Battle scars and fresh perspectives on fatherhood and business

STEPHANIE CONNER

Stephanie Conner is the owner of content marketing firm Active Voice Communications, blogger at Kiddos Cook and a mom.


“The strengths I’ve gained as an entrepreneur have helped me get through tough situations as a single parent”
— Phillip Oakley

Balance in life. Harmony in business. Equality in marriage.

In a perfect world, sure.

But Phillip Oakley, founder of Common Giant, a branding and marketing agency in North Carolina, has learned the world is far from perfect and life is far from neat. The father of two has come through significant life changes with a few battle scars — and a fresh perspective on parenting and business.

Sharing the Load

Oakley is a proponent of both partners in a marriage pursuing their professional and personal goals.

“There are so many times that a male runs off to be an entrepreneur and, ya know, that’s it. They check out from being a parent. Everyone assumes mom has got this — carting kids, taking care of the home,” he says. “I can’t believe it’s 2017 and we feel this way.”

Oakley took his work and home responsibilities seriously. His wife worked a full-time job. He worked his day job at an agency and freelanced for extra income, and they split the chores at home.

“Everything seemed normal,” he says. “Then we had a child.”

His wife didn’t return to work. Phillip, meanwhile, continued to manage his household responsibilities, remaining committed to fatherhood and his work. Then, he started Common Giant.

Even though he was now working fewer hours than before, entrepreneurship was hard and required his focus.

“I was doing payroll and sales and account management and creative direction,” he recalls. “I was trying to figure it out … There’s no entrepreneur school. I’m a CEO, CFO, HR and more. I was learning the hard way.”

Still, at home, he felt unsupported. And trying to maintain his share of the load was trying.

A Breaking Point

Oakley knew he was missing out on sleep. He tracked the numbers for better insight.

“For months and months, I got four or five hours a night,” he says. “I was getting up at 4 or 5 a.m. to do creative work, working accounts all day while I had to be ‘on,’ and following up on account management after everyone was in bed, often until midnight.”

He had a young son he drove to elementary school each day and a newborn. He was getting both kids out of bed seven days a week, doing the kids’ baths and splitting bedtime responsibilities. Each day consisted of making breakfasts and dinners for the family and trying to invest in his company. Work was like having a family as well — growing accounts and employees all at once. Everyone needed nurturing.

Entrepreneurship and parenting, he says, are both full-time jobs (with overtime), and to both, support at home is critical.

But that support, he says, simply wasn’t there. And Oakley’s sacrifices over the years were costing him his health and well-being.

“I didn’t realize how far down the tunnel I was of being stranded,” he says. “I felt alone.”

Then, one night, a disagreement with his wife over whether he could take a business trip led to an admonishment that he needed “to learn how to sacrifice.”

“Those are the words that ended our marriage,” he says.

Wanting, Finding, Creating More

“When I am daddy, I am daddy,” he says. “That’s part of my personal brand. I’m not on calls or emailing.”
— Phillip Oakley

Divorce is messy, but Oakley knew it was the right thing. And it gave him perspective on relationships.

“You need a clear understanding of what someone’s purpose is,” he says. “If you’re in a relationship, you have to understand what’s in your partner’s heart. You have to listen with empathy — listen to what they really mean, not just what they say.”

Shortly after his separation, he feared his younger son, then 2, was showing signs of autism. He fought and pushed for eight months, sometimes against family members, to get answers. This brought more feelings of being alone. In June of 2016, while returning from a business trip, he received the note that his son “presented mild-to-moderate autistic tendencies in some key areas.” This meant nobody could fight Oakley on what he already knew. He cried in the TSA Pre-Check line at New York’s LaGuardia Airport, because his son could now get the help he needed.

That means that within a span of a year, Oakley went through a divorce and his son’s diagnosis, and his company had its first seven-figure year.

Whoa.

“The whole experience really taught me about my support system in my employees, and I found out who my friends were,” he says.

He also was inspired to shift his business model.

“Part of me is understanding who I am and understanding who the business is,” he says. “Growth (both revenue and employees) is still a goal. But I’m doing it in a smarter way with clearer purpose now.”

He’s also working to be fully focused as a father.

“When I am daddy, I am daddy,” he says. “That’s part of my personal brand. I’m not on calls or emailing.”

His sons are now 9 and 4, and when they’re with him, he emphasizes routines. “We eat dinner at the table,” he says. “We make pancakes every Saturday.”

And Oakley is constantly striving to become his best self so he can model that for his sons.

“I expect the absolute best out of myself, and I can teach my kids that,” he says.

In some ways, Oakley’s entrepreneurial side and parenting side have come together.

“The strengths I’ve gained as an entrepreneur have helped me get through tough situations as a single parent,” he says.

And as Oakley continues to find his own way in parenting and business, he still believes that we can have some version of “it all.”

“It’s 2017, so you should have the ability for both parents to have a career and have a sense of purpose,” he says, “and still be a caring, fantastic parent.”