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5 management lessons that being a parent taught me

There are more parallels between being a parent and being a manager than you think.

5 management lessons that being a parent taught me
[Photo: Paul Hanaoka/Unsplash]

Let’s get something straight: I’m not about to tell you that you need to be a parent to be a good manager. I’m also not about to tell you that your employees are anything like children. (If they are, stop reading and go take care of that problem.) And I’m certainly not telling you to cut the crusts off your employees’ PB&Js.

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Instead, I’m here to reflect on all the ways that being a parent tweaked, honed, and sometimes reinforced my management style. I’ve managed dozens of employees over the past six years, and I’m currently in charge of a rather squishy 1-year-old. The lessons I’ve learned–and continue to learn–from parenting have helped me grow as a manager. Some are pretty concrete, while others are a little less tangible, but here are the lessons that stuck out the most.

1. Your accountability helps others take risks

Kids count on their parents. They may not be explicitly grateful for it–or even aware of it, honestly–but they expect you to clothe them, feed them, comfort them, and buy them things they’ll stop caring about four days later.

And it’s that unspoken accountability that allows your kids to take risks.

Even with a tiny tot, it’s abundantly clear. When my 1-year-old climbs on the foam mats in our living room, he looks back at me before crawling up to the highest mat. I don’t have to do anything–no encouraging, no spotting, nothing. In that moment, he just wants to know I’m there before he goes out of his comfort zone.

The same goes for your employees. If they know you have their back, they’ll take more risks and produce better work. When I managed a support team, I would always hop on a ticket to mitigate if a customer became aggressive. Because my team knew I was there to do so, they started to be more assertive with their responses, which usually took care of any issues–and in the end, I had to intervene less and less. Because they knew I was there as a backstop, they went out of their comfort zone.


Related: Why working parents should add “raising a kid” to their resumes 

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2. Make it a habit to give effective feedback

Wouldn’t it be great if you could just tell an employee “do better” and they’d magically internalize it and grow? Well, that’s not the way the world works.

I never realized the value of descriptive feedback until I had a kid. Just saying “no” to a kid does precisely nothing. Why “no”? What effect did their action have? What can they do next time to turn it into a yes?

I’m already trying to do this with my 1-year-old. When he starts crawling full speed ahead toward the dog food bowl, instead of just saying “no,” I tell him “No, that’s Winston’s food. If you knock it over, he won’t have any breakfast and he’ll be hungry.” Sometimes it spirals into a story about a hungry Winston morphing into Hulk Dog, but . . . you get the gist.

Now I map that on to professional feedback. Instead of asking my direct reports if they can “pay more attention to detail” or “be more engaged in meetings,” I provide context. “Grow through feedback” is one of the core values at Zapier, and we practice it every day:

“When you miss things while proofreading, it can reflect poorly on the quality of our core product. If someone spots a typo in our copy, they’ll probably expect that our product is also less than perfect.”


Related: How I learned to manage work and parenting when the usual advice failed 

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3. Facilitate routines and schedules

I’ve never been a spontaneous person. I’ve always relied on routines and schedules, so that aspect of parenting didn’t faze me. I sleep trained my son as soon as I could, I observed his sleeping and eating habits to find patterns, and I made sure to have a consistent bedtime–for him and for me. As he grows up, that kind of routine will be even more important.

“It’s called ‘authoritative parenting,'” says Colin Johnson, early childhood educator and dad (to my kid, coincidentally). “The predictability offered by structure gives children a sense of comfort, which leads to more flexibility and independence. Of course, too much structure–or, on the other end of the spectrum, too much freedom–can backfire, so you want to find a balance.”

As a manager, I like to give my employees lots of autonomy, but I also make sure to provide them with enough structure to thrive within that autonomy. For example, instead of “write the newsletter,” I’d say “write the newsletter, which should focus on back-to-school and highlight at least three LMSes.”

The best part about giving my employees structure is actually selfish: It helps me be able to predict their behavior a bit more. I know where they tend to veer off from routine (which, again, totally fine) and I’m better able to manage that ebb and flow. Turns out that’s also true in parenting. Colin adds:

Rules and structure also help kids predict what other people are going to do. So when they’re working with a team or in a group, it’s easier for them to figure out how everyone else will behave. For kids–who don’t have a lot of experience with the world around them quite yet–that’s incredibly important.


Related: The hidden leadership skills every good parent eventually masters 


4. Everyone has a different style

Hot off the presses: No two people are the same.

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Obvious, yes, but it’s never clearer than with siblings. One might be shy while the other’s outgoing. One’s into books and the other prefers TV. Or maybe it’s a more subtle difference: They both love basketball, but one is better at offense and one at defense. (You’ve always excelled at bench warming.)

When that’s the case, it can mean adjusting your parenting style for each kid.

Unsurprisingly, when I asked the Zapier team about their experience with siblings, everyone had the same answer: They’re all so different.

Map that on to management, which isn’t a one-size-fits-all kind of situation. Each of your employees needs something different from you. Some need you to be more hands on, others more hands off. Some need recognition, others respect. Some want smiley faces in emails, while others run at the mere sight of an exclamation point.

When it comes down to it, we need to adjust to our employees’ work and communication styles. That doesn’t mean we can’t be ourselves or work according to our own values; we just need to be willing to accommodate. For example, I had an employee who was a zombie until 11 a.m. Instead of spiking their morning coffee with Red Bull, I just made sure not to schedule 9 a.m. meetings with them.

5. Don’t forget to take care of yourself

If you’ve been on a plane, you know that you’re supposed to put your oxygen mask on before helping someone else. There’s a reason for that: You won’t be able to help the person sitting next to you if you’re oxygen-deprived yourself.

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The same rule applies to parenting. It’s easy to get wrapped up in your kids to the point where you, uh, forget to shower . . . or eat or sleep. But that doesn’t end well for anyone. You get hangry and tired–not to mention smelly–and then you can’t take care of your kids as well as you should.

When my son was still a bi-hourly alarm clock, my husband and I would both wake up for every middle-of-the-night feeding. We’re a team! We should support each other! Who needs sleep anyway! As you can imagine, that led to two overtired parents who weren’t as engaged or focused for their kid during the day. When we switched things up, each owning alternating feedings, things immediately improved. We were each more well-rested and were able to enjoy those first few months as they flew by.

When it comes to management, I apply the same practice. It’s hard not to prioritize your employees’ needs–that’s your job, after all. But burnout is a real thing. It’s hard to measure, of course, but studies show that it affects up to 85% of workers in certain industries. If you focus on your direct reports at the expense of yourself, you won’t be able to do best by your employees.


A version of this article originally appeared on Zapier and is reprinted with permission.

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