Management Lessons from Parenting

If you are chatting with any group of managers who also happen to be parents, it’s common for someone to say “I’m such a better manager because I’m a parent.” It’s usually followed with “but I would never say that to my team.” I’ve been thinking a lot about this statement recently and from one perspective it makes sense. No one wants to feel like they are treating adults like children and no one wants to be treated like a child. But the more I think about it the more I realize that learning lessons from parenting to apply to management are not because you are dealing with people that need to be told what to do or dealt with in a juvenile way, it is because as a parent, you learn intense lessons about communication, compromise, teamwork, and boundaries. You don’t have a choice in learning these things, you have to in order to survive (and thrive? whatever that means) as a parent.

Parent Lesson 1: Accept the Differences

As a parent, you quickly learn that your child is different from you (or maybe they are the same as you which can sometimes be worse!) and if you have multiple children they are different from one another. Being able to reconcile these differences manifests in two ways as a manager (and as a parent). First, as a manager or parent I’ve always needed to recognize my personal style and figure out how to adjust it to fit with the personality of my child or team. As a parent, I am so willing to take a step back in order to determine what my child or children need… do they need more structure? Or more freedom? What sorts of conversations of discipline work best for them? And I’ve found it differs for each child because they are different people. As a manger, i need to be willing to do the same.

Second, I need to understand and really lean in to the strengths and weaknesses of my children. What do they love to do? And what do they dislike? In what sorts of scenarios do they thrive and where do they need to be coached? My son gets frustrated really easily but if you remind him he can do something and encourage him to break down the process in his mind, he calms down and can solve his own problems. My daughter needs to be left alone. She doesn’t want to see you or hear from you. SHE can figure it out and I need to give her a bit of space to do so. Like others, they have different styles and different language works for them. And just because they dislike something, doesn’t mean they don’t have to do it.

When I work with folks I love to recognize what they are good at and enable them to find a team where their strengths are balanced with their areas of growth and where they can work really well with a team. And I use those lessons from parenting to figure out what sorts of conversations work for each individual to support (and challenge) them best.

Finally, for lesson 1, parenting helps me recognize where my biggest struggles are. Sometimes when my children are the most like or the most unlike me (on either end of the spectrum), it is the most difficult to parent them. Sometimes it’s challenging for me to recognize where they’re coming from or why they’re responding to something in a certain way. Other times, I completely understand and empathize with the issue at hand but I can get sucked in to it as well because I feel the same way. These are the places that are most challenging as a parent and also as a manager.

Parent Lesson 2: Getting Buy-In

If you’re a parent, How often have you said or wished you could just say “because I said so”. Think about the most stressful time of your parenting day. For most of us, this is morning time or bedtime. There are so many questions! So many things they should be doing! It’s like every morning or every evening they have NEVER done this routine ever before in their life. UGH. Sometimes I actually find myself saying “we do this EVERY MORNING for basically your ENTIRE LIFE. WHY is getting out of the house so difficult?!” (Can you tell what one of my parenting trigger points is?)

But neither in management nor in parenting can I say “because I said so” because here’s the thing… no one gives a shi*t. It doesn’t matter what I say… in both scenarios. Maybe as a manager you can make your reports do something because you told them to or maybe they’ll do it because you asked (this happens sometimes in parenting as well), but it won’t work long term. Long term, you’ll be seen as the bottle-neck. No one will do anything unless you tell them to do it. And they won’t be bought in. They’re solely doing things because you told them, not because they understand or because they believe in the actions being taken. And really, again, this isn’t comparing individuals you work with to children, it is a situation that occurs in both roles and for very legitimate reasons. So what are some of the approaches the can be employed?

First, take a step back and focus on the problem. Using facts and without blame, what is the problem that you are trying to solve? We need to get out of the house on time. We need to ship a product on time. Etc. Then, leading by asking questions. What do others feel are solutions? What do they feel are aspects contributing to the problem? Or, do they actually know what’s next? Sometimes a confidence boost is needed or people just need to feel heard and the best course of action is to say, what would be the next best thing to do here? If you would have picked a different answer, dig in to if it matters. Is your answer more right because it has to be? Or could things be done differently? Others (your children or team) may not accomplish things in the same way you will but it will be accomplished nonetheless.

Second, allowing others to make decisions and knowing when you need to make the decision. Creating buy-in also means empowering others. Giving them choices between two things or even just having individuals decide themselves and using it as an opportunity to stretch where they are currently at. And encouraging others to make decisions also means there can be a conversation about owning outcomes and failures. Sometimes decisions may turn out to be the wrong one. In the car with my son, sometimes we’ll reflect a bit on a decision he recently made. If he feels like it was a good decision or a bad decision. What he thinks he might do differently in the future. While I use toddler-friendly language with him, the same important conversations occur with folks I manage because those are their growth opportunities.

Parent Lesson 3: Growing Individuals

It is my job as a parent and as a manager to make individuals better. To help them feel supported, confident, engaged, and challenged. There are a variety of ways in which I do this and language I use with both my teams and with my children and they differ slightly but the core purpose is the same.

One of the things I think is most important is knowing what people are interested in. Allowing people to talk about their lives or encouraging children to direct play are great ways of going about this. Frequently we find ourselves directing activities… let’s go to the playground. Do you want to ride your bike? How’s that project going? But asking more open questions and allowing others to talk about the things that matter to them or dictate what sorts of activities you participate in can be really enlightening. You can get a sense of what sorts of activities someone loves doing and can dig in to those to create learning and improvement opportunities. This can also be done through asking more direct questions. Asked my children or reports something general like “how are you doing?” Or “what did you do today” will often lead to broad, unhelpful answers. Instead I ask in 1:1s “what’s on your mind?” Or I have a list of more specific starter questions I can use (or they can use) to spark conversations. Likewise, at home I’ll ask “what made you laugh today?” Or “were you kind to your classmates?” Or even “Did anything make you sad or make you cry today?” I get much better answers on all front that lead to better conversations and discussions.

Lastly, part of helping people grow is embracing the things that you are not comfortable with. People fail and it’s hard to watch. You want to set them up for success and you don’t want them to feel pain or sadness. With children, the costs can be greater. Sometimes allowing a child to do something you’re not comfortable with could lead to injury (for example falling off of a bike) but they are also important things to learn. My son and I are working right now on crossing the street. It’s terrifying. The stakes are high. We’re currently just practicing in VERY low traffic areas but even though I’m scared, he’s ready for the challenge AND one day he’s going to need to walk to school or walk around a town and he’ll need to know how to responsibly cross a street. This can be the same with folks you work with. Their mistakes could reflect poorly on you as a manager, there could be legitimate consequences or delays shipping a product as a result, and yet, if you don’t give them the opportunity to grow in ways that may make you slightly uncomfortable, they will never grow and may not feel that thrill of accomplishment and remain even more engaged. Like my son crossing streets, it’s important to find some ways to do this in baby-step style, to reflect, and ensure they’re ready for each next step.

So the next time you hear someone compare parenting to management or you say it and immediately roll back the statement for fear that it will be misunderstood, think about all the ways parenting and management can be boiled down to core lessons of communication, recognition, and growth and be happy that if your manager is a parenting, even if they’re a little more tired, they’re probably a better manager as a result.

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