Malleability: be diverse. I have learned that my children are such completely different people, and the things that they need from me are very different. This is something where a one size fits all approach can be a disaster, and different skills are needed for different kids.
As a part of my series about “How extremely busy executives make time to be great parents” I had the pleasure to interview Jon C. Wolfe, founder, president and CEO of House Advantage, an international customer loyalty, marketing, strategy and technology company headquartered in Las Vegas with offices in Macau, China SAR and Memphis, TN. With over a quarter century of senior casino management, technology and loyalty experience in the gaming and hospitality industries, Jon is widely considered an expert in business intelligence and loyalty technology and is renowned for his ability to leverage patron information across integrated resort operations to drive revenues and profitability. He is also a Forbes Technology Council contributor.
Jon also serves as the Chairman, Chief Executive Officer and President of Entourage Investment Group, LLC.The company specializes in diverse entertainment and lifestyle investments, including partnerships with some of the top names in the entertainment industry, and also makes major equity investments.
Before founding House Advantage, Jon served in several executive roles including senior vice president (SVP) and CIO of Colony Capital/Resorts International, SVP and CIO of Horseshoe Gaming. Prior to his career in the gaming industry, Jon worked in various executive-level technology and management roles with organizations such as the Department of Defense, Nike and Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital.
Jon dedicates his free time to pediatric charities such as Make-A-Wish (where he currently serves as Vice-Chairman of the Board in Southern Nevada), Olive Crest, and more.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us your “childhood backstory”?
I was born and raised in the south — in North Mississippi. My father was a civil engineer working for the Army Corps of Engineers and my mother was a public-school teacher. My father had a somewhat modest upbringing and a tremendous work ethic, which fortunately, was deeply ingrained in me as well. My maternal grandfather was an engineer and inventor for IBM and developed some very interesting technology products that he patented. The technology and entrepreneurial mindsets combined with a deep work ethic was a pretty potent combination to create a successful executive career in technology and marketing, and then as an entrepreneur creating intriguing technology and very sophisticated marketing solutions for the gaming industry. It was a perfect storm for me. The real stark differences of my parents and myself was in education. They were very traditional when it came to school, degrees and such. I was more entrepreneurial in that regard as well, learning by doing, and taking less and less traditional routes in school. To be honest, a lot of the technology I was creating and working on weren’t even available in school at the time, so I received that education elsewhere.
Can you share the story about what brought you to this specific point in your career?
Honestly, it’s been a mix of luck and hard work, and dedication (from me and members of my family) and tremendous mentors to help guide me. My career has been this special collection of experiences and opportunities, some created, some recognized and embraced, and of course some missed. Failure has a tremendous opportunity to shape your career and skill sets just as much as success.
Can you tell us a bit more about what your day to day schedule looks like?
My daily schedule is very fast-moving and dynamic. It starts very early where I do a quick scrape of my emails, reading and deleting the less important items, and factoring the important items into my day and responding before I leave for the office. Once at the office, I spend quite a bit of my time reacting to team members and making sure that they are getting all they need and clearing any obstacles to make them successful. Additionally, I am personally driving very hard on the innovation initiatives for our company, so the day gets peppered with various technical meetings and product demos so that we can keep progress moving on those new functionalities and products. I have a regular rotation of meetings with department heads on different days of the week. In the mid-afternoon, my son comes to the office from school. We review his assignments and plan out the evening of school work. At 4 pm, I begin a very energetic push for the next three hours to close out the day strong and get the development team offshore ready to fire. That may include reviewing and approving certain development designs or initiatives for the evening, or getting an install for a customer completed, etc. The 4–7 period is really where we get so much traction for our day, as we are working less for our customers and their issues and more for ourselves. A late-night quick review of emails helps eliminate congestion for the morning emails when the cycle starts back up again.
Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. This is probably intuitive to many, but it would be beneficial to spell it out. Based on your experience or research, can you flesh out why not spending time with your children can be detrimental to their development?
We feel that not spending time with your children can cause a number of developmental issues, and they can be a wide range of items from developing certain skill sets to various social issues, which could result in low self-esteem. Children learn not just by direct teaching and instruction, but also through emulation and exposure to behaviors. The time you spend with your children is important so that you can influence their behavior and learning, but additionally so that they have the opportunity to learn through observation. The more absent you are as a parent, the higher the risk that these important skills are not able to be learned, or even worse, learned from an unsuitable alternative. Additionally, a marriage provides for a well-rounded relationship, where each partner brings various talents and attributes to the relationship. In the event one parent or the other is significantly absent, it could result in the children having less rounded skillsets.
