December 28, 2014

3 Ways Being a Mom Helps Me Be a Better Leader

I am surviving the day-to-day balancing act of both rearing a child and growing my professional career. Some days, I may even describe it as thriving. 
No, I don’t hold the secret to every working woman’s work/life balance (or integration). I just mean that, to date, I am fortunate to have had more good days than bad.
People who know me professionally would agree that I love what I do. I am passionate about the discipline of marketing and analytics and I love applying my skills and experience to hard business challenges. I thoroughly enjoy mentoring and coaching the people on my team (officially or otherwise). Going to work everyday with a great group of people and achieving great results truly fills my bucket. It’s where I find my flow.
When I was expecting my son, people would regularly tell me that I would “change” once my son was born. Their knowing looks implying that the passion I brought to my work would be muted and that I would not longer feel the same satisfaction from it once that I had a baby. This honestly scared me! Would the act of giving birth truly change something so core to me? And would it happen so quickly and dramatically?
Spoiler alert, in the end, motherhood didn’t “change” me. More precisely, it “enhanced” me. Like any life experience, the particular one of motherhood became folded into the me that was already there. It helped shape how I work, manage and lead.
My son is now 8 and I am still regularly asked by expecting moms-to-be about how becoming a mother “changed” me. In their queries, I hear that same unspoken uncertainty and fear that I felt before my son was born. So when asked, I often share 3 ways I “evolved” as a leader once I became a mother.  
1. Remembering every person experiences the world differently
Countless research studies show how difficult it can be for leaders to get out of their own heads. It is far too easy to assume that others think and experience the world like you do and then to feel angry, frustrated or wronged when the meeting you planned goes awry or a key person doesn’t engage. In the heat of a stressful moment it is easy to believe the transparency illusion where we believe we are communicating how we are thinking and feeling far more clearly than we actually are.
When I learned I was having a son, I felt in over my head. I grew up with just one older sister, and didn’t have any frame of reference for little boys. Plus, my husband regularly horrified me with his stories about the roughhousing he and his 3 brothers called “playing”.  How on earth could I effectively mother a little boy when I had no experience with it?
Net net, I couldn’t use my own experience. I could never intuitively know what what going on in his head -- and this isn’t a bad thing! This frame of reference (plus the fact that I love him fiercely) means I actively check in with him about what he’s thinking, feeling and how he’s perceiving the world and to actively assess how well I’m communicating with him.
Because I regularly flex this muscle with my son, it has helped me to keep it top of mind when relating with my team and colleagues. It helps in my work interactions to always assume positive intent and to be curious about reactions or behaviors that are different from mine.
Plus it reminds me to focus on communicating my expectations, needs and thoughts in ways that are most helpful to others versus what works for me.

2) Everyone is someone’s baby
You may have heard Plato’s quote, “Be kind, because everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”. Or the golden rule, “treat others as you want to be treated”. Both are good, solid, compelling reasons to act with kindness and understanding. A spin-off that I like is, treat everyone as you would want your child to be treated.
I’m sure I am not the only mother who occasionally feels some early-worrying pangs over my son’s inevitable first heartbreak or about the terrible, bullying boss who may make his first summer job a miserable experience. Even as I just think about these common life experiences, I can feel my lizard brain, “mamma bear” instincts kick in.
Don’t worry, I don’t act on these instinctual responses. I totally recognize it’s not realistic (or wise) to protect my son from these common pains of life. However, it is the power of my maternal instinct to protect him which reminds me that there is a mother (and a father) who feel just as strongly about every person I come in contact with out there in the world!
I work to build authentic relationships with my team and colleagues in order to see who they are, as a whole person, not simply the finance guy or engineer or whatever role that they hold at work. Helping everyone be feel comfortable being their whole selves, their best selves, at the office encourages the high level of engagement needed to solve the toughest problems facing a business. And it makes for a stronger, happier team environment.
I want my son to find his “flow” in an environment where his manager and colleagues all know and appreciate him -- all of him. Wanting this for him someday, makes it a priority for me, in my work environment, today.
3) My personal wellness is a top priority
We are all familiar with the airplane takeoff protocol that in the unlikely event that oxygen is needed, the masks will fall and you should secure your own mask before helping others. I’ve learned that self-care isn’t selfish. In fact, making my own wellness a priority is necessary in order to be able to balance (or integrate!) the different aspects of my life. I regularly remind myself that both my body and my mind need to be strong so that I will be able give my best toward both my personal and professional goals.
Avoiding burnout and lowering stress is key when you’ve got multiple plates spinning overhead. Luckily, the prescription can be as simple as exercising regularly and taking your vacation. Both these activities help make you a more effective leader at the office and allow you to be present and engaged with your family at home.

I am always flattered when I am asked about my experience as a mother and an professional. And generally, when I share my insights I believe I help allay a few of their unspoken concerns. Please share your thoughts on how being a parent helped you be a better leader.