I’m a golf fanatic, and would play twice a week throughout the kids’ early years, including Sunday mornings. A few years ago, it occurred to me that I was giving up one of the most precious family moments in our house, which is a weekend morning. So I stopped playing golf on weekend mornings, and now focus on making breakfast for my wife and kids, and will often play board games with my youngest daughter after breakfast. I’ll have plenty of time to play golf when they go to college.
As a part of my series about “How extremely busy executives make time to be great parents” I had the pleasure to interview Joe Ens. Joe is the co-CEO of HighKey Snacks, an emerging food company that is one of the fastest growing food businesses online, boasting the #1 chocolate chip cookie on Amazon. Joe has spent most of his career in food, with over 20 years at General Mills where his last role was Regional CEO, Australasia. Born and raised in Canada, he is the proud father of 2 teenaged girls (16, 13), and has always known that his family was going to be his most important legacy.
Thank you so much for joining us, Joe! Can you tell us your “childhood backstory”?
Icame from a “positive divorce” situation, with my parents splitting up when I was 7. I lived with my Mom in a suburb of Toronto, and would spend weekends with my father who lived an hour away. I call it positive because there was no overt tension between my parents and I never heard either of them say a negative thing about the other. Although neither my Mom or Dad finished high school, they were both quite enterprising and always encouraged me to pursue college. I sometimes say that I was lucky to get the best of each of them: I have my Mom’s heart and my Dads head.
Can you share the story about what brought you to this specific point in your career?
I guide my career decisions by the principle that “if you’re not growing, you’re dying”, so I’m constantly looking for a new challenge that will stretch me. At General Mills, I moved from Canada to the US, and then to Australia, all at my request to find a new opportunity that would help me grow. When the time came to get my family back to the US for high school, I left General Mills knowing that my growth would slow moving back to the same types of businesses as before. So I pursued a change and was lucky to eventually find HighKey, which is a small but explosive food business. Radically different than what I’ve done previously, and I’m loving every minute of it!
Can you tell us a bit more about what your day to day schedule looks like?
My days are generally divided into 3 buckets: managing the business, coaching and helping optimize “the how” work gets done. I think of my “office” as existing in 3 places: the headquarters in Orlando, remotely from Minneapolis and on airplanes. I’ve learned to become extremely effectively in my “flying office”, where I tend to get my best work done with not a second wasted as soon as I set foot in an airport. I can tell you exactly what I’ll be doing at any stage of my travels. It’s become a bit of a game to me to maximize.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now 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?
Kids need to know that the most important people in their lives (their parents) care about them. And kids are always watching and evaluating the actions of their parents, so they will interpret the lack of time spent as “they must not care”. I think this is especially important in the pre-teen years when the emphasis on Mom and Dad is so high. Obviously still important as teens, but as teenagers they have more demands on their time and have the ability to interpret actions differently.
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?
One of our goals as parents was to always be available for our girls to ensure that they feel comfortable sharing anything with us. So we’ve always prioritized family dinner time, and it’s a time that is dedicated to conversation, not just eating. When the kids were younger, we’d go around the table and share the “highlight and lowlight” of our days, and we all had the chance the share and listen to each other. That forms a level of trust and caring on a regular basis. Of course, as teenagers, now I just get eye rolls when I ask “highlights/lowlights”, but the essence of dinner-time conversation is still very much alive. As a result, dinner time is often my days’ “highlight”.
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?
I couldn’t agree more. When I started traveling a lot for this role, I set 2 key parameters with my business partner. I’ll never travel on Sundays, because that puts pressure on the entire weekend with the family. Not to mention that my daughter and I always watch Minnesota Vikings football together on Sunday! The 2nd parameter was I must be home for dinner on Thursday, allowing me to have more dinners at home than not. So while I’m not home every day and for every dinner, I’m there for most, and when I’m there, I’m completely present. And usually I’ll just Facetime on the other days and my wife will put the phone on the table so I can hear about their days. Not as good as being there, but keeps me connected.
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? Please include examples or stories for each, if you can.
The practice of Mindfulness plays a huge role for me as a parent. I was the last person on earth who thought I’d get into meditation, but for the skeptics of mediation or mindfulness, it’s nothing more than having the ability to be present, or just as important, notice when you’re not present so you can correct.
