“Read with your kids.” With Michael Z. Stahl

Read with your kids. Yes, our lives are busy, crazy and jam-packed. But making time to read with your kids — whether it’s you reading to them or them reading to you — is a relatively easy task to accomplish. And it doesn’t have to be at bedtime if your schedule doesn’t allow that. I think […]

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Read with your kids. Yes, our lives are busy, crazy and jam-packed. But making time to read with your kids — whether it’s you reading to them or them reading to you — is a relatively easy task to accomplish. And it doesn’t have to be at bedtime if your schedule doesn’t allow that. I think any time we can spend reading with our kids is incredibly valuable.

As a part of my series about “how extremely busy executives make time to be great parents,” I had the pleasure to interview Michael Z. Stahl, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of HealthMarkets. The company is one of the largest independent health insurance agencies in the U.S. that distributes health, Medicare, life and supplemental insurance products from more than 200 insurance companies. Stahl holds the chartered property casualty underwriter (CPCU), associate in insurance accounting and finance (AIAF) and associate in reinsurance (ARe) designations, and earned a bachelor of science in economics from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He lives in Dallas with his wife and four children.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us your childhood backstory?

Iwas born outside Baltimore and moved to Kansas City when I was 5 years old. My father was a cardiologist and my mother a pharmacist, so I suppose you can say I was born into a family focused on healthcare.

I was very fortunate to grow up in a happy, healthy household with great parents, a younger brother, a younger sister and a great community. I enjoyed a content and fun childhood with parents who were supportive and involved in my life. I have no complaints!

Can you share the story about what brought you to this specific point in your career?

I came into the insurance industry after being recruited to The St. Paul Companies by a fellow Wharton alumni and childhood friend who worked there and loved it. I later got connected with Kemper after a former COO (Jim Schulte) at The St. Paul Companies went there, met with me and convinced me to make the move. That move involved a relocation to Jacksonville, where I ran a region. Jim was a terrific mentor. He tapped me to build and lead the full development of their homeowners insurance business from scratch, and it was an incredible learning experience and growth opportunity. Several years later, the chance to join HealthMarkets came about, and I was extremely interested. I joined the company just before the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was implemented, which provided an unbelievable growth opportunity.

Can you tell us a bit more about what your day-to-day schedule looks like?

I wake up early, help get our four children (ages 11, 9, 3 and 2) ready for school or activities, and I’ll typically glance at my email to see what the previous day’s results were.

I help with breakfast, getting backpacks ready and, if there’s spare time, I’ll shoot hoops with my two older boys before they head to school. Once or twice a week, I will drive the “bigs” or the “littles” to school.

I have a 45-minute commute to my office, so I will make and take calls during my drive — and the same goes for my drive home. It’s a good way for me to catch up with folks.

If I’m able to leave work early and get to my kids’ various activities, I always try to. At the end of the day, I come home, help get dinner ready and focus on time with my kids. We’ll play some basketball or other outside activity before dark, and then I’ll help the older kids with homework or help the younger ones with math or handwriting. Then, I help get the kids to bed.

Once the kids are down, I enjoy hanging out with my wife! We’ll watch TV, chat, read or just hang out–sometimes, I’ll do work before I go to bed, but it depends on the day.

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 explain why NOT spending time with your children can be detrimental to their development?

I think our children need us, as adults, to help guide them and spell things out in this world we live in. Avoiding or ignoring that need for human connection just doesn’t seem right to me.

I think that now, perhaps more than ever, human connection is vital to our happiness as individuals and as a society. Having relationships with others of all ages, backgrounds and experiences is what makes our lives and world better. As parents, I think that starts with spending time with your children — talking to them, asking questions, answering their questions, and having meaningful dialogue face to face as opposed to being stuck to a screen. I know my wife and I strive to do that as often as we can.

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?

I suppose that living the life I’ve lived with caring and involved parents, I intuitively cannot imagine any other way of being a father to my children. I want to spend time with them. I love spending time with them.

I think being involved with your kids’ activities — be it school, sports, theater, music or any other interest — truly matters and can make a difference in a kid feeling supported and encouraged versus the opposite. We lead busy lives in a busy world, but we must make time for our loved ones and let them know we are present, we are proud, we acknowledge their mistakes and celebrate the victories, and we are a team.

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 stories from your own life about what you do to spend quality time with your children?

I make it a point to spend time with each of my children every day or night if I’m not traveling for business. Certainly, FaceTime provides the opportunity to connect when I’m out of town, but real, face-to-face time is great.

