How Becoming A Parent Made Me A Better Manager

I came into parenting knowing nothing about managing people. Now I know (almost!) everything.

Lately, I’ve been addressed a lot as "Mom," and not just by my toddler—my baby is still too young to talk. There’s the nurse at the pediatrician’s office ("Okay, Mom, just hold her like this"—as my daughter tries to squirm her way out of immunization shots). There are the teachers at preschool ("Where have you been, Mom?" one jokes, when I say I’ve never seen the "kiddo bathroom," where other women are tasked with changing my son’s diapers three mornings a week). Even the TSA officer at the airport does it ("Mom, the stroller needs to go over here").

There is something almost stately about the way people say it, as though capital-M "Mom" is no different than, say, Madame Vice President, for all you Veep fans. Or Her Ladyship, if you prefer Downton Abbey.

In a way, this seems fitting. Two-and-a-half years into my mom-hood, I am basically the CEO of our family. My husband may be the primary breadwinner, but when it comes to keeping our household together, it’s all on me. Like any responsible executive, I hire (and sometimes fire) people, in my case child-care providers. I reward good behavior and crack down on bad. I set schedules and make sure they’re enforced. I try to be a well-liked and "popular" boss, while also making sure people respect, and, at times, fear, me. (The latter is only a mildly successful endeavor.)

Generally, all of this is dismissed as the very basic responsibilities of being a parent; i.e., skills that fall somewhere between fixing a drain and microwaving a pizza. But I beg to differ. As a writer, I came into parenthood as someone who was remarkably good at worrying about one person: me. I was given assignments and completed them. I might have had to be resourceful and motivated, but I was spared managerial headaches. The only person I had to supervise was myself.

Parenting has changed all that and, I would argue, has turned me into someone who would be adept at overseeing people in some sort of managerial capacity. Or, at least, I would be much more attuned to the issues that are important when it comes to overseeing people—things like keeping employees motivated and happy, and treating them fairly; as well as picking individuals who are the right fit for an organization.

Not to say I’m perfect. I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way in all those areas, and I’ve certainly learned what my weaknesses are (hello, micromanager!). But that has been part of the learning process. In fact, the things I’ve messed up have probably served me the best—"fail fast," and all of that.

Here are a few hard-won lessons I’ve gleaned in my education in becoming a better mom/manager:

Knowing How to Hire The Right People

When we hired our first nanny after I had our son, I had no idea what I was looking for. I knew I wanted someone I could trust and who was good with babies, but beyond that my bar was—I realize, in hindsight—pretty low. In fact, I hired the first woman I met with.

She proved to be all the important things— trustworthy, kind, gentle, and good to our son. But she wasn’t in great physical condition, so as our baby turned into an active toddler, it was hard for her to keep up. And what I first assumed was a quiet nature was actually an uncommunicativeness that was frustrating. When my son entered preschool and I needed a nanny who could drive (she didn’t), we let her go.

I came into my search for nanny #2 with the benefit of experience, and it paid off. This time I interviewed several candidates, noting their age, attitude, and English skills, and grilling them on things like whether they liked to spend time outdoors and what their idea of a healthy meal was.

I finally settled on someone I liked, yet I still wavered. This woman was bubbly and energetic and had four kids of her own, but she’d never worked as a nanny. How would she feel about the long days away from her own family? Would she enjoy being so thoroughly ingrained in ours? And what about housekeeping while the kids napped? Still, I liked this woman. A lot. And so I decided to give her a shot.

It’s worked out marvelously. Both my children adore her, especially my toddler, who can barely keep up with all of her games and activities. And I have someone I can chat with about feeding and sleep schedules; she even texts me photos of them at the park.

What I learned was how important it is to have the right people working for you. Not just the most qualified, but the ones whom you synch with and who are good at the things that matter most to you. I was also reminded that gut instinct is an incredibly valuable tool when it comes to making decisions. Most of the time it needs to be supported by more tangible logic (plus/minus lists, etc.), but I’ve found that my gut never lets me down when it comes to tricky decisions that involve risk.

Resisting The Urge to Micromanage

Nothing has brought out my micromanaging tendency more than being a mom. "What do you mean you gave him Craisins? He eats raisins. And wait—why did you feed him at all?" I have silently fumed at relatives after they’ve been generous enough to take my toddler off my hands for the morning. Unfortunately, this instinct to make everyone around me behave exactly as I do has been hard to break, and in fact it’s not really broken. But I have learned that I need to pick my battles when it comes to "constructively" criticizing people who are ultimately helping me. Craisins aren’t horrible, and if I’m that concerned about my son eating too much, then I should just not feed him a snack before he heads out with his grandparents. Let them feed him. Everyone’s happy.

In some cases, of course, it is necessary to step in and curb behavior (yes, car seats are still required for 2-year-olds!), but I’ve noticed that often the world works better if I step back and let other people call some of the shots. Even my kids. So you want to wear your pajama top to preschool? Go for it. Ketchup on your applesauce? Sure! As child development specialists have noted, giving children options helps them feel more independent and confident. Grown-ups are no different. We all need some leeway, and I think the best moms and the best bosses are the ones who are able to trust in the abilities of the people "under" them, chief among them their ability to self-govern.

You Can't Win A Manipulation Game

Overseeing a group, even a group of two, can encourage game-playing, and not just in the Ring Around the Rosy sense.

There have been times I’ve been tempted to play my kids off of each other ("Alexei, can you please keep your voice down? Look how quiet your sister is being!"), but I resist it. At various points in my career, I’ve experienced that kind of personnel strategy and I loathe it. And so rather than set my kids up up as competitors, I try to encourage a closeness between them. ("Alexei! Look how excited your sister is to see you! You’re really her favorite.")

The result is not just happier kids, it’s kids who are happy to be part of our whole family enterprise and who, hopefully, will strive to make it an even better one. I can’t help but think this applies to a group of people in a business setting who get far better results when they work as a team.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

By nature, I’m someone who hates confrontation, which is perhaps why I chose a profession that doesn’t involve much. We writers are able to hole up and do our thing, pretty much left to our own devices. As a mom, though, that doesn’t fly, and it’s been a struggle for me to learn how to be candid with people—namely the people watching my kids—when it comes to uncomfortable topics. This came to a head with our first nanny, whom I failed to talk with about the things I was unhappy about. When I finally let her go, she was blindsided. Granted, we gave her a generous severance so that she would have time to find another job. But still, when I look back I realize I was unfair: a bad boss. People should know where they stand and, if things are shaky, have a chance to steady them.

In theory, I’m not a huge fan of performance reviews. They turn a relationship between a boss and an employee—which, like any relationship, is inherently amorphous and defined by intangible things like personality—into something that can be quantified and graded. And if you’re a good employee, you probably don’t need to be told whether or not you’re doing a respectable job. What I do like about them, though, is that they provide an excuse to talk about things—what’s frustrating about a job, what could be more streamlined. Only good can come out of this kind of communication in a world where we increasingly isolate ourselves behind our screens.

Talking is good. As a mom, as a boss, as a person.

[Image: Flickr user Heather Williams]

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