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The Mother of all Leadership Experiences

March is Women’s History Month and we recently celebrated International Women’s Day. At Insight Experience, we want to recognize all the hardworking mothers and their contributions at home and in the office. Our very own Ashley Perry explains the leadership lessons of being mother.

As a mom to an almost 5-year-old and a 2-year-old, life at home is noisy, chaotic, and simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting. Work is my outlet: an opportunity for a more orderly day, where toy clean-up and laundry take a back seat to strategy and innovation. Yet recently, I began to notice just how many of my professional skills I have developed as a result of being a mom. In fact, I — and perhaps many of us — would benefit from a little more cross-life skill application.

Here are the top 10 things I have learned about leadership from being a mom:

  1. A little planning goes a long way. Each night after I put my kids to bed, I immediately start anticipating and planning for an early morning the next day. I think about what that day will look like, what needs to happen to get out of the house in time, and what the kids will need to flourish at school. At work, this planning may look different, but it serves the same purpose: setting up for success. Before each meeting, it helps to consider what a successful outcome looks like and plan the meeting agenda with desired outcomes in mind.
  2. Accountability is key for success. Dessert is a big thing in our family. It’s not always cakes and ice-cream, but we have a little treat each night — if it’s earned. There are very specific things my children have to do to get dessert, and everyone knows in advance what those things are. As a result, the success rate for earning dessert in the Perry household is very high. When not achieved, everyone knows why and what needs to change next time.
    Spelling out what is expected, by whom and by when, is critical to driving success. Accountability not only adds to the bottom line of the company and pushes productivity, it also adds to a sense of purpose and accomplishment for your team. It is also one of the hardest elements to implement, as we tend to want to give “dessert” whether or not it’s due. Being firm is a big part of driving desired behaviors.
  3. Don’t skip The Why. “Why” is one of the most persistent and universal words in a young person’s vocabulary. Explaining the why is critical to children’s learning and understanding of the world, and this is equally true for our direct reports. We cannot expect our teams to follow our directions without explaining how our requests fit into the greater company strategy, as well as how each of their inputs is critical. Explaining your “why” to the team will help them think strategically in the future, help them understand if they are on track, and help gain buy-in to their work.
  4. Delegation is empowering. As a mom and as a leader, it can be challenging to know when to do something myself and when to ask someone else to do it. Do I put on my kids clothes, brush their teeth and usher them out the door-- or let them do it? This is especially true when I’m under pressure and tasks needs to be done quickly, and it can feel almost painful to wait as they figure things out. But doing things myself ultimately means that: 1) I am holding others back by not allowing them to learn independently, 2) I’m not scaling myself, and 3) I’m busy doing, not leading.
    Delegating can be scary: You give up some control, maybe even step away from something you love doing. But ultimately your team will only develop when you let them.
  5. Learning (and growing) means making mistakes. Yesterday, while baking a cake my daughter dumped nearly a cup of flour on the floor. Naturally, I wasn’t pleased. I also realized that scolding her wasn’t likely to help. She immediately recognized her mistake and felt lousy about it. Instead, we reflected on what happened. I handed her another cup of flour and got out the broom. And you know what? She didn’t spill the second cup. Understanding that mistakes happen is critical to building up your direct reports. The key is to limit those mistakes to minor slip-ups, like dumped flour, and to help them understand what went wrong and continue to give them opportunities to improve.
    If your direct report makes a mistake, show them what success looks like and coach them through it next time. If you can afford it, don’t take over. Let them work to build themselves back up and become proficient at their new skill.
  6. Praise, when deserved, is powerful. Last week, my youngest child said a new word. I was thrilled, immediately clapped for her, and did all the silly things you’d expect. Her face lit up, and she said the word again and again. Praise, even from the earliest age, is a huge motivator. And yet we forget how powerful it is for adults. I challenge you: The next time a member of your team demonstrates a best practice or exceeds your expectations, call it out. Let them know, and let others know. My experience, professionally and personally, tells me you’ll see more of that kind of behavior from that team member and from others.
  7. The challenging conversations are very often the most important. With kids, and with adults, there are conversations that we generally wish we could avoid. However, the consequences of avoiding a difficult conversation far outweigh the discomfort of the conversation. We frequently hear that leaders feel the same way about uncomfortable conversations at work. Similarly, avoiding these conversations can be detrimental to the person, to the leader, and to the organization. Learning how to have these conversations successfully is a practiced skill. Luckily, there are ways to practice these difficult conversations. For more about how to have difficult conversations, click here.
  8. Ask for help. In my first few years as a mom, I wanted the world to know that I could do it all: I could be the world’s greatest mom, keep up the house, and work full-time. Yes, I could — except … I couldn’t. I needed some help and sought it. And my family thanked me.
    The same was true when I took on my new role at work. It took some time before I was willing to admit that I didn’t know how to do everything right away, or that I needed some guidance. But when I finally did, I started asking for feedback and for coaching, and I started relying more my colleagues to contribute. And my organization is better for it.
    Your professional support system is as important as your personal one. Identify a few people you can contact when you have questions, need help with framing, or want your assumptions challenged. Chances are you’ll be able to help each other — and your organization as a result.
  9. Block time for yourself. Ironically, ensuring I have periods of time just for myself at home helps me feel more available for my kids. When I do this, I feel more engaged with them and more focused and patient. To block time professionally, try scheduling “no meeting” periods in the day, when possible. You can use this chance to realign to company strategies, get ahead in your work, or take a break to reset and come back to your next meeting with more energy and emotional intelligence.
  10. You have as much to learn from them as they have to learn from you. When I took my new position, I thought I was supposed to have all the answers. After all, I am supposed to guide the team. I have felt that way at times with my own kids as well: I’m the mother, and I’m supposed to have all the answers. This attitude blocked me from seeing what my daughter had learned or wanted to share. More than once, I have been shocked to find out she had a solution to something I was pushing in another direction. The same is true of my team. They are smart and capable, and it’s my job to empower them to do the work, not necessarily tell them what to do and how to do it. In the process, they will likely teach me a great deal about what is possible.
    The next time you are faced with a decision, try asking your direct reports for their ideas and recommendations before giving your own thoughts. You may be surprised at their insights.

The learning as a parent and as a leader is never ending. I have found that as I become better at one, it helps me become better at the other. I invite you to develop with me. To find out more about how an Insight Experience can help you develop new leaders and become a better leader yourself (we don’t have a simulation for parenting just yet), click here.

Ashley Perry is an Associate Director at Insight Experience, a Boston-based firm delivering contextually rich business simulations and learning experiences to accelerate and integrate leadership, business acumen and strategy execution.