- Many of my mindful choices I make evolve around technology, which is the biggest culprit in pulling our attention away from what matters. It should go without saying that there is no technology at the dinner table, either at home or in a restaurant. That’s a time for sharing and discussion. But it goes beyond the dinner table. When the girls come home from swim or soccer practice and they want to share stories from their day, I turn over my phone or close my laptop and ensure they have my undivided attention. And the behavior goes both ways … they turn off their technology. This behavior also influences how they interact with their friends. I’m proud that my oldest daughter would get frustrated with her friends in Australia when they would all be on their phones when they were together over lunch break. So she called them out on it and said ‘turn off your phones’ so they can be with each other. And they did.
- I’ve had to work hard on my listening skills with teenaged daughters. Like so many fathers, I would always try to solve problems and I finally figured out that sometimes daughters just want you to listen. So I rarely try to solve their issues, and just listen and support. And sometimes, when I see a window, perhaps ask a question to see if they can solve it for themselves.
- Family travel is important to us, and we make a point of traveling 2–3 times a year. There’s something special about discovering new places and staying in a cramped hotel room together. We’ve been lucky to travel the world together given our ex-pat scenario in Australia, and some of my favorite memories from those travels are simply kids jumping on the hotel beds and ordering room service late at night.
- I’m a golf fanatic, and would play twice a week throughout the kids’ early years, including Sunday mornings. A few years ago, it occurred to me that I was giving up one of the most precious family moments in our house, which is a weekend morning. So I stopped playing golf on weekend mornings, and now focus on making breakfast for my wife and kids, and will often play board games with my youngest daughter after breakfast. I’ll have plenty of time to play golf when they go to college.
How do you define a “good parent”? Can you give an example or story?
A good parent provides the support, guidance and love that nurtures a child’s mind and body. I think it’s all about finding the right balance for each. Many people struggle with being their child’s friend vs their parent. Kids have enough friends … they need a parent. But you can still develop deep and trusting relationships while still being a parent. I think the difference is that a parents’ job is to provide the structure and foundation for a child to grow … that’s not a friends job.
How do you inspire your child to “dream big”? Can you give an example or story?
My wife and I try to lead by example and help them see the impact of choices we’ve made so they understand that they are in control of their outcome. We don’t necessarily preach the “you can do anything you set your mind to” approach, rather a perspective of “hard work, good choices and a positive attitude leads to good things”. My oldest daughter struggled with a foot disorder when she was younger that forced her to wear casts on both her legs for a few weeks every year. She never complained and just fought through it by putting in the hard work. Something that should have been a big deal for a kid never was. She now has real empathy for people who have a physical hardship.
How do you, a person who masterfully straddles the worlds of career and family, define “success”?
There’s 3 areas that I try to balance to live a successful life:
- Be present with my family: not just “for” my family, but “with”. And to the earlier question, is all about quality over quantity.
- Live fulfilled: Not just filling moments, but creating moments that are full. Experiences are far more important to me that material stuff.
- Maximize my potential: I always want to be growing and stretching myself, and am eternally curious, especially about leadership.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a better parent? Can you explain why you like them?
I don’t think there’s any one book or podcast that informs our parenting style, rather just leverage the resources available to us through the school system and the internet.
That said, there was a period where my wife and I held a “parenting offsite” with each other, just before our oldest was turning 10. It was inspired by a leadership conference I attended, and there was a parenting expert that suggested that the ages of 10–13 were the most important in a persons life for forming who they become. In the business world, if you knew you were about to enter a critical stage of a business, you’d host a strategic offsite with the team and plan for it. So that’s what my wife and I did. And being a nerdy corporate guy, I even pulled together a pre-work binder of materials to read in advance about the different things parents encounter over pre-teen years. I’m not sure if it made us more prepared, but it was good to spend the time talking about stuff before it happened.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I tell my kids (and nephew!) that there are 2 keys to a successful life:
“Choices and consequences”: Every choice has a consequence, so if you don’t like the consequence, better think twice before making the choice. An example of how it plays into my life: I took my father skydiving a few years ago at his request. I told him that while I truly wasn’t scared about the idea of jumping out of a perfectly good airplane, I wasn’t going to do it because I had a young family counting on me. And the consequence of a bad skydive was something I wasn’t willing to risk. But I sure wanted to do it!
“Choose your attitude”: I think that we have the choice for how we respond to what life throws at us, and the choice to be positive and optimistic is ours to make. Even in difficult times, the ability to see the positive, or at the very least, keep it in perspective, has been a gift to me. On the flip side, being a positive optimist also helps you see the good when you have it, even in the most basic things like being in good health.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’d love to see a movement that provoked and inspired people to live to their fullest potential. And it’s usually within their control to make the decisions they need to do so. Similar to our brand, HighKey, which is all about living the opposite of a low-key life, I want to see people live their best lives!
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!