Parenthood is perhaps the purest form of leadership.
A senior executive I worked with confessed one of his hiring secrets to me: When it came to the key management jobs on his team, he almost exclusively hired parents. He claimed, “They tend to have a certain wisdom you gain by raising children.”
While parenting certainly isn’t the only way to gain management wisdom, his observation has merit. In my research studying the best business managers, I, too, have noticed an interesting crossover—their leadership profile is remarkably similar to that of great parents: Both set high expectations, offer stretch challenges, and give people space to think and act independently, but still hold others accountable. Of course, the opposite holds true, as well: The worst leaders (both at work and at home) either coddle people or operate through fear, blame, manipulation, and micromanagement.
These similarities exist because parenthood is perhaps the purest form of leadership. After all, you can’t fire your kids, and they don’t “report” to you. Once they can escape the crib or outrun you, it’s difficult to compel them to compliance. Rather, they must voluntarily follow your lead. This requires parents to exert influence while exercising control sparingly.
Last week, Hilarie Koplow-McAdams, a tech industry executive with 30 years of experience, told me, “My leadership perspective shifted after having children. Asking my kids to do something in an exacting manner and in a way they don’t understand is a recipe for disappointment on both sides. I realized that the folks I work with were much the same. I’ve learned to frame problems and initiatives rather than dictating answers.” In complex, fast-moving environments, no one person can have all of the answers. The best leaders don’t tell people what to do; they ask the right questions—questions that focus energy and intelligence.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 70% of women with children under 18 participate in the workforce. The majority of this population feels the symbiosis in these roles: 64% report that work not only enhances their parenting skills, but also that being a parent enhances their work. Here are three ways working mothers make great corporate managers:
Separating the signal from the noise
To maintain a semblance of sanity, mothers learn to distinguish a true crisis from mere chaos. You quickly realize that if it isn’t bleeding, broken, or burning, it’s probably not a crisis. For working mothers, this fierce focus gets applied to work as well. The heavy load they carry in both domains requires them to ignore much of the daily friction (and occasional adult tantrums), and focus solely on burning issues and top priorities.
With two children and a job as the president of global strategy at talent consulting firm BTS USA, Jessica Parisi can’t afford to waste time, especially in unproductive meetings, the bane of most managers. Last week, she told me, “I design strategic conversations to be thorough, but succinct. I make sure we gather data in advance, so we can have a healthy debate once we’re all assembled.” But, it’s not just Parisi who appreciates the efficiency—the entire business benefits from more productive, data-driven decisions.
Managing diverse talent
As a parent, you don’t get to pick your team. Sure, I would love to raise a bunch of Mensa-level geniuses, each with Olympic-level athletic potential and runway-model looks. However, each of my children, just like their parents, is a mixed bag, much more loyal mutt than purebred. A parent’s role isn’t to contort children into some unattainable ideal, but rather to help them grow their strengths and work around their weaknesses.
The workplace is much the same way. Few corporate managers have the luxury of assembling a dream team. More typically, managers must conjure brilliance from a group of inherited employees, an unruly cross-functional team, or the surprise summer intern who was a “gift” from a higher-up. Their job is to maximize capability by multiplying and growing the intelligence of their existing team.
Mothers also learn quickly that each child is different. For Christine Merritt, former head of U.S channel sales at Google GOOG , having a set of boy/girl twins enabled her to see that what worked for one didn’t always work for the other. Learning to adapt to each child’s needs sharpened her ability to adjust her leadership to the working style of each person on her team at work.
While motherhood can at times feel mind-numbing, it actually sharpens mental dexterity. Why? As a parent, you are a perpetual rookie. Just when you’ve figured out the baby stage, you now have a toddler and must master the art of negotiating with a terrorist. And just when you learn to juggle the demands of early childhood, your sweet child erupts into a teenager, and now you’re truly leading in the dark.
While learning new skills, you’ll simultaneously need to shed earlier, often cherished roles: You’ll let go of your job as life support to take on the role of manager, until your self-sufficient teen fires you as their manager. If you respond graciously, they’ll rehire you as coach, perhaps the only role that endures.
The continual learning, unlearning, and relearning of motherhood is the perfect preparation for working and managing in what is called a VUCA environment (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity). These environments require heightened awareness and situational readiness because conditions can change quickly, mistakes are easy to make, and surprises lurk around every corner—causing most managers and professionals to feel permanently underprepared. In these settings, it’s not what you know, but how fast you can learn that counts.
Working mothers (and fathers) no longer need to leave their best parenting skills at home. Taking care of little ones is valuable preparation for big leadership jobs. And for senior executives looking for a hiring secret, if you want to build high-performance teams, put working mothers into critical leadership roles.
Liz Wiseman is president of The Wiseman Group.