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Avoid family's pink slip

'Recovering success addict' tells CEO Dads to get their priorities straight

12:00 AM CDT on Sunday, June 17, 2007

On this Father's Day, Tom Stern wants you to ask yourself two questions. Are you a CEO Dad? And are you about to be fired by your family?

He was and almost did.

Early on, Mr. Stern worked stand-up at comedy clubs with Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno, then developed comedy programming for HBO before becoming a superstar at the game of executive recruiting.

His family came in a distant second to his career.

Now 51, Mr. Stern calls himself a "recovering success addict" who preaches the gospel of putting loved ones first. And he does it with a seriously comedic edge.

His book, CEO Dad: How to Avoid Getting Fired by Your Family, is endorsed by an unlikely combination of his pals Mr. Seinfeld and Mr. Leno, a senior editor at Forbes magazine and Gloria Steinem.

"A lot of dads have been brainwashed with the mythology of the male's role in the American dream," Mr. Stern says from his home office in Los Angeles.

An alpha-dog dad?

"Yes, and they are hopelessly trapped chasing their alpha-dog tail."

He calls these guys CEO Dads and says they treat their families like corporations. "They create a lot of unnecessary pain – not just for their families, but for them. My motto is: 'His family would be everything he hopes and dreams it could be if he weren't in it.' "

And ladies, before you get too smug, the CEO Dad is not gender-specific. While more men fall into this trap than women, Mr. Stern says the women who do are among the most work-absorbed because they think they have to push harder to get ahead.

"I don't have a clinical psychology background," Mr. Stern says. "I don't even know if that's the best way to reach these folks. But with humor and poking fun, I gently nudge them to the idea that life would be better and easier if they would recalibrate the image of who they are and what's important."

Mr. Stern's childhood was a mixed bag of family celebrity and personal tribulation.

His father is 84-year-old Alfred Stern, a cable TV pioneer who later headed the Public Broadcasting System and Mount Sinai Hospital.

His great-grandfather was Julius Rosenwald, the legendary entrepreneur and philanthropist who built Sears, Roebuck & Co. into a retail powerhouse in the early 1900s.

"My baby pictures were taken by Richard Avedon. Talk about status, huh?" says Mr. Stern, who grew up on New York's Fifth Avenue. "We traveled all over the world. I was always being exposed to stimulating, interesting people, and they were all successful.

"But that cultural ethos created problems. First, I thought being successful was easy. Second, I thought it was essential – if you weren't a big success, you were a failure.

"Third, there was so little intimacy in our home that it reinforced the idea that your value as a human being was determined by your ability to perform."

That's where the other side of Tom Stern's reality kicked in. In his mind, he was Tommy the needy, bed-wetting son with ADHD and dyslexia who was of little use to his powerful dad.

His mother worried about his shortcomings and overcompensated. "Somebody would call, and I'd take down a message, and she'd exclaim, 'Oh! You should be a writer!'

"She was working so hard to buttress me, which was sweet and loving. But again, the emphasis was on becoming something."

He was good at making wisecracks.

"In the fifth grade, when I wasn't prepared for a final exam, I hid in my locker because I didn't want the teacher to find me. When he did, he said, 'Tom, you've got a test in five minutes. What are you doing in there?'

"And I said, 'Cramming.' "

After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College with a major in psychology, Mr. Stern worked comedy clubs alongside Mr. Leno, Mr. Seinfeld, Dennis Miller, Robin Williams and Richard Belzer.

But somehow those beer-soaked crowds in the wee hours couldn't relate to his monologues about the hardships of growing up super rich.

"That was a tough period. I had been the school and the college comedy star," he says. "But once I went into the comedy business, I relived the sense of failure and humiliation that I had as a kid."

Trading addictions

Mr. Leno got him a job as an agent for comedians, and he was pretty good at that. Then he sold two comedy shows to HBO.

"But I found that the egos and the culture of show business was too much for me," Mr. Stern says.

He left the business when he was 33, kicked a heavy pot-smoking habit that had started in school and found immediate stardom as a headhunter.

In one way, he traded one addiction for another. "I went after it like a guy panning for gold. You could not get me home. Every phone call was an opportunity to win; every rejection a chance to turn it around."

How bad was it?

David Krygier, a close friend and business associate of 19 years, says he called Mr. Stern at the hospital to congratulate him on the birth of his first daughter, Alexandra, only to get a lukewarm response.

"He couldn't relate to his baby because she couldn't relate to him yet," Mr. Krygier says. "He literally took seconds to talk to me about her and then it was on to talking about business. We laugh about it today, but it actually happened. I'm not embellishing the story."

Altered priorities

Mr. Krygier, who worked for Mr. Stern for seven years, isn't certain his former boss has completely changed his spots but says he's definitely altered his priorities.

"Tom's a relentless self-promoter, and he's still a maniac when it comes to work," he says. "But he's made tremendous strides. He really does believe that his family keeps him grounded. It was that horrific episode that made him stop and reconsider life."

He's referring to the tragedy that struck in January 2002.

Mrs. Stern had parked on the street outside their L.A. home and was on her way into the garage when two thugs attacked her, grabbing for a diamond ring that Mr. Stern had given her.

One unloaded on her face with brass knuckles.

"I heard screams and came out. The other guy put a gun to my head," Mr. Stern says. "My little 5-year-old, Alex, said, 'Daddy, what's going on?' She thought this might be a stage play."

The attackers took the ring and fled, leaving Mrs. Stern's face looking like a gargoyle's.

Alexandra acted like a comforting, poised nurse.

"The combination of her maturity, her selflessness, her kindness in contrast to my self-centeredness broke my heart," Mr. Stern says. "I felt pride for her but a deep sense of grief at my shortcomings. That was the moment.

"I'd had wake-up calls before, but I only half-listened to them," he says. "I made real conscious choices. I scaled back my business."

Focusing on family

A few years later, the Sterns adopted Arianna from Guatemala.

"I'm a sharpshooter now," he says. "I take a couple of searches here and there and make enough to take care of the family. I'm no longer trying to set records."

As a result, he's taken a massive pay cut.

His best year, he netted slightly more than $2 million for placing 61 people in jobs that paid more than $100,000 a year. "To do that many placements, you have to be completely obsessed."

His message to others is: Don't be.

"You don't have to go out there and be No. 1. When you try so hard to be in charge, you're really a slave to that idea."

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