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I’m a successful CEO and mother of 6. Here’s how parenting made me a better leader

Maria Colacurcio’s skills include tackling tough situations where emotions are high, being unflappable under stress, and coaching–none of which were earned in a job.

I’m a successful CEO and mother of 6. Here’s how parenting made me a better leader
[Source photo: Flickr user Rawpixel Ltd]

I cofounded a (now) successful and publicly traded software company. But it wasn’t always that way.

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The early days were a slog that lasted far longer than any of us expected. As the company hit its stride, I had children (five of them at that time) and took time off when they were young.

During that time, as most entrepreneurs do, I was building a following for the company on Twitter, launching our product as one of the first 50 in Google’s App Marketplace, and working with customers. I did whatever was needed, whenever I could find the time. Any task, big or small, was accomplished during the kids’ nap time, after bedtime, or sandwiched somewhere in between.

But my official full-time job was the physical and emotional development of tiny but rapidly growing humans.

Once the kids were in school, I decided to hit the job market again. It was a rude awakening.

Forty-one percent of employed Americans (men and women) perceive working moms to be less devoted to their work, according to recent research by Bright Horizons. A sad reality is that once women have children, they fall behind in earned wages and never catch up–the so-called motherhood penalty–while men who have children actually fare better over time. Although working mothers have made solid gains in experience and education–women outnumber men in college and beyond–the pay gap has barely budged in 30 years.

Others explain the gap as a product of “choices,” saying women choose fields that earn less (nurses vs. doctors, flight attendant vs. pilot, and so on). But over time that changed. In the early ’90s, women began outnumbering men in college, then in law school and med school and beyond. And yet, as women made their way into these more lucrative fields, research showed two things occurred: the pay for those jobs dropped, and the hours required to succeed increased. This raises an important question to be answered another day: do we value women’s work less?

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Making a meaningful pivot from experience to skills

Despite those facts, I wondered whether I could position my time at home not as a subject to be avoided but as an asset. When I reflected on my career, I believe I evolved because of motherhood. I had become an efficiency machine. I got up at 4 a.m. every day to exercise. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were an assembly line masterpiece. I knew how to tackle tough situations where emotions were high. I was unflappable under stress. I had developed coaching skills. The list goes on.

Although I’d been working all along, behind the scenes, there was still a gap in the “professional” section of my résumé. So I made a pivot. I added this to my résumé: “Project manager/leader responsible for almost all aspects of raising little people” with an accompanying paragraph setting forth the list of duties completed and skills developed. I figured, why not? What did I have to lose? Plus, it was true.

I addressed my motherhood project manager title in interviews when I got them. I spoke of what I learned from raising children and the similarities between modeling positive negotiation between siblings and the corporate boardroom.

And then something remarkable happened. I came across a hiring manager who, instead of being one of the 41% who believed moms were less dedicated at work, greeted me with curiosity and interest. He saw my experience at home not as a penalty or an employment void but as an asset and an environment where I developed skills relevant to the position he had open. I was back in the workforce.

The company I joined was Starbucks. It had a history of investing in hiring veterans and looking at skills over specific experience. For example, it embraced the idea that, even if a soldier’s experience in service may not directly translate to the job, the skills he or she developed in service directly transferred.

Leadership, discipline, the ability to work through ambiguity, problem-solving, operational planning, and teamwork are all skills corporate America values. So, instead of thinking of military service as time out of the workforce, Starbucks views it as time spent working outside of the private sector. The focus is on the skills needed for success in a job and not necessarily prior experience in that particular job.

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Could the same model be applied to working mothers? Rather than requiring a set number of years in a prior job, isn’t having the necessary skills–whether they’re developed at another company, on the battlefield, or in the home–the part that matters?

Let’s face it: in corporate America, most people fail not because they lack experience but because they lack the skills needed to navigate a complex infrastructure, or set of personalities or fail to work well with others. The “how” of getting work done can be as important as the work itself. In most jobs, skills trump experience.

Technology and innovation can help move this along, but how can leaders begin to think (and act) differently about motherhood and work?

Once a company commits to a practice of hiring based on skills, backing this up with equal pay and transparency is critical. Recent studies show that employees’ perception of pay fairness and transparency have five times greater impact on engagement than actual compensation. In other words, how employees feel about the pay process is more critical to their job satisfaction than their pay relative to the market. Conversely, when leadership is secretive about any effort to tackle pay differences, trust is eroded, especially among female employees.

So what does all of this mean? A company that focuses on skills, instead of prior experience, gives working mothers a chance to reenter the workplace at an appropriate level and ensures it pays them fairly and will attract and retain talent sitting on the sidelines, or buried well below where they deserve to be.

And now, as the CEO of a growing software startup, I can say with absolute certainty that I am not succeeding in my role despite my role as a mother but because of it.

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Maria Colacurcio is the CEO of Syndio, an HR Analytics company, focused on promoting fairness in the workplace through applications that empower modern organizations to hire, promote and most importantly pay people fairly.

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