Be a great parent. Excel in a dream career. The two goals that form the holy grail of fatherhood to many dads all around the world; the two goals that can quickly become impossible in the eyes of many. But not Ian Dinwiddy…
Ian is the founder of Inspiring Dads, a coaching and mentoring business that inspires, supports and challenges fathers to work out their path to “be a great dad AND have a great career”.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Ian about the importance of a healthy work/life balance, the pressures on modern-day dads, and what qualities he believes make the perfect father.
KW: Where did you get the inspiration to start Inspiring Dads?
Ian: When our daughter was born in 2010, I was working full time as a Management Consultant. My wife Lisa and I decided that one of the most important things we wanted to do for our children was for one of us to be always ‘be there’.
Outsourcing our childcare wasn’t something we generally wanted to do and from a pragmatic income based calculation it made sense for me to be the one who stepped away from a full time career. After several years of a hybrid life – various stints as a full time parent, some nursery days and freelance work, I retrained as a coach: a career choice that would allow me to control my hours and working location. It wasn’t until 2017 that I worked out what my niche would be.
The focus on working dads came from a realisation that the industry is dominated by female life coaches and tightly focused executive coaching. What you won’t very often find is coaching and support to help men be successful at ‘life’.
When men become dads, it is as much of an upheaval and an emotional and practical challenge as it is for women and in some ways more so. The pressure to provide for your family while being an active and engaged parent can be intense. Here was a group of people whose challenges weren’t necessarily being recognised or supported. Ultimately men want to be great dads and have great careers but it can be a tricky balancing act.
KW: What, in your opinion, makes a great dad?
Ian: I think it’s different for everyone, but it starts with being happy, content and confident in ourselves and the relationships around us. When you get your own mindset right, it becomes much easier to give to others.
Knowing what you truly want and need to be happy is the first step – being open and honest with your partner is the next. Too many men generally will struggle on silently, bearing the burden of their troubles until it becomes too much. There are great benefits to being brave, stoic and strong for others, but not if your own wellbeing and mental health are suffering.
It’s much harder to be a great dad if you don’t feel great about yourself and your circumstances. After that, being an actively engaged father, a role model and partner should feature somewhere in the checklist of great traits for Dads.
KW: Why is it important to provide dads with the levels of support offered by Inspiring Dads?
Ian: Generally speaking, men don’t find it as easy to build support networks as women, especially when it involves communicating vulnerability in areas of their lives that society has traditionally viewed as masculine.
The result can be a relationship breakdown, issues with substance abuse or a mental health crisis. Having someone to turn to who is neutral and isn’t going to judge can be of enormous benefit. It’s a safe space to get honest with what they really want.
My clients often talk about the benefits of being able to just talk through things with someone who ‘gets’ what it’s like. What’s really important is to get early intervention, before there’s a “problem.” I’m a major advocate of workplaces providing at least 1 compulsory dad-to-dad mentoring session when men return to work after the birth of their children.
KW: Alex tells me you’re currently climbing the hockey umpire qualification ladder. How do you fit this in with family and work?
Ian: For so many men, their identity becomes bound up in the social status of their working lives. When I swapped the prestige and ‘expert’ status of Management Consultancy for playdates, Monkey Music and Aptamil I needed an outlet, a focus.
I had always played hockey and because I was at home with the baby during the week, I had a bit of leeway on a weekend social life – in effect it was my break from nappies. I have been a National League umpire for 4 seasons now. I don’t do it all the time – 3 out of 4 weekends over the winter at the most. It can be tough to make it work – if my wife is ill or needs to work I have to drop out of my umpiring commitments which I hate to do but it’s part and parcel of being a parent.
Being based in the South East means the majority of games are relatively close, but when you factor in arriving 90 mins before the game it becomes a full day, regardless of whether you go to Sevenoaks or Cheltenham.
KW: Are there parallels between being an umpire and leading in business?
