This is my first Father’s Day without my dad, Dennis P. Garcia (I was named after my dad and he was named after Dennis Chavez – the first Hispanic person elected to a full term of the US Senate from the state of New Mexico). My father passed away on Saturday September 29, 2018 at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City where I was with him for the final two weeks of his life. The picture above is from Father’s Day 2018 with me, my dad and my son Sebastian.
Since my father had a huge impact upon my life it is still very surreal that my father is no longer around and the grieving process has been very difficult for me – and was similar to my grieving process when my mom passed away 23 years ago so unfortunately I knew what to expect.
While this Father’s Day will be very emotional for me, I feel extremely lucky that I had my dad for as long as I did. This realization dawned upon me during one of the very long nights when I stayed at Memorial Sloan with my dad. Late one evening I went to the family area on the hospital floor where my dad was staying to try to clear my mind. In the family area I saw a young boy – who was similar in age to my son – playing a game by himself and he was accompanied by his grandmother who looked very distressed. I said hi to both of them and the grandmother – who spoke little english – looked at me with tears in her eyes and cried, “My daughter, my daughter!!” I gave her a hug and I told her that my dad was also on this floor in the hospital and was very ill. Since I learned a few days earlier that many of the patients on this floor at Memorial Sloan unfortunately had terminal conditions, I quickly surmised that this women’s daughter and this young boy’s mom may also have a terminal condition. I looked at this young boy with tears in my eyes and prayed to God that he would not lose his mom at such a young age. At that moment I realized how fortunate I have been to have my father with me for my entire life.
I was incredibly lucky to have the best dad in the world and I learned so much from him. In memory of my father, here are just a few of those life lessons below – all of which I try to embrace as a father, husband, friend, lawyer and leader.
Be Confident & Fearless
My dad grew up on the tough streets of the South Bronx in New York City. As a Puerto Rican he faced discrimination at a young age and as a 23 year old he led soldiers in the Vietnam War as a First Lieutenant and was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. He had a larger than life personality and was highly confident. In hindsight, I think he needed that persona early in his life to survive.
While I did not have the same early life experiences that he did, my dad always instilled in me the importance of having self confidence, staying positive and being bold – something that I have increasingly embraced as I’ve become older. I remember my first few days as a first year law student at Columbia Law School thinking that I did not belong there as I had attended Binghamton University (formerly known as SUNY – Binghamton) – an excellent state university in upstate New York – and I found myself surrounded by brilliant students from Ivy-league schools like Yale, Harvard and Princeton. As I walked around the Columbia campus with my dad during that time I remember him giving me a serious pep talk as to why I belonged at Columbia Law and that I needed to believe more in myself. Bottom line is self-confidence and being fearless can ignite both personal and professional successes.
Go Above and Beyond
When I was a young kid and brought my report card home and if I did not get an “A” for a class, my father always highly encouraged me to go back to my teacher to see if there was more work I could do for some “extra credit” to help improve my grade. Of course, this is something that I never wanted to do.
Many years later I realized that this advice to me is so relevant to the business world and advancing in your career. In my experience during my career as an in-house lawyer for major information technology companies, we are all expected to perform the core part of our jobs at a high-level and that is considered “table stakes.” What sets us apart as professionals is our willingness, hunger and ability to really go “above and beyond” our core job responsibilities and drive a differentiated set of high impact for our respective employers.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask
My father taught me not to be shy in asking for something. As a kid I was an avid baseball card collector and my dad used to take me to baseball cards shows in the late 1970s and early 1980s in New York City where I would spend my allowance monies on baseball cards. He taught me to negotiate hard and to never pay the asking price for something. The first time I did that was when I bought this 1957 Topps Baseball Card of Baseball Hall of Fame legend Willie Mays below which had an asking price of $30 back in 1980 and which I negotiated down in price to a whopping $25 – which was about a third of my savings at the time. There’s no doubt in my mind that I learned more about negotiation skills from my dad during these baseball card shows than in all of the professional negotiation trainings that I have taken in my career.
Never be afraid in asking for something in life or at the workplace. You may be surprised with the answer to your ask and the worst someone can say is no.
Toot Your Own Horn
My dad always encouraged me to sell myself to others and “toot my own horn.” This was something that he was skilled at doing for himself and on behalf of his two sons. For a long time I resisted doing so as I had a tendency years ago to be shy and introverted. As I entered the corporate world I also thought doing so was a form of “shameless” self-promotion that would be viewed in a negative fashion.
As I have become more senior in my legal career I have realized that we are our own best spokepersons on behalf of our ourselves and that we often cannot rely on others to do so. In my experience in the workplace those who promote or “sell” themselves to senior leaders and/or potential “sponsors” by articulating the positive impact they are driving are much better positioned for more opportunities versus those who stay silent.