On the flip side, can you give a few reasons or examples about why it is so important to make time to spend with your children?
So many executives have this dilemma where they are in competition between work and family. As I think about epidemics, I think that this one has to be one of the largest social epidemics there are in existence today. With the complexities of the world we live in, and with the exposure of our kids to all kinds of things we never imagined, from social pressure, to academic pressure, to drinking and drugs, and even sex and relationships, all at an earlier age, it’s hard to imagine that someone wouldn’t have an understanding of why it’s so important. They need guidance, they need love, they need stability and predictability, and good strong mentorship and advice. The things they are navigating as children were things we had to navigate as young adults, and even then, I am not so sure we were good at it. How are they going to get the tools and support they need to get them ready for all that life is going to throw at them without the consistent involvement of their parents?
At the same time, from a parent’s perspective, it’s so important for parents to participate in their kids’ lives. Its important for the fulfillment of parents as individuals as well. It’s incredibly rewarding and provides so much relief from the stress of business. I say this as someone who had traditionally done a poor job of this initially and then learned the importance along the way, and the tools needed to be somewhat good at it.
According to this study cited in the Washington Post, the quality of time spent with children is more important than the quantity of time. Can you give a 3–5 stories or examples from your own life about what you do to spend quality time with your children?
Again, I am going to say that this is an evolution and that my response from 10–15 years ago is significantly different than it is now. Previously, I would say that it seemed to be more about making the event. Making the ball game, making the recital, making it to dinner. By the way, making those events rarely included the entire event, and really was more about being present for a part of it, but still stepping out to take a phone call, or answer some text messages or emails. It was more about physical participation.
Now I think it is more about quality time, which is an entirely different dynamic. The first dynamic is about being truly present, no interruptions, no distractions, and really participating. This is a learned activity and wasn’t something I was able to do cold turkey. I will say that I have improved tremendously over the past couple of years, and more and more, I am improving and doing better. The second dynamic of quality time is a truly balanced and interactive experience. My wife is interesting, my children are interesting, they have interesting points of view, and they have very different interests than I do. Really giving yourself over to be a good participant in their conversations, listening, and providing thoughtful commentary is a truly rewarding experience.
My daughter comes home from New York and she has a number of New York stories that she wants to tell, which all seem to be in rapid succession. Whether it’s a dance competition or work she is doing in school, or even moving into her first real apartment last week (and out of the dorms), these are always so interesting and come in a rapid burst. She is also a rabid hockey fan and watching a game with her is nothing less than an intense experience with a lot of commentary!
My oldest son lives in Los Angeles and is working in the film industry. We just got to spend the entire day with him swimming at a resort with some of his friends. Stories were going back and forth from his friends and their experiences, to talking about his work and an upcoming production on an internet series, and a new lens that he got for Christmas that he is finally going to try out. It was very relaxed and drawn out for the entire day, mixed in with his friends and our family. It was truly a lot of fun watching him in his own environment, talking about the work that he loves and is finally getting to have a meaningful relationship with.
My youngest son is still in high school and has the normal love/hate relationship with school. Loves his friends and hates the school work. He is incredibly talented, especially in technology, and loves art and cooking. In his mind, he sees them as the same thing, and has a wide commentary on the food we are eating at dinner, and often finds time to slip back into the kitchen at the restaurant to thoughtfully observe and make some notes. Going to Sur La Table with him is an experience and requires a two-hour availability, as we shop for a special knife, or look at different special ingredients for certain recipes, or basically anything that Sur La Table has going that day.
All in all, I am glad to be able to be participating so much more meaningfully in the lives of my children, while I am somewhat disappointed that I didn’t figure these items out earlier in my career. I work harder to make sure my own team at the company does a better job than I did at this, earlier in my career.
We all live in a world with many deadlines and incessant demands for our time and attention. That inevitably makes us feel rushed and we may feel that we can’t spare the time to be “fully present” with our children. Can you share with our readers 5 strategies about how we can create more space in our lives in order to give our children more quality attention?
