“The One Thing” is a series where I ask today’s successful leaders to identify the single most important lesson they’ve learned on a topic.
Every second Sunday in May we pay tribute to mothers everywhere and the invaluable contributions they've made to our lives, often having done so while balancing the demands of career and family. From efficiency to persuasiveness to delegation, many of the traits that great mothers cultivate and practice every day are being leveraged at home and at work to lead teams and run successful businesses. In this spirit, I asked seven power women to weigh in with the most important lesson they’ve learned about leadership since becoming a mother.
“What’s ‘the one thing’ that motherhood has taught you about being a better leader?”
1. Know When To Push And When To Let Go
Motherhood has taught me when to keep pushing and when to let go. So much of parenting is wrestling with the dichotomy of when to push your child and when to let go and let them drive the direction; thereby enabling the condition that they might fall or fail. My two boys (ages 9 and almost 6) are highly social, sporty and love school, but they also think they are wiser than they could possibly be at this point in their lives. They don’t know what they don’t know yet. My goal is to enable them to be independent, do what they love and make meaningful connections with other people. I feel it is my job to push them go to hockey practice even when they don’t want to wake up at 6:00 am to get there. But it is also my job to let them pack their own backpack even if that means they might forget their homework some days. As they grow, striking that balance gets harder. I think it’s the same with my employees and teams at OpenTable. I want my teams thinking independently and aggressively pursuing goals. They should have enough rope to explore their own ideas and develop their own hypotheses. But it’s also important to step in and course correct. Striking that balance is what defines effective leadership.
-Christa Quarles is the CEO of Open Table and the mother of two sons.
2. Roll With The Punches
I went in to motherhood assuming that it was going to make my work life so much more stressful because it was adding a whole new set of responsibilities to my plate, but it actually has had the opposite effect for me in that it forced me to relax a little bit and realize that I don’t have to have a plan for everything. You quickly find when you have babies that you can’t control their moods and their needs in the way you can your own workload – so you have to get used to just rolling with the unexpected. And that is a great lesson for leadership – having the flexibility to bob and weave as circumstances around you change, and giving up the illusion that you have control over all of your outcomes.
-Sarah Robb O’Hagan is the CEO of Flywheel Sports and the mother of three.
3. A Personalized Approach Is Key
My children are two parts amazing, one part insane, and a whole lot of nothing alike. If I don’t adjust to their unique personalities and spend quality time with each of them, we have total chaos at home. The good news for my team at Pandora is I have made a thousand mistakes at home and I use those lessons to bring my best self to work. A personalized leadership approach requires a significant time investment with each individual. I have learned that the work I see in the end tells me very little about what I could have done to help along the way. The secret is observing the process it takes to get there and understanding that everyone has different strengths, passions and motivations. The interesting thing about putting the extra time in with your team is they appreciate you for the investment and in turn your relationship grows and leads to more open and honest conversations. Those conversations are the most rewarding part of my day. Well… until I get home to my crazy kids.
-Lizzie Widhelm is the SVP of Ad Product Strategy at Pandora and the mother of three sons.
4. Embrace Unknown Territory
Motherhood has taught me not to fear the unknown but instead embrace the journey of learning on the go! Enjoy the fulfilling feeling of "figuring it out" and use that energy and motivation to tackle the next challenge! For me, being a new mother and a new entrepreneur at the same time was all unknown territory. But as I began to meet and exceed one milestone at a time, that momentum and empowerment continued to build. There have been so many amazing and fulfilling accomplishments, from seeing my baby take her first steps to seeing LIVELY make its first shipment! I often reflect upon those moments as I tackle my next great challenge. The big takeaway for me is to use moments of accomplishment, big or small, as fuel to have the courage to go after it all - the sky's the limit!
-Michelle Cordeiro Grant is the Founder and CEO, Lively and the mother of a son and daughter.
5. Balance Competing Needs
An essential role of motherhood is being a conciliator: resolving conflicts – which in my case was often with warring children. While mediating an argument, I sought to teach empathy for the feelings of others and respect for different faiths and backgrounds that may give others a different point of view. Children learn by example; and I was always conscious of that.
I found kids need the security of strong, confident leadership in their parents or caregivers. That’s not always easy when you’re forced to multitask—as I was as a new mother and a young attorney, many times having to balance a child on one hip, on the phone with a client, and making dinner for my husband’s boss. I learned how to balance competing needs – which has been an invaluable lesson in public service.
Seeing their mother as a politician wasn’t easy, but my children gained a healthy respect for civic engagement. I was able to show my children the importance of voting – at a young age I'd take them campaigning to make sure they end up as citizens with a strong social conscious and an appreciation for their country. Motherhood further confirmed my passion for my profession.
-Kathy Hochul is the Lieutenant Governor of the State of New York and mother of two.
6. Life Is Right Now
It's important to me that the values we communicate to consumers are the same ones that we are living as the brand. You can’t sprint a marathon; and with start-ups, you can easily never stop working and it can be isolating. Before I became a parent, I’d work 24/7—I remember answering work emails an hour before my wedding reception, but it's not sustainable in the long run, and in fact, stifles creativity and productivity. I am now mindful to make sure the team is living their lives in the present, taking care of themselves, and nurturing their own personal relationships that lead to long-term fulfillment. Life is right now. I want everyone to be home for bath time and dinner with their families. And even if you don’t have children, you need sleep, you need to be around the people you love and laugh with, who fill your heart, you need moments away from work in order to garner inspiration for work, you need to get physical activity and time to enjoy the outdoors.
All of these things yield greater productivity, creative thinking, and gratitude — and foster both the patience required to build something from scratch, as well as the clarity and honesty needed when something is failing and you need to pivot. We spend 80 percent of our waking lives working, and often, who we are at work mirrors who we are at home. Rather than trying to wear different hats and act as two different people, we should strive to share the same values in the workplace and in the home.
-Sabrina Peterson is the Co-Founder and CEO of Pure Growth Organic and a mother of one.
7. Empathy And Balance Are Key
Parenting forces you to get outside of yourself. The needs of your child have to come first (and second, and third), and that teaches you invaluable lessons about empathy and balance. This has noticeably affected my leadership style. Everyone wants to do great work; everyone wants to serve the company and contribute to the team; and everyone has a life (some with kids, some without) outside of work. Being a mom has expanded my perspective.
Parenthood also helped (or forced) me how to better manage my time and prioritize critical needs for my work and my personal life. At the end of the day, if I preserve the time and energy to do things with my 5-year old daughter and husband – which these days could include anything from gymnastics, soccer, horse riding and being Princess Leia for a few hours – it makes me a better manager and employer. Being a mom taught me how to do that.
As a leader, I take this broader perspective into account when creating deadlines, setting meetings or prioritizing team projects. Empathy is an extremely powerful and important element of effective leadership. Being a mom has taught me that and so much more.
-Louise Pentland is the EVP, Chief Business Affairs & Legal Office for PayPal and the mother of one daughter.