Ian: Definitely. Core skills such as communication, assertiveness and decision making are important in both. Calmness under pressure and the ability to maintain your own state when all around may be losing their cool are vital attributes. But there’s also a human element in my mind.
Having empathy with the people you are managing, accepting that under pressure people may react in the heat of the moment. Understanding when to enforce the letter of the rules or when the spirit of the rules and doing the right thing is more important.
As umpires we try very hard to lead (by explaining either verbally or with the whistle what is acceptable) – to inspire confidence on the pitch so that players have a framework for success. When it’s done right you have very little need to intervene, players know what’s expected and they know what will happen if they step out of line.
Ultimately your credibility on the pitch and in business may rest on your ability to make an unpopular decision. But get it wrong and we’re encouraged to show our human side – consult with our colleague, get the right decision and eat some humble pie. At the end of the day it’s not about the umpires it’s about the players, we’re just there to help everyone have a fair game.
KW: Can you tell us a bit about the charity hockey match you run?
Ian: This year was the 7th time I have organised a charity hockey match in memory of Paul Burke. Paul was both a good friend from University (UCL) and from my home town of Taunton but as is often the way we’d lost touch in the years after University.
In 2012, Paul’s young son George died tragically when he was just 1 year old. Suffering enormous emotional trauma and undiagnosed PTSD, 5 days later Paul took his own life. George’s death was a tragedy but Paul’s could have been prevented with the right support.
His wife Rhian set up 2WishUponAStar to raise money to support bereaved families in Wales. Paul loved his hockey and our annual hockey match is a small contribution to keeping his memory alive, seeing old friends and raising funds for a very important charity.
I consider it a privilege to know Rhian and to see her charity go from strength to strength. The lessons of Paul’s death – that men need proactive support that they won’t always feel comfortable asking for – is as valid in the case of bereavement as it is in the field of work/life balance, stress and anxiety.
KW: Why do you believe men (in particular fathers), may be reluctant to seek help from coaches such as yourself? What can be done to prevent this?
Ian: Men learn that certain attributes such as stoicism, emotional resilience and ambition are desirable and necessary for them to get ahead in life. It takes enormous courage to step outside of that norm and to first admit to yourself that you are struggling and second that you actually want to talk about it.
Poor work/life balance for fathers isn’t the biggest problem in the world but if left unchecked it can develop into a mental health crisis. You ‘solve’ it by normalising a culture of talking to someone about your problems, making paternity coaching and mentoring compulsory and creating networks of man-to-man support – with support who are credible in the eyes of the working fathers.
KW: How do you define the perfect work/life balance?
Ian: I think work/life balance when taken in its literal sense is a problematic term – it suggests equal amounts of work and life. Work/life harmony is a better concept, though I tend to stick with ‘balance’ because I think there is a shared understanding of what it means.
It’s the mix between working time, family time and personal time. Again, it’s a personal thing – what is perfect for one family or an individual would appear madness to another. I’ve seen posts on Mumsnet that are threatening divorce if their husband isn’t home by 6.30pm. For our family currently, 8pm is early for my wife to get home and 11pm is much more common.
What makes the balance ‘work’ is twofold – clear communication about expectations and family goals, and focus on one thing at a time. That way, work time is work time and family time is ‘quality’ time. Too often we allow the boundaries to blur to the detriment of both.
Sometimes, good work/life balance is muting your phone and putting it in a drawer for a couple of hours. In many other circumstances it’s flexible working – non standard hours or working from home that allows time to fit work around life and family commitments. There are so many options available for anyone to consider: https://www.womensbusinesscouncil.co.uk/100-ways-to-work/
KW: What advice would you give to a new father not yet ready to slow down his career?
Ian: It’s not all about you anymore and open and honest two way conversation with your partner is absolutely key.
You need to be sure that your career ambitions and your identity as a man and a father is aligned with your partner and your family. Although the traditional family division of a man as a breadwinner and his female partner as the primary child carer can give great comfort and certainty, if you want to avoid resentment, stress and relationship breakdown you need to ensure both your needs are being met. Fail to recognise the feelings or desire of your partner at your peril.
