Parenting skills gain as tools for managers

'BUT BOSS, HE STARTED IT'

Negotiating with a toddler. Teaching your four-year-old how to tie her shoe. Helping your kindergartner learn to ride his bike without training wheels. And entrusting your teenager with your car.

Parenthood.

It requires tenderness, patience, deft communication skills, plenty of cheerleading, a good sense of humor, and being able to withstand some of the toughest arm-twisting. Pretty much you're an all-around role model. (No pressure.)

What's that got to do with the business world?

Well, parents are discovering that the skills they learn on the home front make them better managers and leaders in today's workplace.

While most concede that parenthood is no prerequisite to managing people well, it certainly helps. "Nobody is saying the workplace should be paternalistic or maternalistic," says Chris Komisarjevsky. "But there are some very good lessons that become visible [from raising children] that can help you deal with people of any age."

He ought to know. The chief executive officer of New York-based public relations firm Burson-Marsteller Worldwide is also the father of nine children. He and his wife, Reina, have written a book on the topic to be published this spring titled: "Peanut Butter and Jelly Management: Tales From Parenthood. Lessons for Managers" (Amacom).

Together they recollect more than a dozen of their own experiences (from Little League games to helping stepchildren unite), each with a lesson for the workplace.

This does not mean treating your co-workers like children, the couple says. What it does mean is that such skills as nurturing self-esteem, helping someone explore opportunities to grow, and encouraging them to do things on their own are just as important when raising children as when working with employees.

The road runs both ways, too. The managers we talked to admit that a few management 101 tactics have also come in handy at home.

Of course, kids pull no punches when it comes to saying what they mean. If you're not doing something well, they'll tell you. Gail Townsend who has worked for W.L. Gore & Associates in Wilmington, Del., for more than 20 years and is the mother of two grown daughters, calls it "unfiltered feedback."

So what did the managers we interviewed say they've learned? A lot.

Many agree they're better at prioritizing their tasks, rewarding a job well done, and keeping their cool. They're more patient, communicate more clearly, and are much more flexible.

Here are a few more lessons, that some managers say they've learned from parenting.

Lesson No. 1: No two people are the same.

Almost everyone we interviewed mentioned how the differences between their own children helped them see how people at work are also very different. "I knew from the moment my children were born, or within a year or two, that they were very different," says Ms. Townsend of W.L. Gore.

Her older daughter is more serious and more intense. She likes to know what time something is happening, when, and where. Her younger daughter, on the other hand, is more extroverted.

Learning how to communicate with each daughter, Townsend says, has helped her on the job. "The people I work with are all very different. What works for one doesn't work for the other. I need to adjust my style to the situation and the individual.... I think I learned that at home, and then got to work and said, 'Oh yeah, there is some theory around this.'"

Lesson No. 2: Listen. Listen. Listen.

Rita Black, a senior manager at Federal Express in Memphis who has two young children, says motherhood made her realize that she wasn't as a good a listener as she once thought."

Sometimes as a parent you have 100 things going on at once," Ms. Black says. "The kids are talking to you, you're trying to cook dinner, the phone is ringing, and you have a tendency to push [the kids] aside.

"But it's during those times that I really need to be there and listen to them," she concedes. "It's the same thing at work.

"It's really important to put aside what you're doing, regardless of what's going on, if people need you to listen.... That goes a long way to build relationships and to communicate that you care," she says.

Lesson No. 3: Care about your employees.

"I know my leadership style changed after I became a mother," says Marie Knowles, chief financial officer at ARCO, who has two teenage sons.

A good leader, she says, "treats employees like human beings, and having your own kids puts you in touch with that.... It makes you more caring."

"When you focus on the characteristics of people and you nurture them and let them grow, your organization gets stronger. I know I saw those things better after I became a mother than before."

Lesson No. 4: Be sensitive.

Andrew James, who has spent 10 years with Andersen Consulting, credits his two young daughters with helping him be more "sensitive" toward his colleagues.

His oldest daughter, now in first grade, would often say "I can't" when asked to try something. "Before I'd say, 'Don't tell me you can't,' and walk away," Mr. James says.

He quickly realized this approach wasn't working. So he decided a new approach. When his daughter would say "I can't," "I started saying, let's talk through why you think you can't. Then I'd say, let's change the word from 'I can't' to 'let's try.' "

That has helped on the job. When he gives an assignment that he thinks should take two weeks and the client says will take four, he probes rather than pushes. "Instead of me just saying, let's go with two weeks, I would say, let me understand your approach to getting to four weeks."

Lesson No. 5: Learn to let go.

Ms. Knowles's philosophy: A great leader leads not by leading, but by letting go.

"It is one of the real challenges of parenthood," she says. "When you want your child to do well in math, and he doesn't, or you want him to play baseball and he doesn't, as a parent you have to let go of that and help them follow their own path.

"All you can do is give them the tools to help them fulfill their desires."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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