is start by having that conversation and exploring the whole concept.
POC: Paul, it’s good to catch up with you. As I say, I’ve known you a long time so it’s great to see you and get a chance to find out what’s going on. And I wish you the best of luck with Company of Dads.
PS: It was great fun. It was really great talking to you. I appreciate being on with you, Patricia.
About the Series: Featured stories from the intersection of the free market and entrepreneurial success. Here we speak with leading CEOs, academics, philanthropists and up and comers on their contributions and perspectives on the American economy.
About Patricia O’Connell: Patricia O’Connell serves as Editor in Chief of “This Is Capitalism,” a content site sponsored by Stephens Inc., and is host of the site’s podcast series, “CEO Stories.” Patricia, a former editor at BusinessWeek and a New York Times best-selling author, brings her experience as a journalist and her passion for storytelling to “This Is Capitalism.”