Walk 100 Miles In My Shoes

How Sander and Jonathon Flaum bridged a generation gap in work values

Sander A. Flaum lived quite happily in a world that for years his only son, Jonathon, wanted nothing to do with. Sander was old-school: stubborn, tough, with a single-minded desire to become a chief executive. Work was his first priority; family came second. Eventually his marriage failed, which only complicated his uneasy relationship with Jonathon. Recently, though, the two have come to terms. As improbable as it sounds, they did so by talking about the very thing that originally drove them apart: the workplace.

This is a tale of a father and son, but it is also a story about the generational divide now emerging in the office of the 21st century. "American business doesn't yet understand the powerful influence of generational values," says Chuck Underwood, the founder of The Generational Imperative Inc., a consulting firm in Cincinnati. Sander, 69, and Jonathon, 38, are classic examples of their generations. Sander, who in 1988 became CEO of health-care ad agency Robert A. Becker Euro RSCG in New York, learned to be diligent, loyal, and to put the company first. Jonathon grew up to be skeptical, self-reliant, and determined to balance work and family.

The tension between them was at once common and particular. Sander says of Jonathon: "Like the sons of many successful dads, he went the other way." Jonathon studied the philosophy of religion and practiced Zen. Later he earned an MFA in playwriting and took a job as a social worker.

Then in the summer of 2001, soon after his own son was born, Jonathon asked his father the question Sander had been waiting for: How do I make more money? "I said Becker is a great place, you'll love it," Sander recalls. Not exactly what Jonathon had in mind. So Sander suggested something else: writing speeches for business leaders. Jonathon could start by crafting one for him. A few months later, Jonathon opened WriteMind Communications in Asheville, N.C.

Jonathon and Sander were then both CEOs, albeit of very different companies. Sander ran a $1.7 billion business with 975 employees; Jonathon hired people by the project. They had more to talk about but rarely shared the same perspective. Sander focused on being competitive, even paranoid. Jonathon told his father fear wasn't a great motivator. Sander exhorted his staff to do A+ work, be best in class, fight for a yes. Jonathon's mantras were be mindful, let go, say yes to providence. Sander quoted Jack Welch; Jonathon told parables about Buddhist monks.

Then Sander made his son an offer that changed everything. He wanted to write a book about leadership that would appeal to young people starting out and to his hardened colleagues. He figured including Jonathon's views would be the best way to do both. Jonathon agreed, with one condition: that they discuss ideas while walking 100 miles together, each selecting routes up and down the East Coast. "I expected growth in our personal relationship," he says. Not Sander. He simply wanted to talk about his leadership principles. "It wasn't until we began walking that I realized it was about a lot more than that," he says.

First off, Sander learned of Jonathon's lingering childhood resentments. There were Sander's absences. He held staff meetings on Saturday mornings and didn't change his schedule to attend Jonathon's championship Little League game one year. And there was his brusque management of their home life. "Jonathon remembers that I would write a to-do list for him and his sister before I left every day," says Sander, who still carries his own daily list in his shirt pocket.

The six months of strolling and hiking in 2004 resulted in a book, The 100-Mile Walk: A Father and Son on a Quest to Find the Essence of Leadership, published in January. It also smoothed out their relationship. Sander owned up to making "a lot of mistakes" with his family. "I learned a lot about myself from Jon," he says. "I'm sorry I didn't do it earlier." Jonathon came to understand his father's ambition, his constant talk of being best in class. "Before, they were just words," says Jonathon. "He convinced me of the heart of it, what it can mean for a group of people to know they've done their best."

They still have their disagreements. Sander, who remarried and, after retiring, began his own consultancy two years ago, maintains a "healthy paranoia" about rivals. He still puts in long hours. "I worry that there's too much balance and not enough work when it comes to the younger generation," he says.

As for Jonathon, business has picked up, mostly due to the book. He's coaching executives and leading walks in the Blue Ridge Mountains. That's put him in an unfamiliar situation: After a few intense work weeks, he called Sander and told him: "Dad, I'm becoming like you."

By Susan Berfield

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