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Parenthood & Leadership - are they so different?

Last year I wrote a blog on ‘Why becoming a parent has made me better at my job’, and I felt a little nervous to publish it at first, but the feedback I received gave me encouragement. I made new connections on LinkedIn with people I didn’t know who said even though we were strangers, the blog had helped them with their confidence and focus at work. Mums and Dads in different sectors told me how it resonated.

Now my youngest child has started school, I feel like I’m entering the next phase in my parenting journey, and consequently I am also entering the next stage in my career journey. I’ve just started a new job and I’m in the process of studying for a year-long master’s level course in strategic leadership and management. While I have been working on this course, the synergies between leadership and parenting have become hugely evident to me, and I felt compelled to share some of the parallels.

All too often companies put people into management roles because they have been doing the role the longest, or people seek management roles because the want the pay rise/title or power that comes with it. There is a difference between managers and leaders, and I feel true leaders should want to be leaders for reasons other than the above. Yes, a pay rise or a title change feels rewarding for a short time, but then what? You should not become a parent so you can tell people “I’m a parent,” and the same goes for leadership. There should be an intrinsic motivation to want to do the role, and hopefully that reason is because you want to help guide and steer the people you are responsible for.

There is a Simon Sinek quote which always sticks in my mind. “When we are leaders it is not about being in charge, it’s about taking care of those in our charge”

A key lesson many companies overlook is teaching us how to lead. We all have the capacity to be a leader, but that does not mean everyone wants to be a leader or everybody should be one. There are phrases like “natural born leader,” but the reality is that leadership is a learned skilled like any other, and it needs to be practiced. So, let’s talk about some of the skills required to be a great leader.

Much like parenting, leadership is a scale, but these are the traits which I think really help in both:

Good Communication skills – Perhaps the most important. It doesn’t matter the knowledge or intentions you have, if you can’t communicate this in a way that resonates, your message will fall on deaf ears. Understanding your audience, and adapting your communication style to said audience, are key skills in both parenting and business leadership.

Patience – Things don’t always go as you would like or expect, either at home or in the workplace. Being a parent has meant I have had a great deal of times where my patience is tested. Recently upon telling my 4-year-old that I was “losing my patience”, he responded, “Mummy, what is patience?” Since my own was at rock bottom, and I was rushing around the house, I resorted to one desperate modern parenting method, and told him to “Ask Alexa.”

Alexa chimed back with the rules to Solitaire, and so the confusion grew. I paused, had a think about what patience really meant to me, and explained it to him. Sometimes, explaining things in simple terms to my children, helps me to explore and understand them a little bit better myself. Parenting has tested my resolve to the limit but has also forced me to work hard on controlling my own impatience, a skill that is hugely important in the workplace when tensions might be running high.

Trust – It is the leader/parent’s job to create a safe environment where mistakes can be made. Trust is a fundamental need within a team, but it is all too often lacking, and can breed dysfunctional behaviour. Lack of trust, alongside a fear of reprimand, is a toxic combination, as it stops teams innovating. Building trust takes time and human connection.

Being supportive/listening – Carrying on from the point above, an example from parenting is that my daughter gets so upset when she gets her schoolwork wrong, and I find myself always saying “it doesn’t matter that it’s wrong – mistakes are how we learn.”  I can’t tell her how to feel – but I can show that I am listening, so she feels heard and hopefully she will grow to understand it is ok to fail. As a parent we are told to allow our children to make their own mistakes and feel safe when and if they fail, why shouldn’t a similar approach be taken at work with adults?

Being firm but fair and setting clear limits – There must always be clear boundaries at work and home, and we need to communicate those boundaries effectively. We want our teams (and children) to feel safe to innovate and take measured risks when needed. We don’t want them to fear failing, but it’s up to us to put those guidelines in place. I want my team to innovate and try new things, but I also don’t want to be faced with a huge racked-up expense for a failed try. It should be the role of the leader to set the boundaries at the start, so the teams understand the landscape they are in and with what they are dealing.

Sacrifice – I hesitated about adding this one, as it sounds dramatic and I’m certainly not trying to say you need to sacrifice everything you are to be a good parent, but there are clear sacrifices that need to be made when you become a parent. Likewise, some may think saying sacrifice for a leader is dramatic, but what I mean here is you need to put the team first, not yourself. Just like when you have kids and they come first. Good leaders in business should not be taking credit for good work, they should be passing the kudos onto the team. On the flip side – if something goes wrong, the leader is ultimately responsible, and should not be passing blame downwards onto the team members.

Be a role model – modelling the behaviours you want to see. You see this so clearly in parenting when your child starts saying a phrase you said, or acting a certain way because you did. The same goes in work, you can’t expect your team to behave a certain way if you don’t model that behaviour yourself.

Empathy – This is a way we connect on a human level. Empathy allows people to feel safe, it improves engagement, retention, inclusivity and even innovation. A mentor of mine recommended a book Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. Written by Brene Brown. I loved the book, and I ended up reading lots of other books by the same author. I believe the reason I loved it so much, was because my kids were 2 and 4 at the time and it resonated to me as a parent so deeply.

“Empathy is a choice. It’s a vulnerable choice because in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling”. Brene Brown.

Recently I had a member of my team at work tell me I was “smart, driven and empathetic,” it was lovely to hear. At the start of my career, I would have been more flattered by the first two words, but I realise now how deeply important the third is. Empathy is the key to forming trust, and no team will flourish without trust. Early in my career I use to try and be the smartest person in the room, but now I realise how flawed that thinking is. Firstly, I’m always learning – so if I think I know all the answers – I’m creating a closed mindset for myself. Secondly, I really want people on my team and around me who are smarter than me, and who have knowledge that I don’t, and whose skill sets compliment my flaws. That’s the way to form a well-rounded team and allow that team to grow and thrive.

By fostering a culture of trust and teamwork, you can ensure employees feel valued and that they are working towards a common cause. It is important to develop goals at a team level, make sure everyone buys into those goals, provide feedback on the team-goal performance, and praise the effort before the outcome. Forming an environment where people feel open to sharing their ideas, without fear of reprimand if those ideas do not work out, is the way teams innovate. Foster a culture of continuous learning, a growth mindset so that no one feels they must hoard knowledge to be “the best” and it removes competition between the team. Make a push from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset, reward people for the action not the outcome. Celebrate achievement as a team. In terms of drive, we all have our different internal drivers, whatever the intrinsic motivation is for the individual, it’s the leader’s job to help identify that and tie that into a common team goal.

Whether it’s your children or your team at work, ultimately leaders should care about the people they lead and want to help drive them to be the best and happiest versions of themselves. I hope this blog helps you in your journey…. keep learning!