As Mother’s Day approaches, it’s a good time to take a closer look at a question on the minds of many working women: Can we have it all — great careers, great marriages, great kids, great friends? I fully understand the question but not why we keep asking it. Look around. While it’s not an absolute prerequisite to being successful, all of these very prominent female CEOs – Mary Barra at General Motors (GM), Indra Nooyi at Pepsi (PEP), Ellen Kullman at DuPont (DD), Meg Whitman at Hewlett-Packard (HP) and Irene Rosenfeld Mondelez (MDLZ) – are married and have kids.
So this Mother’s Day, instead of making our young women crazy trying to decide if they can possibly have C-suite jobs and kids, let’s celebrate what the evidence – and certainly my own experience – suggests: Being a mom (or a dad for that matter) doesn’t have to hurt your chances of getting ahead. In fact, it can help.
Here are 8 lessons I learned as a mom that have made me a better colleague and boss.
Everything is a negotiation
Being a mom taught me how to be a better negotiator — with anyone and about anything. I use these skills daily – on everything from securing favorable contract terms for my company to getting my 11-year-old daughter to wear a dress to church for Easter (it happened this year – but only because she got to pair it with her favorite hot pink Dr. Marten boots).
You don’t have to know all the answers – questions are powerful
Being barraged by endless questions taught me the power of curiosity and to use questioning and probing as a management technique. When you change markets and roles as often as I have, it’s a given that you won’t have all the answers. Early on in my career, that made me feel insecure. But after more than a decade facing a barrage of questions about my IT needs from my tech-savvy Danish husband (I barely know the difference between software and hardware) or inquiries from my then 16-year-old stepson about hip-hop music (do you really think I could enlighten him about people who sing for Death Row Records?), I’ve grown comfortable not knowing all the answers. I can now lead teams and add value even when I have limited direct experience or knowledge of the subject at hand. How? By being clear about what I know and what I don’t know and by probing deeply. You’d be amazed how often you can uncover powerful insights and potential issues just by asking intelligent questions.
Different isn’t bad – it’s better
Motherhood also taught me that different is good. Before I had kids, I often created teams of “mini-MEs.” Now I know that it’s far better to pick people that don’t necessarily see things exactly as I do and have complementary – not identical – skills and temperaments. Looking at the world through other’s eyes, like I do through the eyes of my children, helps me come up with new ideas, better solutions and better results.
Coaching, nurturing and role-modeling get you further than lecturing
The best leaders (and best moms) know that it isn’t just about telling people what to do. It’s a lot more about coaching, nurturing, guiding and role-modeling. And then, toughest of all sometimes, it’s about letting them go do their thing without you. At home, one of the simplest but most difficult tests I faced last Fall was letting my then 9-year-old daughter walk the dog by herself. For years, I’d told her all about stranger danger. I’d role-played with her on what to do if someone approached her. I went into detail about how not to fall for the “cute puppy” or “hurt parent” routine. But trust me when she went bounding out the door, down the street and out of sight with our little white ball of fluff of a dog, my heart was in my throat.
At work, it’s more likely that I’m grooming one of my people to become my successor. There, I basically do the same things. I don’t just tell them what to do; I show them. I take them to meetings with me. I help with their content development – not by doing it but by suggesting edits or asking questions. I help them practice their delivery. I do all this and then I send them in for their first solo presentation to the CEO or the Board. It’s nerve racking, because I want them to succeed, but I do it anyway because it’s the only way they can really learn and prove that they are ready to fly without me.
Don’t sweat the small stuff
Being a mom taught me it’s not physically possible to worry about or prevent every single thing that could go wrong (believe me, I have tried!). So, now I try to remain laser-focused on what really matters and to let the rest go. At home, the rule is “no permanent damage.” (So for my daughter, blue hair is okay…body piercings, not so much.) With my direct reports, it’s about focusing on outcomes, not outputs. As long as their approach is efficient, effective and in keeping with company policies and values, I’ve given up trying to get everybody to “do it my way.” Instead, I look at what they achieve much more than how they achieve it.
IQ without EQ isn’t enough
Having kids taught me that “EQ” (emotional intelligence) is as important as “IQ.” I was always smart, but I was so driven I wasn’t always connecting with my people. Now I am undoubtedly more empathetic to others. And their knowing that I’m personally invested in them helps not only build better understanding but also trust and team spirit.
Tied to that, having kids taught me that long-term success depends on building relationships, not just hitting your numbers. I used to be too busy “getting it done” to really invest in others. Now I know you must do both. Relationships aren’t optional; they’re critical.
It’s not just about you
Last but certainly not least, being a mom taught me about how important it is for all leaders to not only strive for professional success but personal fulfillment as well. Early on, it’s so easy to get caught up in your career at the expense of everything else. And I think some years fully focused on work are good. But at the end of the day, the reason I think moms make better CEOs is that they realize that as compulsive as they are about their work (and believe me leading CEOs are all compulsive, in the best sense of the word) they also know that there is more to life than being CEO. Let me share one example from my six years (2006-2012) working with Irene Rosenfeld at Kraft Foods.
During those years, I grew to respect Irene tremendously. I found her super smart, highly capable and utterly committed. But even beyond that, her decision to split Kraft Foods into two separate public companies demonstrated that she could put company interests ahead of her own. It’s more common now, but back in 2011 when Irene announced the split, it was almost unheard of. Back then, not every CEO would’ve willingly “shrunk” their company (and by the prevailing “bigger is better” standard of the time, their professional stature) even if it was the right thing to do. But I think that because of who she is as a person and the fact that being the CEO of Kraft Foods wasn’t the only thing in her life (she has a husband, two daughters and many important commitments beyond her “day job”), it was possible for her to step back and ask herself: what’s the right thing to do here – not for me, but for the company?
This ability to give it your all but also put your ego aside is perhaps the most valuable thing motherhood teaches us. It’s also the greatest lesson business leaders can learn because in the end, leaders must understand that it’s not about us, it’s about them.
Moms know this. Think about the power of that in the C-suite.
Perry Yeatman is the CEO of Perry Yeatman Global Partners LLC and author of Get Ahead by Going Abroad. She is also a principal and chief marketing officer of Mission Measurement, a company that measures social outcomes.