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The Business of Parenting: Great Leaders in the Home

Published on: December 30, 2013

dad-baby-bjornSo often, the discussion around work and family involves debates around where to work, how much to work and whether or not “good” parents should continue their careers at all. There are as many opinions as there are parents, and, like many, I have yet to find that sweet spot on the balance board of this dilemma. What I have found is another lens to look through when considering what both work and family have in common, and what strengths each brings to the other.

My father has spent his career mentoring and inspiring business leaders. I couldn’t help but absorb his view of what it means to be a successful leader growing up. The further I move along in my career working with parents, the more similarities I see in the business of parenting and the parenting of business. The question is why we choose to view these two roles — parent and manager — so differently.

In parenting, we often think of our role as top-down. This view of mom and dad as the household dictators, enforcers and judges of all that their children do tended to be the discipline style employed by most of our grandparents and many of our parents. Some of this authoritarianism no doubt came from the experience of living through wars, when obedience and order may have meant the difference between life and death.

With reams of research on self-esteem emerging in the 1970s and 1980s, parenting styles began to shift. Many parents of the era rejected the stern disciplinarian style of previous generations. Unfortunately, this caused a bounce to the opposite extreme for children of the 70s and 80s who are parenting today and view their job as making sure their children are happy all the time. Every decision becomes a discussion of many choices; we may rush to save our children from frustration by doing for them, we praise too freely, and are often overly permissive.

The authoritarian style usually leads to compliance, but not because kids know the parent’s directive is the right thing to do, but because children fear rejection. Alternatively, overly authoritarian parenting elicits rebellion and resentment, neither of which helps kids learn to make a different, better decision the next time.

The permissive style usually leads to exhausted, burnt-out parents. We feel walked all over. We feel like our kids don’t appreciate us, don’t know how good they have it, and are over-entitled praise junkies. Eventually, we hit our wall, snap and revert right back to that authoritarian style we so staunchly rejected.

In the business world, the last few decades have seen a drastic shift away from top-down management styles. Top-performing corporations have spent a great deal of time and resources to shift corporate culture to esteem and reward teamwork and respect for each individual part and member of the organization. We train managers to reject autocratic management and embrace the role of mentor, coach and guide.

Current organizational research shows that the very best managers inspire through modeling strong communication skills, empathy, encouragement and humanity. Good managers help employees discover their strengths and coach them through areas of challenge. They take time to train employees. They know that mistakes happen and ask how the employee plans to do a task differently next time for a better result. They understand that shaming doesn’t produce results, that encouragement does.

So, are running a successful organization and running a healthy family all that different?

I don’t believe they are. Great parents are great managers. Great parents use the same leadership skills within the family that great managers use in the workplace. If you review current trends in business leadership and management strategies, it’s clear that many of them are highly relevant to creating healthy families and raising resilient children.

To illustrate my point, let's look at a few key ideas in two popular business leadership books and examine what they might look like within the family environment.

The first book, First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, draws on a study by the Gallup Organization, which surveyed 80,000 managers across a wide range of industries.

Buckingham and Coffman identify that a good manager acts as a catalyst who looks at the unique talent of each individual and builds on his or her strengths. They understand what inspires and motivates an employee and help them harness this energy to perform well in their job.

This same approach is hugely valuable when dealing with children. When children (and adults) feel shamed or blamed, they usually rebel or retreat. When we as parents shift the focus to what our kids are doing well, we inspire them to do more of it. Observe when your children help with something and acknowledge the action without being too effusive — “I notice you put your laundry away!” Leave off the “good job” and let them feel the pride in themselves instead of just your approval.

Buckingham and Coffman believe that the best managers look inward. They look at the organization and each individual person within it. As parents, we need to do this too. We need to look at our family as a set of interrelated parts. If one member is hurting, we all are. For example, when a new sibling comes along, the older child may regress and act up in all sorts of ways. If we just isolate their behavior, we are missing that they are part of a larger system. The older child is feeling displaced, unsure of his or her role, and scared. Instead of punishing the behavior, we need to look at the feelings and belief behind it. We need to show empathy and find ways for the child to feel included if we want the behavior to change. (For more on new siblings, please read Big Sister/Brother Boot Camp.)

The second book, It’s Not About the Coffee: Leadership Principles from a Life at Starbucks, was written by Howard Behar, my father. His book is full of the business management strategies I grew up learning about. He frequently speaks at organizations around the world and it was through listening to him speak that I quickly saw that we teach the same strategies. The only difference is the audience.

One of my favorite chapters in this book is titled Think Independently: The Person Who Sweeps the Floor Should Choose the Broom. The title alone makes us perk up! Well, of course that custodian should get a say in the broom he uses! Behar stresses the need to get away from the rulebook and instead look at recipes. Buckingham and Coffman believe so strongly in this point, they put it in the name of their book!

How many of us get bogged down in our way of doing something? We do it with our partners and our kids. How does it feel when your partner points out you are loading the dishwasher wrong? It usually makes us want to say, “Well, then you do it.” What if we put on the manager, coach or leader hat instead? What if we had an end goal and let the kids fill in the way to get there?

Here’s an example. We regularly have family meetings in our house. Much like a team meeting, this involves solving team problems. We don’t waste time on who’s right or wrong, we are a team and we solve it that way. We have an agenda and anyone can put items on it during the week. One week, our main problem to solve was food waste at meals.

We have taken time for training, another point which Behar, Buckingham and Coffman all spend time on. This meant, our children, ages 3 and 6, knew how to listen to the speaker, brainstorm solutions and come to an agreement. When offering solutions, our older child suggested we serve food family-style so she could just take as much as she wanted. They had this problem at her school and this was the solution they found to work best. We had all shared the ideas we had and this was the one our children both wanted to try.

I was thinking, “We already do that and it doesn’t seem to be working.” I held my tongue and instead asked a question. I asked, “How will we know if it is working?” The younger said, “We can count it!” The older quickly added, “Let’s weigh it!” Here’s the difference between a family and a publicly traded company — we have no shareholders to answer to if our ideas fail. So, we agreed to weigh the leftover food on our plates after each meal we ate together for the next week. I thought since we already do serve meals family-style that our solution was not likely to work. However, we always evaluate our previous solutions the next week to see how they worked. I thought this would be a good opportunity to let them choose the broom regardless of whether it worked perfectly.

Even with my professional background, I failed to correctly predict the outcome. We weighed our food waste after each meal and within three days our food waste was down to a few grams. The act of problem-solving together and agreeing on a solution was enough to create change! That, and the sweepers got to choose the broom.

When it comes down to it, just about every strategy and concept outlined in these two books could be applied at home and lead us to better parenting outcomes. When we shift to seeing our children as people, with legitimate thoughts and feelings, the ability to inspire and encourage comes much easier. Instead of throwing out those great tools from the workplace when you leave the office, bring them home. Find your child’s strengths, share the power, and help develop future leaders, instead of demanding obedience. I guarantee that if you believe in your child, they will believe in themselves. The shift has come to corporate America, and it is time for the shift in families.

As I explore the parallels between great management and great parenting, I want to hear from you! When teaching parents how to encourage their kids, I often have them reflect back on their best managers, coaches and teachers to think about what those people did that encouraged or discouraged them.

Now it’s your turn. What is an example of how a manager at your work encouraged you or your team? How could you apply that at home?

About the author: Sarina Behar Natkin, LICSW is a parent educator and consultant in the Seattle area. She co-founded GROW Parenting to provide parents with the tools and support they need to raise healthy children and find more joy in parenting. GROW Parenting offers parent coaching and classes and frequently speaks at area schools and businesses.

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