How Motherhood Made Me a Better Boss
Storytelling and compassion for amazing results at home and at work
My six-year-old daughter has been telling lies. She has been telling the kind of pointless, outlandish (and sometimes hilarious) stories that rather than getting her out of trouble—as is her intention—makes the people around her raise their eyebrows and shake their heads, or stifle a giggle, or get mad or feel deeply disappointed in her.
“It wasn’t me!”
“But I already did it!”
“I don’t have it!”
Rather than telling the truth, the words pop uncontrollably from her mouth. She then digs herself deeper by inventing supporting stories, weaving tales about how her “friend” came to the house in the middle of the night…or her sister must have stolen the object in question and planted it under her bed, or how I clearly don’t know what I’m talking about and must be confused.
She doesn’t mean to tell lies, she says. They just come out. It seems she’s so afraid of getting in trouble that she keeps getting herself into trouble. She says she doesn’t know how to stop.
We were at a loss as to how to help her. If we punish her, she tells more lies. If we don’t punish her, she thinks she’s getting away with the lies and is so clever for tricking us. I suggested that when the lies come out, the first thing to do is say “That was a story!” and then tell us what actually happened. This occasionally works, but under pressure, the lies continued.
Then I learned about Inuit parenting in a fascinating article from NPR (it’s worth a read!). In traditional Inuit culture, they use oral storytelling to correct children’s behaviour. Rather than punishing or yelling at kids, they tell them stories “passed down from one generation of Inuit to the next, designed to sculpt kids’ behaviors in the moment. Sometimes even save their lives.” These stories are often a little bit terrifying—but the more memorable the story, the more likely it is to resonate.
As a professional writer and story addict, this makes perfect sense to me. So I tried it out. Last Thursday night, when it was just the two of us at home, I told Charlie a story I had “heard”:
“I heard a story today! There was a girl who kept on telling lies. She lived with her mom and her sister, and she was constantly pretending that she was sick in order to get them to do things for her. She would take their stuff and blame it on the others —because she was so sick, how could she possibly have done it? This went on for who knows how long, until one day she woke up and guess what had happened?”
Eyes wide, Charlie shrugged her shoulders and shook her head.
“Her tongue had turned into…a slug!”
“It did. She woke up in the morning and her tongue was a big slimy ol’ slug. She couldn’t speak at all!”
“Nope. And who knows how many lies it took for it to happen. But as far as I’m concerned, I wouldn’t tell any lies just in case.”
“That’s not true, Mommy!” Charlie’s eyes sparkled as she imagined a slimy slug tongue. She wrinkled her nose. “But I’m not going to tell lies anymore just in case.”
I even made up another story about how the sun and the moon were sisters and the moon always annoyed the sun, taking her things and shouting at her when the sun wouldn’t play the games she wanted. One day, the sun got so mad that she banished her sister, and that’s why you pretty much only ever see the moon when the sun has gone away, except on very special occasions when the moon is being particularly nice and the sun misses her.
When my older daughter got home, Charlie immediately insisted that I tell her the stories. While she knows they’re not really true, they seem to be real enough for her and (so far) the messages are sticking.
Parenting as the ultimate leadership course
This and other recent conversations got me thinking about how much parenting influences my work and leadership style. I got started early, having my first child right after finishing grad school. But rather than setting me back in my career, being in charge of two small humans for almost a decade has given me experience and confidence. I’ve learned about motivation, positive reinforcement, consequences, time management and a host of other crucial skills that one usually associates with paid work.
I treat my direct reports much like I parent my kids: do your best, ask questions if you’re lost or unsure, take responsibility for yourself and your actions, and don’t expect me to be easy on you when you screw up because you didn’t keep me in the loop.
I won’t yell (at my employees), but they’ll feel my disappointment when they don’t do what is asked of them. I’ve learned that yelling or showing anger is never fruitful — it makes people resent you or try to shift the blame. Speaking quietly about how disappointed you are, however? Highly effective. With my kids, it’s more likely to make them change their behaviour than shouting ever has or will. With my employees it motivates them to do better because they want to show how capable they really are.
I’ve also learned to prioritize and manage my time because it’s so precious. I focus on one task at a time because juggling clearly doesn’t work. Try staying focused on a conference call with little kids clamouring for food/help/attention and you’ll realize that your so-called multitasking is actually losing you valuable time.
I also want to get home as early as I can in the evenings, so I need to be hyper effective while I’m at the office. I’ve switched off all notifications on my phone and desktop, generally avoid checking emails until lunchtime so that I can do focused work in the mornings, and I clump all of my low-brainpower tasks together so I can do them when I’m tired at the end of the day (or at night after the kids are in bed).
I still feel a little surprised when I get a glowing card or email from a former intern or employee telling me how much they loved working with me, but I figure it’s because I’d rather get people on my side by showing them how much I care than by instilling fear in them. I think I actually got this from my parents: I know that I was never afraid of them but I desperately wanted them to be proud of me. I wanted to prove myself by working hard. I still do.
I also tell a lot of stories. The people with whom I work closely get to know about a lot of risky adventures, wins, near misses, and epic fails from my past. When discussing a problem, I like to mine my life for possible solutions because even though I’ve only been working in VC for a few years, most of the issues are the same as anywhere: missed deadlines, unreliable people, difficult decisions to make, vague instructions, conflicts of interest — it doesn’t matter if you’re in film, banking or education, we’re all dealing with personalities, politics and pressure.
Finally, I have my kids to thank for most of my lessons in managing people. My older daughter is a tornado and helping her gain the tools to cope with being a highly sensitive, creative and explosive little person, has meant that I’ve had to develop greater compassion, patience and versatility than I ever had before. This isn’t to say that you should rush out and make babies the minute you graduate, but perhaps waiting until you’re “stable and ready” is an illusion that more people would benefit from ditching.