Being a Mother Taught Me How We Can Integrate Our Inner Caregiver into Our Management Style
Mother’s Day is long past, but each year I’m less and less interested in celebrating the fact that I’ve given birth. I want to celebrate the other parts of me. In particular, I’m tired of separating the inner mother and the inner professional. These parts of me are incredibly intertwined, and they should be. My leadership abilities suffer when the best parts of myself are too separate.
So often in the leadership world, compartmentalizing the personal and professional is the rule. Managers engage strategies of power, threat and fear instead of support, encouragement and growth. Bosses react instead of reflect, demand instead of facilitate and, as leaders, we are pushed towards the typical patriarchal model of management that rules the corporate world.
My epiphany was brought on by the fact that I’m a successful parent, but I use the words caregiving, parenting and mothering in much larger context. Mothering is not defined by blood relation, traditional gender stereotypes or family status. Being a mother is a role but mothering is a way of being, a way of growing people, holding them in our thoughts and hearts as we go about our work. There are ways to manage and lead people which can integrate the caregiver within.
Here are my top parenting ideas that also make for good managing techniques in the bigger-people world:
1. Work yourself out of a job.
I’ve done it twice now as Mom and multiple times as a boss. Ultimately, as your kids grow, you’re less of a manager and more of a consultant, so that your adult child eventually calls the shots for the rest of their life. Similarly successful leaders know when it is time to pass the torch and make way for others by vacating their positions or enabling a protégée to find success — even if it means giving up a treasured employee.
2. Set clear expectations.
Parenting 101 expectations are preset and clear. Established limits make every child feel safer and also allow for lots of room to grow and change within those boundaries. Expectations don’t change mid-project without discussion or background. Expectations have purpose and should be part of an agency’s larger culture. In times of struggle, a whole team can fall back on clear expectations, which are are all about how we “do business” around here.
3. Learn and grow as you go.
Yep, every new parent knows there is no instruction manual that comes with a newborn. As parents, we don’t know what we don’t know — so we learn as we go. Mentors and leaders are in the position of knowledge — this should be a given (although it’s not always the case). As the leader of your agency, department or program you are somewhat ahead in the journey.
But no one is ever done learning. Being open to learning alongside your protégée, sharing your stories of less-wise moments in your journey and being open to brainstorm new ideas is the mark of someone who’s building something bigger than their own ego.
4. You are the safe haven.
Safe havens don’t mean there isn’t straight talk, disappointment or discipline in the course of the mentoring relationship. Safe haven means you share in the failures along with the successes. You wonder together about missteps and course corrections along the way. You are the touchstone from which your protégée can explore. When issues arise and mistakes are made, instead of covering them up, protégées know they can come forward for problem solving.
5. Empathic involvement.
Empathic involvement doesn’t mean you take on someone else’s shit and worry. It means you listen, assist with a plan and wear different hats. Good parents are both guardian and friend. We know when to wear our different hats because there is a time and place for different ways of being. There are times for discipline and times for play. Creating a predictable environment with time for both is how people are grown — in our homes and in our places of work.
6. Rupture and repair.
The famous “still face” experiments of the ‘70s introduced us to nuanced, nonverbal communication between parent and child. At our best, we notice most of our baby’s cues for interaction and reciprocate in a pleasing way, encouraging continued loops of interaction. Naturally, in the course of a caregiver’s busy day we also miss many cues, which at times causes a rupture in the interaction and stress to the child. These ruptures are easily repaired in most parent/child relationships, as soon as we again catch the cues and repair the momentary disruption.
As leaders, there are many times we miss cues — or over- or under-react in a way not conducive to the relationship. In busy work settings we forget to take time with people and work relationships experience ruptures as well. In adult relationships, we spend more time hashing out ruptures and deepening divides than on making the necessary repairs. As with parent/child interaction, the more consistent healthy back-and-forth there is between mentor and protégée, the stronger the relationship. That way, more protective features in the relationship guard against long-lasting ruptures.
Like parenting, leadership is all about relationships and people. Doing it right is not about shutting out the caring and loving parts of who we are. Instead, managing others should be about integrating the personal and the professional into an authentic approach to growing people, whether they’re little or big.