This is a balance of changes at work and on personal behavior, at least that has been my experience.
- Surround yourself with the best team that you can. Competent executives do a great job of owning their responsibilities and not letting them bleed into your responsibilities. There will always be one of those things that need your interaction, but for the most part, if it’s not a daily dependency, then the likelihood of you getting trapped at the last minute becomes the exception and not the rule.
- Announce your intention to make an event. “I have to be out of here tonight at 7pm. My in-laws are in town and my wife promised them a special dinner.” Make sure your assistant is guarding that time carefully. Make sure your peers and immediate reports know as well, so they can get things that need your attention on your desk earlier in the day and avoid last minute engagement.
- As a CEO, make a sound commitment to encourage, and then ensure, that other executives are making their commitments as well. Other executives will do a better job of honoring your commitments if you are also watching out for theirs. True executive partnership goes a long way in this area.
- Start getting in the habit of cutting off at a particular time every night, just for a couple of hours. Most of your events will fall into a particular time every evening, or on certain days of the week. My sons football games were always on a particular day, as were my daughters shows. If you can start to carve out a normal “break time in the action” and train your team to understand that, it will provide you a certain regular dependent window in which you can actually schedule new things. Then you are back online at 9 pm, and able to engage with the team for anything that they need. It’s amazing how well this has worked, and how reliably you can “relocate” at 7pm and be back online in just a couple of hours. I have done it as has my executive team and its had amazing results in making football games, band concerts, basketball games, etc. I have found that very rarely is there an event which cannot be worked around with support of your peers and senior management.
- Here is my new favorite. Be the one to take your kids to school in the morning. My wife and I now alternate. It’s a lot of fun to be involved in the beginning of their day, to make the morning run to Starbucks on the way to school, to be more involved in what they have going on in a day. Typically, kids have to be at school early, much earlier than I did when I was in school. If I am taking them to school, I am getting that bonus time with them on the way to school, listening to music, talking about what’s going on after school, knowing more about their day. I really missed out on this one. My youngest is starting to drive now and will be driving himself to school in just a few months. I am really disappointed that we won’t be getting to drive him much more moving forward.
How do you define a “good parent”? Can you give an example or story?
I am not sure that I can define a parent as good based on one criterion or another. What makes me a good parent, based on the individual needs and personalities of my kids, are often going to be completely different for another set of children. Everyone is so different, and the needs of individuals are extremely complex. I would say that there are certain attributes that make up a good parent, and I will do my best to outline here.
- Availability: be present. Show the effort to make time, not just when it’s convenient for you, but sometimes when it is most inconvenient.
- Interest: be meaningfully engaged. This means being a good listener and really engaging around what your child is saying, or even reading between the lines to pick up on what they may not be telling you verbally.
- Malleability: be diverse. I have learned that my children are such completely different people, and the things that they need from me are very different. This is something where a one size fits all approach can be a disaster, and different skills are needed for different kids.
- Learn to apologize. This is another one of those things where parents aren’t perfect, and we make mistakes. We make a lot of them; a lot more than we are willing to admit. Being able to apologize and admitting you are wrong is not a sign of weakness and teaching them how to meaningfully apologize will teach them how it’s done as well.
- Learn to say, “I love you”. My dad really didn’t tell me this much growing up. I think it was a generational thing. Not that I didn’t feel that he loved me, as that is absolutely not the case. I know he did. However, it’s something I specifically wanted to be better at than my family was. So now I tell everyone in my family, every day, and likely many times a day. And that includes my dad.
How do you inspire your child to “dream big”? Can you give an example or story?
I think it’s important to note that Cindy and I have raised our kids to be entrepreneurial. By that I mean, to do whatever it takes to achieve your goals, to have a strong work ethic, to understand that the biggest reason that individuals fail is because they talk themselves out of the opportunity, rather than someone else presenting a true obstacle to success.
It’s been important not only to teach and to reinforce those principles, but to also live them and provide a healthy example of effort and associated success to that work as well. To be able to point to a lot of my entrepreneurial work and success and show how relentless pursuit can bring extraordinary results is a great way to reinforce those values that we promote and show that they work and can create tremendous opportunities.
