What Can a Traffic Cop Teach You About Business and Communications?

My dad’s birthday was always around or on Father’s Day, so the annual flurry of sentimental social media posts I see from others often spurs me to reflect on my own dad. So, when it all came around this year, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the lessons he taught me about business and communications, even though he spent the majority of his own working life as a police officer.

Outside of starting his career after World War II in the steel mill for a couple years, for the most part his career involved donning a City of Pittsburgh Police uniform every day. He started as a beat cop and eventually, he was assigned a corner (Grant & 6th) and that was his domain, directing traffic and keeping the peace for roughly 20 years or so.

So, when I contemplated a career in business and communications, what could a guy like that glean from his work and life experience to serve as my most important mentor? Quite a bit, actually, but I’ll narrow it to four things.

Reading People

One of the things he was best at was sizing someone up from first glance to handshake, which all could have transpired in a matter of seconds or minutes. While he wasn’t one to make snap judgements, he had learned how to quickly detect whether someone was real or not, well-intentioned or not, hiding something or not. This usually involved an instinctive trust of his own read of nonverbal communications, such as eye contact, body language, etc. This came in handy on the job, but it also carried over into his daily life. If he sensed someone was “faking it,” it took quite a while for that person to shed his suspicion.

The Importance of Genuineness

As much as he valued genuineness in other people, he strived to be the real thing in his own dealings with others. He was positive, open and friendly, which made him very popular around the Downtown area. Sometimes I used to stop by his corner while he was working, and you’d have thought he was running for mayor when he wasn’t out in the middle of the intersection keeping traffic flowing. He was liked because he genuinely liked other people and it was obvious.

Respect for the Individual

As I grew up and began my own career, my dad was at once my father, my friend and all too often my sounding board. Whenever I ran into something or someone I didn’t understand, I’d get frustrated and often air out my frustrations in talks with my father. He was a good listener, and even though he didn’t always have the perfect life experience for the situations I may have faced, he was always able to bring it back to people. More to the point, if I could sum a typical “counseling session” with my dad, it would go like this. I’d ramble about somebody who was making my life difficult at the time, for whatever reasons, and he’d come back with, “It takes all kind of people to make the world go ‘round.” This was his constant way of reminding me to come back to center. To remember that not everyone sees things the way I do, and to be open to that.

Doing the Right Thing

Being a police officer then and now has its moments. If something happened in Downtown Pittsburgh that required a police response, there was a good chance he was called in, along with so many other fellow officers. He didn’t often talk in detail about every call or every situation he faced, but he didn’t shy away from it, either. As his son, what I most often remember was that whatever the situation, the moral of the story for me, which he always made clear was, “You have to do the right thing.”

This meant doing what was expected of you by your superiors, by society, and in the end by your own moral compass. What honor is there in doing the right thing only when other people are looking, he would say. You have to do the right thing all the time.

Those are some of the lessons I received at the University of Dad, though they never show up on my LinkedIn profile.

I’m sure you learned some valuable life and career lessons from your own dad. Feel free to share in the comments section below.


Also published on Medium.

Posted in Corporate & Strategic Communication, General, Pittsburgh, PR & Media Relations and tagged , , , .

TimOB