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Good mother = good manager
Ann Crittenden, Pink Magazine | November 23, 2006
Did you ever stop to wonder why we have best-selling management books drawing lessons from Winnie the Pooh, whale trainers, Shakespeare, the teachings of Mao and even Jesus Christ but not one book based on the leadership lessons learned by parents, our original leaders and managers?
After all, people who take the job of parenting seriously can teach us a great deal about managing and motivating people at the office, handling crises and keeping the life/work balance in healthy perspective.
My own epiphany happened in the mid-1980s, soon after my son was born. I had been an economics reporter for The New York Times and was familiar with the books on how to be an effective manager. As a new parent, I began to devour all the parenting books I could find and was immediately struck by the uncanny similarities. Could it be, I asked myself, that the same material was being packaged differently for various audiences?
A few years later I pursued this hunch and signed up for a 3-day seminar at Harvard on how to deal with difficult people and difficult situations. And, sure enough, the management tips that the executives in the class had paid nearly $2,000 a head to learn were largely the very same lessons that mothers were absorbing from the $10 paperbacks on parenting.
I asked the instructor, William Ury, coauthor of Getting To Yes (Penguin, 1991), a best-selling business book, if he would object to my comparing his management advice to the advice found in the baby books. "Oh, no," he laughed. "I got most of this stuff from Haim Ginott," the humanistic psychologist who wrote a classic child-rearing manual in the 1950s. In other words, people are people, and what works with 4-year-olds is just as likely to work with 40-year-olds.
For example, a bedrock principle of management and parenting alike is to treat people with respect and listen to what others say. The late, former Texas governor Ann Richards, who raised four children before she went into politics, told me the most important thing she learned from her family was to never let anyone leave the table feeling they haven't been heard.
Parents also acquire in-depth experience in negotiation. Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, once joked that any mother who has dealt with two kids and one piece of toffee could negotiate any contract. (The trick, according to another high-powered mom, is to let one child divide the sweet and the other to pick the first piece. This formula could be applied to any number of competitive situations within an organisation.)
Why awards work
A quintessential parenting skill is the ability to motivate people and inspire them to do their very best. One of my favorite stories about motivation came from a senior vice president at JPMorgan Chase. He told me about a highly effective sales manager who recognised the top salesperson in her division every month at a big meeting of their peers.
The person would be proclaimed king or queen and awarded a big golden crown, which would be displayed prominently for that month. People snickered about how cheesy the whole thing was, but they killed themselves trying to win that crown.
I remarked that it sounded just like awarding kids a gold star. "Now that you mention it," he suddenly recalled, "that sales manager had been a kindergarten teacher before she went into banking."
Another method parents use to make children do what they want is to "make it look like it was his idea." A surefire way to do this is to set up a choice. If you want a child to eat a vegetable, for example, inquire whether he would prefer spinach, carrots or squash. He picks one and thinks that eating a vegetable was his idea all along. You can use this on a boss, an employee or a client. Just give them choices that are all satisfactory to you rather than excuses on why something can't be done.
Parental insight can be profoundly helpful in any organisation, from understanding everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, to knowing how to pick your fights, to avoiding favoritism. Perhaps the most important insight parents learn is that they must always try to be there for their kids. A good parent is the ultimate safety net, and good managers perform the same role.
Employees will go to extraordinary lengths for a boss who stands behind them, lets them take reasonable risks and sometimes make mistakes, as long as they learn and grow from the process. As Shelly Lazarus, the CEO of Ogilvy & Mather and a mother of three, puts it, "Unconditional support is a wonderful management tool."
Time for Time Out
Being too overt a "parent" in the office, however, can be a big mistake. Treating people like children and playing Mother Knows Best are sure to breed resentment. Equally risky is any behavior that stereotypes you as the Office Mom, that senior woman in the office who props people up when they need emotional support and does all the background interpersonal work that keeps things running smoothly within the organization.
Office Moms can find themselves working two jobs, one they are paid to do and another they are expected to do that is not really acknowledged or rewarded. If a smart, canny female executive practicing subtle parental skills begins to be stereotyped as an Office Mom, she needs to set the record straight right away.
The bottom line is this: It's time to give parents more credit for what they have learned and realise they can bring added value to an organisation. When Deb Henretta, a mother of three, became the first woman in charge of selling diapers, she immediately understood what customers wanted, and sales soared.
Now head of Procter & Gamble's Global Baby Products, Henretta said having someone like her in charge "brought a whole wealth of insights that hadn't been considered, or had been considered and rejected or sidelined. The whole organisation is now thinking about the business in an entirely different way."