One example would be our daughter Avery, who is a tremendous theater buff and worked hard in the theater all through school. In both high school and independent productions, she worked hard to increase her skills, get better roles, and create opportunities. We obviously supported her, like any parent would. At some point she stated that she wanted to go to New York to study theater, and dance with the Rockettes. At seventeen, she packed up all of her dance gear and went to Radio City Music Hall to audition. She qualified for the Rockettes training intensive and also registered for school at Marymount Manhattan, and is about to complete her sophomore year there. As parents, Cindy and I couldn’t be prouder, obviously. But the most outstanding part of this story to me is, she was scared to death, but it didn’t matter. She went for it, and it wasn’t some little thing. She went on stage at Radio City and moved to New York. I consider myself a bold individual, but at 17, I never had that kind of determination or initiative, or the ability to manage anxiety or realize what my goals in life were. Since arriving to New York, she has become a bolder person, who continues to grow and achieve big things. It’s been an amazing transformation to watch.
How do you, a person who masterfully straddles the worlds of career and family, define “success”?
I think that definition has changed dramatically over the years and that’s probably through my own evolution and learning experiences. I think I defined success initially almost purely in a business sense. Was the career moving, was I achieving, was I providing at a tremendous rate for my family, giving them the best opportunities, etc.? My definitions were somewhat one sided.
Fast forward 20 years later I have become more evolved and have a much more rounded definition. Success now is much more reflective of the success of my entire family and my ability to do a number of things.
- Can I provide a better balance of my work and my personal life than I used to? I don’t mean that in the physical sense either, I mean can I park the work in my head and really be present with my family when it counts?
- Do I own my company, or does it own me? When I was really building House Advantage, and it was starting to become wildly successful, there was a period of time where I just couldn’t get away from it. I couldn’t turn it off. It is literally 24/7 and there is no other option at that point in time. I once ran into another executive that I have known for some time, and he talked about how much better I looked since the last time he had seen me a year ago. I let him know the big difference was that at that point, my company owned me, and now I own my company. Or more aptly put, a year ago, I was the ass in front of the plow, and now I am the ass behind the plow.
- Am I involved in meaningful conversations with my kids on things that matter? From advice on friends, to a crush at school, to homework and grades, to driving lessons and such. These are the items that make up my new life score card and have replaced items that were almost exclusively made up of work things. And even with my kids who have moved on to college and beyond, those conversations still happen, even with simple texts late at night about a complex math problem for my daughter in New York (thank goodness for Google), to what my oldest son should get for his sister and brother for their upcoming birthdays? Ten years ago, these questions were completely absent in my life, either because I wasn’t there physically, or even if I was present, likely wouldn’t engage the question in a meaningful way because other things were more “top of mind.”
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a better parent? Can you explain why you like them?
This is an area where I don’t do a lot of heavy investment. I don’t read a book specifically or follow particular podcasts. I have done research when I felt I wasn’t necessarily equipped to solve a problem or provide good advice, and I have dug in on issues that way. However, there is one video that inspires me, no matter how many times I have seen it, or how long I have gone without seeing it. That is the Ted Talk from Sir Ken Robinson, “Do schools kill creativity?” found here.
I think Sir Ken does an amazing job delving into a number of topics dealing with development, education, and breaking paradigms, and I love his various talks and concepts.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There are a number that come to mind, but this one from my own father is the one I tend to repeat the most. “You will have a lot of friends, and they will largely come and go. But over the span of your life, it is your family who will be the most important and will always be there for you.”
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!
About the Author:
Dr. Ely Weinschneider is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist based in New Jersey. Dr. Ely specializes in adolescent and adult psychotherapy, parenting, couples therapy, geriatric therapy, and mood and anxiety disorders. He also has a strong clinical interest in Positive Psychology and Personal Growth and Achievement, and often makes that an integral focus of treatment.
An authority on how to have successful relationships, Dr. Ely has written, lectured and presented nationally to audiences of parents, couples, educators, mental health professionals, clergy,businesses, physicians and healthcare policymakers on subjects such as: effective parenting, raising emotionally intelligent children, motivation, bullying prevention and education, managing loss and grief, spirituality, relationship building, stress management, and developing healthy living habits.
Dr. Ely also writes a regular, nationally syndicated column about the importance of “being present with your children”.
When not busy with all of the above, Dr. Ely works hard at practicing what he preaches, raising his adorable brood (which includes a set of twins and a set of triplets!) together with his wife in Toms River, New Jersey.