KW: If you could have a billboard that all fathers drove/walked by every day, what would it say and why?
Ian: “Successful should feel better than this”, and it would have a picture of a Dad, maybe in a suit sending one last email while his children look on waiting expectedly for their time. It’s easy to get trapped or feel trapped by the way life and especially work/life balance have played out, no one ever looks back wishing they spent more time working.
KW: Why is there so much pressure on fathers? And how should they handle it?
Ian: The pressure comes from 3 directions – the workplace which values ‘all in’ commitment, partners who, especially if they are working too, expect equality in the home and thirdly ourselves – embracing involved fatherhood and chipping away at the prevailing wisdom of traditional binary roles of carer/breadwinner.
A large part of the pressure comes from reconciling those roles and expectations – trying not to let anyone down. The way to handle it is to be open and honest with yourself about what is truly important to you, especially when those things may go against traditional masculine roles, then open clear lines of communication with your partner, establish family goals that can underpin everything you do and finally design a work and life set up that delivers against those goals.
I met someone recently who books an away weekend each year with his wife, they take a flipchart and talk goals and directions for the upcoming year. It was an eye opener!
KW: How does it feel when you hear fellow fathers praise the hugely positive difference Inspiring Dads has made to their lives?
Ian: Amazing, it’s really what my coaching is all about: helping guys to navigate through the complexity of being a ‘modern’ father. I know that the impact of helping men creates ripples of success and contentment throughout their families and the wider community.
Feedback such as: “When we started working together, as far as I was aware it was impossible to be successful at work and be the father I wanted to be at home” (see the full feedback here) makes me appreciate the potential difference you can make to people’s lives.
KW: How did the chat with James Frith come about? Talk us through what happened…
Ian: James is Labour MP for Bury North, but once upon a time he and I were at school together in Somerset. I saw a speech in which he used his own experience of trying to balance being a new Dad with an important vote to passionately make the case for proxy voting to be available to all MPs.
I think I commented and shared, we exchanged some messages and he asked if there was anything he could do to help support the Inspiring Dads mission.
A bit of diary coordination and an emergency Brexit statement later, we were chatting in a House of Commons café about how he balances life as an MP with being a father of 4. Read more about this here.
KW: What has surprised you the most since starting Inspiring Dads?
Ian: How hard it is to convert the interest that so many men have in improving the balance between their career and home life into action to change their circumstances. I know many examples of men who waited too long.
Solving the challenge of engagement is an important part of my focus at the moment. I know that coaching and mentoring support works but sometimes it requires a nudge from a partner or from the business to set someone on the path to reducing their stress and anxiety of trying not to let anyone down.
KW: What do you believe are the key ingredients to building relationships and making strong connections?
Ian: Listening properly, not just listening so that you know when to add your input to the conversations. Showing genuine interest in other people and remembering what is important to them and at some level showing some vulnerability and openness helps too.
Fatherhood is a role you can never resign from; in fact, it is many roles. Guardian, role model, provider, protector, teacher, playmate, friend, supporter… These are all positions that stick with you for life the moment your child is born, shaping everything from your perception of the world to your actions, decisions and life plans.
The influence of our parents is ingrained on so much of what we do, say and achieve in life. From the day we are born, our journeys are moulded by the foundations our mothers and fathers build for us.
This is what makes Ian Dinwiddy and Inspiring Dads’ mission so indisputably significant and necessary.
Many of us work and have careers, but that is not what should define us. Your career should be something you love and cherish and thrive in, but your job title is not what you will be remembered for. Our mark on this world is left with those we touch throughout our lives, and our legacy is in no safer hands than those we love and hold dearest.
Ever found yourself thinking: Success should feel better than this? Don’t wait too long to make the necessary changes. Act now. Speak now. Be the amazing father you and your family know you are capable of being, and the positive waves will ripple much further than those extra hours at the office.