A friend’s daughter, Heidi, recently became a mother for the first time. Like many first-time parents, Heidi and her husband would dream about their life as a family of three. They planned the nursery, collected their favorite books, and planned baby names. They read books to understand the pregnancy and how to care for their baby.
They were so calm and relaxed throughout the pregnancy and delivery, you would have thought they were experienced parents. Even their delivery was smooth, with their son arriving on their due date with eight hours of labor. They quickly took to parenting with confidence and without hesitation. During two days in the hospital, they mastered feeding, changing, swaddling and soothing their son, day and night.
The day they were discharged, my friend got a call from her Heidi. Her daughter was panicked, “Can you come over now? We can’t believe they let us leave the hospital with him!” That moment that every new parent experiences…the overwhelming feeling of responsibility. It is up to you to keep the baby alive and nurtured, and you have no experience. The steep mountain of parenthood lay before them and they realized how unprepared they felt. The weight of responsibility set in and they became terrified. They wanted a guide and reassurance they were doing it “right.”
Leadership is a lot like parenting.
First-time people leaders or leaders new to a role often have that moment of “oh wow, I am the one everyone is looking to for guidance…I need to step up here.” With each step forward, the leader questioning internally “am I doing this right?” Or “I can’t believe they asked me to lead this!” In many ways, the goal of being a leader is the same as the goal of parenting: to be a steward helping to create a healthy and safe environment for experiences that shape the growth and development of an individual.
When I coach executives, there are three areas I help them focus upon to bring out the best of their employees:
1. My sister’s home has a painted sign up of family rules on their wall. It talks about how they communicate, treat, value and respect each other in their family. The same is true for a good leader. Make the things that you value, reinforce and discourage known to help people understand what to expect from you. What is important to you as a leader? What do you expect from your employees? What can they expect from you? Be clear about these by both sharing your values and expectations intentionally.
I like to create a “Working with me” document to share with each employee and ask them to do the same. These describe where you are at your best, what is weakening to you, your best day at work, professional pet peeves, when to reach out for help, preferences for receiving feedback and recognition, and a list of favorite books, articles and podcasts. Starting a working relationship exchanging and discussing these establishes insights, builds trust and creates a strong foundation.
2. It’s not about you, it’s about them. When parenting multiple children, what you do for one won’t necessarily work for the other. As a leader, you will need to approach each person differently to bring out their best. It is about figuring out what each person needs to bring out their best and then removing the obstacles to do just that. People communicate differently, are motivated by different things and crave different types of reinforcements. Great leaders know what helps each employee shine, maximizes the opportunity for that, and regularly checks in with the employee. They provide real-time feedback, sharing both things they are doing well and the things to consider doing differently moving forward.
3. One of my friends has a phrase she uses with her two sons: “Choices have consequences.” Where possible, she gives them choice of how they proceed: from which dessert to eat to which games they play. They talk through the choices available, they decide and accept the result. When choices turn out different than they thought, they accept it and figure out what to do. The best leaders state the outcomes and have the employee decide how to best achieve that outcome. The leader must empower and hold the employee accountable at the same time. When people get to choose what and how they will do something to address an outcome, they will be more engaged, perform better and problem solve when troubles arise.
Both parenting and leadership are uniquely challenging because they deal with shaping different people. When you figure out one stage, something new happens: You gain a larger team, new role, or increased complexity. Like parenting, leadership continually evolves. Heidi is now expecting her second child. I’m sure she will soon think “What was I so concerned about with one baby; one was easy compared to two!” The great news is that she is not only learning how to parent, she is learning how to be a great leader by bringing the best out of people.
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About the author:
Karen Eber is a Leadership Development and Culture expert based in Atlanta, GA. She brings 20+ years leading Leadership Development and Culture experience for companies like HP, Deloitte, and General Electric. She is the owner and founder of Eber Leadership Group, working internationally, helping individuals, teams and organizations perform their best through identifying and leveraging their strengths and constructively working through challenges. Karen uses a storytelling approach to point out examples in everyday life that inspire all people to reach their leadership potential and be #betterthanyesterday.