Agitate When Needed
When I delivered my dad’s eulogy at his funeral I talked about how he had a “New York Edge.” What I meant by this is that when my dad felt that he, a family member, a friend, a work colleague, etc…were being wronged by someone else, he would “agitate” and/or “escalate” as needed to try to make the situation right from his perspective. When I saw my dad “agitate,” he was very persuasive (and always sounded like a lawyer) and much more often than not he was able to resolve the matter to his satisfaction.
We all know that life can be unfair at times. Don’t be afraid to agitate.
Many years ago while I working as an in-house lawyer at Accenture I remember complaining to my father about my work and how demanding my job was negotiating very large and custom technology outsourcing agreements with demanding customers and the challenging law firms that represented them. My father gently reminded me that I was getting paid a lot of money for essentially putting words on a piece a paper and my job did not entail saving the lives of others. He was absolutely right and from that day forward I always tried to keep what I do in my job in perspective and to not take myself too seriously – which many of us in the legal profession have a tendency to do.
My father actively cared for my mother for over 20 years as she lived with a disease called lupus. While my mom was in and out of hospitals for prolonged stretches of time, he was always open and honest with me about my mom’s up and down medical condition over the years. While those conversations could often be very difficult, I always valued his openness and honesty as he treated me like a man from a very early age.
Honesty and transparency are the keys to building trust in any relationship. From my perspective, in the workplace leaders earn greater trust and credibility with their teams and their customers by being authentic, avoiding ambiguity and being open, accessible, candid and telling it like it is.
My father was a role model to many Hispanics in the business world and before he became a senior executive at a major financial services company, he served as an Executive Director for a non-profit organization whose mission was to create business development opportunities for Hispanics. During his time he helped many Latinx people improve their lives and secure job opportunities. He understood many years ago why embracing diversity and inclusion made economic sense for all businesses and instilled that perspective in me at a very young age.
Always Be Networking
My dad was the ultimate networker and was often viewed as the “mayor” in the places that he worked. He was very personable, could make small talk with virtually anyone on a wide range of subjects and he encouraged me to try to meet one new person every day.
As I’ve become more senior in my career I’ve realized that who you know is more important than what you know. As a very smart person once said, our “network is our net worth,” so be sure to constantly network with others – and use social media tools like LinkedIn to do so.
Stay Actively Informed
My father would read The New York Times every single day – and every single article. He was incredibly well-informed and seemed to know everything about everything. He understood the power of information and the importance of staying actively informed about our ever changing world, trends, leading issues, etc…While he did not realize it at the time, it was his influence that got me hooked on craving the latest information on business, geopolitics, technology, my beloved New York Yankees, etc….which I consume largely nowadays via Twitter.
Whether it be serving his country in Vietnam to coming home to his wife and new baby (AKA me) to returning to school to get his MBA to moving from the Bronx to the New York City suburb of Scarsdale, New York (where there were few Puerto Ricans) to changing his job several times to losing his wife of 25+ years to getting remarried and starting another chapter in his life, my father’s life involved a tremendous amount of change. He was very successful in navigating through the changes that life presents to all of us.
When I felt “stuck” in my career several years ago it was my dad who encouraged me that I needed to change as I was too comfortable. At that time he suggested that I do more to build my professional brand as a lawyer by writing articles for publication (and my first one was on the topic of cloud computing for a leading procurement organization that he was involved in) and to deliver external presentations on topics where I had expertise in. I followed through on his advice, these activities raised my visibility both within and outside Microsoft and I believe it was instrumental in helping me get promoted to Assistant General Counsel in 2014.
My dad passed away from a rare form of skin cancer known as merkel cell carcinoma that originally looked like a small wart on his hand. In hindsight, perhaps my dad could have done a better job in taking care of himself by immediately going to the doctor when this growth appeared on his hand.
While we all lead busy personal and professional lives, we all need to be extremely proactive in protecting our health and being laser focused on our wellness – and the wellness of our loved ones. This by far and away is the most important lesson from my dad so please do so in his memory.
While my dad was laying in his hospital bed during the last two weeks of his life he was constantly winking at me with his confident smile. When I was a young boy this wink and smile was something that my dad would do periodically and it was his way of letting me know that things were OK and he was happy with me. When he did this during his time at Memorial Sloan it was as if I was experiencing the “cycle of life” and I was immediately transported back in time to my earlier years in New York and the great memories that we created with my dad, my mom, my brother, my grandparents, the rest of our family and our friends. As Father’s Day 2019 approaches I plan on winking and smiling a lot at my son Sebastian.