There’s some version of learning or activity in our house each day. We cater to each kid at their individual level — even my 2-year-old gets in on the fun! I read with my little kids at night, and I’ll play basketball or tennis with my older ones. I’ll also review homework, help with Algebra or writing, or maybe play a quick game or complete a puzzle every night if possible.

Also, having four children of different ages, I aim to have one-on-one time with each of them every day or night when possible. I ask them questions — sometimes about school, what happened that day, what was the best part of their day and things of that sort. It allows for dialogue, which often turns into laughter over something funny. And if this happens at night, I think it’s a great way to end the day — with conversation and laughter and a “sleep tight.”

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 ways to create more space in our lives to give our children more quality attention?

With four kids, my wife and I make deliberate effort when it comes to giving attention to each of our kids. Certainly, we attend to each of them every day in a variety of ways, but we also think it’s important to strive for one-on-one time, or even two-on-two, if needed. It requires teamwork on our end, as well as the kids’, but we make a concerted effort to schedule time with each of them and the two of us at least once a month. We also try to make one-on-one time with Mom or Dad at least once a month.

In terms of more deliberate strategies, I offer these:

· Read with your kids. Yes, our lives are busy, crazy and jam-packed. But making time to read with your kids — whether it’s you reading to them or them reading to you — is a relatively easy task to accomplish. And it doesn’t have to be at bedtime if your schedule doesn’t allow that. I think any time we can spend reading with our kids is incredibly valuable.

· Play with your kids. As a father, I realize that “play time” benefits both me and my kids. It’s important to let loose and be goofy and playful with your kids, and it makes all involved happy.

· Ask questions. Have conversations with your kids so you are in touch with how they’re doing, what they think and how the day has been. I often find the conversations with my kids to be some of the funniest and adorable conversations I have.

· Take time for yourself. This may not seem like an appropriate strategy on how to give our children more attention, but, in fact, it is. I’ve read countless studies that emphasize the importance of self-care for your family, career, friendships and so much more. Obviously, it’s important for your kids, too. Ensuring you take the time you need to pay attention to your own health — whether it is through physical exercise or yoga and meditation or taking a class to expand your mind — taking care of yourself helps you take better care of your loved ones.

How do you define a “good parent?” Can you give an example or story?

I think a good parent is supportive, forgiving, humble and proud. Those are the first words that come to me when I think of a “good parent,” and I suppose that’s how I think of my own parents. They were all of those qualities and more for my siblings and I, and I’m so grateful for that.

How do you inspire your child to dream big?

My maternal grandfather was a major part of the first 10 years of my life, and I’m forever grateful for that.

He was a small business owner who owned a textile factory in Manhattan’s Fashion District, and he spoke to me a lot about his business. He talked about doing the right thing for your business, your employees and your customers. I remember spending time with him, sitting on his knee and watching financial news network television. He instilled a keen interest in business and finance in me at a young age. Seeing him make it as a small business owner in New York City always inspired me.

While my four children didn’t have the opportunity to meet my maternal grandfather, I tell them about him. I talk about how his life was different from ours, and how he worked so hard to run his own business in a major city. He worked hard, he provided for his family, he loved his work — that’s truly a dream for anyone, and I love to tell my children about him and have their minds considering those same dreams.

How do you, a person who masterfully straddles the worlds of career and family, define success?

On a personal level, having four healthy children and an incredible wife, a home we love, family and friends who are important parts of our lives — those all define “success” for me.

Professionally, I work for a great company with a great team, and we are doing good things for others. We help millions of Americans get the health insurance they need, and that is incredibly rewarding.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a better parent? Can you explain why you like them?

There are two books I’ve read more recently that have truly stuck with me.

· Return on Courage by Ryan Berman is a fantastic read. Berman spent several years shadowing various individuals and leaders and writes about creating a culture that allows you — as an organization or individual — to face your fears and take business challenges head on. I think his insights are applicable in any industry, and I think what he shares can resound with any leader.

· Another great book is Demand: Creating What People Love Before They Know They Want Itby Adrian Slywotzky and Karl Weber. It challenged me to consider “demand” in a different way that allows you to truly embrace innovation. The notion of the book is to imagine a product or service people don’t know or think they need — and then create it by envisioning what it can do for your customers despite them not knowing it.

Can you please give us your favorite “life-lesson” quote? Can you share how it’s relevant to you in your life?

I have always believed in the “Golden Rule” — do unto others as you would have done unto you. Do the right thing. It was a concept instilled in my psyche at a young age thanks to my maternal grandfather, and one that I believe in and abide by today and every day.

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.

From an environmental standpoint, I would love to help figure out how to better sustain ourselves as a society. And if I could support a movement to make workplace culture better everywhere, I absolutely would.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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