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This is what helped me take over as CEO after my husband died

Assuming her late spouse’s role at the helm of their startup, one first-time CEO is surprised to find how parenthood had prepared her for leadership.

This is what helped me take over as CEO after my husband died
[Photo: Marco Ceschi/Unsplash]

On the Monday after the Friday my husband died, I left our three small children in the care of our heartbroken family and drove to his office. Years earlier, when we were newlyweds and he was student teaching, Alan had taught himself to code, building a handful of online educational video games for elementary-school students. When he noticed his colleagues using his creations in their lesson plans, Alan saw an entrepreneurial opportunity. In 2010, we decided he should leave teaching to focus on ABCya.com, a company he grew into a thriving business with millions of users. Then, a few months after his 40th birthday, he passed away unexpectedly, the sudden victim of an undiagnosed heart condition.

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The two days that followed remain a blur. My entire conception of the future—raising our children together, growing old in each other’s arms—had shattered over the course of one horrific evening. But beyond the agonizing grief that came with holding my devastated children as they slept was something almost as profound: fear. Alan’s entrepreneurialism had kept us afloat while I parented our kids and pursued a degree in Italian Studies.

Now, not only was I a grieving young widow, but because ours was a family business, I was suddenly a tech CEO, too.

A shattered status quo

Before we’d had kids, Alan and I had spent our evenings working together to build games that combined age-appropriate learning and all-around fun. Once the business had grown too big for our dining room table, he rented a small office down the street and outsourced much of my contribution to a small staff. Intent on giving me the space to be a Dante scholar (by day) and a mother (on mornings, afternoons, evenings, nights, and weekends), he’d shielded me from the company’s inner workings.

This division of labor had worked well for us both. But now that it was gone, I had no choice but to dive back into the business in addition to keeping up my other responsibilities. On that awful spring morning, while Alan’s best friend held my hand, I broke the news to the small band of collaborators Alan had hired to bring ABCya’s games to life.

At first, many of our friends had urged me to sell the company. But I was determined to hold on. Alan had coded ABCya’s first big success, “Math Bingo,” while bouncing our newborn son on his knee. Amid my devastation, I was resolved not to let his life’s work slip away. So at that first gathering of the company’s employees, I asked the staff to continue working on the projects Alan had assigned them the week before. Once I found the password to his laptop and a number for the company’s accountant, I began to work through his inbox, piecing together where the company was and where he’d intended it to go.

What no one in the office knew at the time—but what he’d shared privately with me at home—was that Alan had grown weary of being CEO. He’d loved tinkering with the software, building the games, and seeing children light up when a math or language concept clicked into place. But as the business grew, his responsibilities had changed. He was less enmeshed in the technology and more focused on negotiating licensing agreements, balancing cash flow, managing a growing staff, and anticipating changes in the marketplace. At heart, Alan had been an introvert, even though being CEO was no longer an introvert’s job.

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Picking up the pieces, and finding them fit

Over the next several weeks, I came to realize that the very tasks Alan loathed fell more naturally in my wheelhouse. I wasn’t as practiced as Alan had been at seeing the niche between pedagogy and online gaming. But the juggling act that comes with managing a growing enterprise was oddly familiar. Much as he’d often come home from work overwhelmed, I felt entirely in my element resolving conflicts, prioritizing tasks, managing crises, and juggling a range of priorities. Eventually, I began to understand why: Parenthood had inadvertently trained me to run a startup.

Shortly before he died, Alan had gathered ABCya’s staff to unveil his vision for a new game, Parts of Speech Quest: Nouns. As the company’s newly installed CEO, I was determined to finish the job. But several weeks in, the staff disagreed about the best way forward. Our illustration team had invested countless hours perfecting new imagery. But the programmers wanted to expedite the game’s release by using their own design ideas. Disagreements were beginning to stoke unspoken resentment. And while I had the authority to resolve the dispute in a flash, years of parenting helped me understand that something more profound was at play.

Alan and I always tried to attend all of our children’s extracurricular activities. But as every parent knows, scheduling conflicts are inevitable. When a heartbroken kid realizes that no one’s going to watch his soccer game, he can wonder whether his parents’ absence points to a breach of affection. I realized in that fraught moment at the office that both the design and programming teams were likely more worried about letting Alan down than either was about the graphics themselves. They needed to know that the company was as invested in them as they were in it. So beyond determining how the game’s digital coinage would appear, I worked to reassure the team that I valued everyone’s contribution—and I still do.

Transferrable skills

The skills I’d honed as a parent weren’t just useful in one-off situations. The witching hour before dinner is a veritable training ground for executive leadership. One kid invariably needs help with homework. Another one’s upset about something someone said at lunch. The third twisted her ankle jumping on the basement trampoline. Amid all of that, someone still has to boil the pasta and set the table. On the morning Alan and I got married, I would never have been prepared to navigate a family evening. Today, it’s almost second nature.

Several months into my tenure as CEO, I found myself in a similar situation—but this time at the office. I was preparing to deliver my first major presentation at an education technology conference in Austin. We were about to release a new game. I was negotiating a contract with one of the company’s vendors. And I needed to complete one employee’s annual review. Had I assumed the mantle of ABCya’s leadership without any training, managing these various challenges at the same time would’ve been completely overwhelming. But after nine years with children, I barely broke a sweat.

Don’t get me wrong—I needed to learn a few things during those initial months running the company. The world of finance was broadly unfamiliar at first, and I had little of Alan’s largely self-taught capacity to code. But a CEO can hire expertise, or even take a crash course. More important is a leader’s ability to manage competing priorities, motivate top-notch employees, anticipate challenges, and lay out a vision for how the market can grow. And in my experience, anyway, few things train you better to hit those marks simultaneously than raising children.

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Need a CEO? Hire a parent

Unfortunately, that reality is broadly at odds with conventional wisdom. Recruiters looking to place new executives rarely credit candidates for the years they’ve spent coordinating carpools and packing healthy lunches for children with unpredictable tastes.

Moreover, prevailing attitudes, which tend to include a dose of sexism, put mothers at a particular disadvantage. There’s no mistaking the judgment I endure when I tell professional partners that I need to end a meeting early in order to pick up my kids from gymnastics. But when Alan took a morning off to chaperone Tony’s nursery school on a pumpkin-picking adventure, everyone thought he was adorable (admittedly, he was). Is it any wonder, then, why women are so dramatically underrepresented in the C-suite, or that women’s representation has actually fallen in tech fields since the ’90s?

I miss my husband every moment of every day. Even after a year of living without him, I still wake up weeping most nights, staring at his smooth, empty pillow. He will not stand beside me as I watch our baby graduate from kindergarten. I’ll cheer without him when our son scores his first game-winning goal. I will wear a proud, brave smile—but I will mourn privately—when our daughter masters a difficult math skill.

Nevertheless, deep down, I believe Alan is still helping me. Even if he never intended it, he prepared me for my new role by giving me the space required to raise three young children. I wouldn’t have been equipped to lead ABCya had he not supported my decision to spend those years at home.

My job’s not done—not as a CEO, and certainly not as a mother. But among the other elements of his legacy I’ll always cherish is the realization that parenthood trains you to be a leader. So absent our tragedy, I hope my experience sheds light on one of the economy’s most profoundly untapped assets. Next time you’re looking to hire a CEO, recruit a parent—especially a mother.


Lisa Tortolani is the CEO of ABCya.com, a company whose online games were played more than a billion times last year by more than 120 million kids worldwide.

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