For years, the top three foreign languages taught in U.S. public schools have been Spanish, French and German. One language that isn’t on the list — but should be — is Business, with a capital B.
Thanks to my dad, I learned Business language from an early age. He used to take me to meetings with him, partly as a way for us to spend more time together. But he also did it to give me an advantage. He wanted to tune my brain to what goes on in the business world. It was an invaluable experience, and I’m forever grateful to him for it.
This was nothing like the “Take Your Kid to Work” days that some schools have today. It was closer to complete immersion. My dad worked in public relations in the entertainment industry, and when I was in third grade he took me along on a two-week business trip to Los Angeles. The purpose of the trip was to spend time with the singer Charles Aznavour, one of my dad’s clients. Born of Armenian immigrants in Paris, Aznavour has been dubbed “the Sinatra of France.” And while he never became a major star in the U.S., he was named Entertainer of the Century in a worldwide Time/CNN poll conducted in 1998. At 92, he’s still touring today.
Introducing a third-grader to LA’s recording industry in the mid-1970s as a way of acquainting him with the business world was like parachuting a Spanish language beginner student into Barcelona. Instantly, the lessons transformed from situations that were rote and theoretical to situations that were vibrant and real.
It was an amazing experience. It involved everything from sitting through an 11-course Armenian feast to spending time in a recording studio, watching how adults interacted to perfect music. All that was part of business life. And I got to see how the business and creative elements in society could work together to their mutual benefit.
We spent literally hundreds of lunches and dinners with artists and executives in midtown Manhattan and Los Angeles over the years. Faith Stewart-Gordon, owner of the Russian Tea Room, even knew my name from the countless industry lunches there.
Reading (and Hearing) Between the Lines
My dad was careful not to spare me the negative aspects of business life. When I was in my teens I often sat in on lunches with top music executives, agents, lawyers and managers. That taught me how people can speak different languages about the exact same topic. An artist might have a totally different opinion about a certain label executive than a lawyer might. It came down to competing agendas. The lawyer would be helping the executive get the best deal over the artist, which put the artist and the executive (and, by extension, his lawyer) in conflict.
Gradually I picked up the subtle cues that are part of the language of business. Once, when I was about 16, my dad took me to a meeting knowing full well that it was going to be tense. “We screwed up this account,” he told me. He wanted to teach me the importance of accountability — of owning your mistakes and talking openly and honestly about them.
But I also learned another lesson from that meeting. “I think you have nothing to worry about with this screw-up because this guy’s not staying at the company,” I told my dad afterward. Looking surprised, he asked my why. “He kept referring to his company as ‘they.’” I said. “If he sees his own company as ‘they,’ he’s not staying. No way.” Sure enough, a few months later the guy was gone.
Big Entrepreneurs, Big VCs
Now, obviously, not every business executive can take his kids to every meeting. But I believe a sort of Big Brothers Big Sisters arrangement whereby executives brought kids to a certain number of designated meetings each month could go a long way toward training a new generation of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and executives.
One entrepreneur, John Reese of Validea, thought the idea was so cool he brought his 10-year-old son to our next meeting. I’ve shared the idea with other colleagues, and some of them have done it, too. They all said it was fascinating how much their kids got out of it.
That doesn’t surprise me a bit. When it comes to the language of business, my dad had a terrific ear and he taught me well. And I’m happy to pay those lessons forward with my own “heathens” in the coming years.