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What Parenting Taught Me About Managing a Team (and Vice Versa)

By Paul L. Underwood

I am neither the perfect parent nor the perfect manager, but I found that during my years leading a small army of writers and editors for an online publication, I learned a couple lessons that would later apply to raising a child. And as it turns out, raising a child can teach a guy a thing or two about workplace leadership. So whether you’re about to be changing literal diapers or metaphorical ones, here are a few things you should know.

True empathy is hard, but necessary

“She’s just a baby, and she needs our help.” My wife came up with this great mantra after our first child was born, and it remains close to my heart. Newborn babies are crazy, irrational beings, completely incapable of clearly communicating their needs outside of screaming and crying. In that way, they’re not unlike your team at work. (I’m only mostly kidding.)

But what a newborn and your team members have in common is they need your help. Your direct reports may need you for basic work functions like finding a stapler or processing paperwork, but also career advice, mentorship, leadership. You can’t be all things to your entire team, but you do need to make yourself as available as humanly possible to them — even when it’s inconvenient for you.

It can be hard to find yourself separated from the day-to-day execution of whatever it is your business does, and you won’t always have all the answers to the questions you’re asked. Just be honest, and just like you would do for your child, make your best effort to do the right thing to help and to get results.

And remember what Colin Powell once said, “The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.” 

What you allow is being absorbed

Inevitably, your child will utter his or her first curse word. (My daughter’s was “dammit,” an echo of my go-to.) This will be amusing, but if you don’t say either say something (“That’s daddy’s special word”) or ignore it (so the kid doesn’t realize how cute he or she is), you will soon have a kid who curses with the glee of a Scorsese character.

The same thing applies to your team. Let one of them repeatedly get away with something — missing deadlines or showing up unprepared for a meeting— and the rest of your team will assume this is permissible. Whether a parent or a boss, it’s no fun to be the disciplinarian. And if you have any empathy at all, you know these kind of slip-ups are understandable. But this is why someone somewhere put you in charge: to be the “bad guy” once in a while when the circumstances require it. Which brings us to…

These relationships aren’t exactly friendships

To understand this more deeply, let us look to popular culture: Think of Amy Poehler as the “Cool Mom” in Mean Girls. Or Steve Carell trying to buddy up with the denizens of The Office‘s Dunder Mifflin. These people are terrible role models, because they’re more concerned with being liked than with providing direction.

That’s not to say you need to go full Machiavelli and embrace being feared in the office. This isn’t 16th century Florence. You can still go out to drinks. You must applaud someone’s good work. You should still remember their birthdays. You should definitely have inside jokes and strive for the kind of openness that the best friendships achieve. But unlike a friend, you will eventually be reviewing your team’s salaries (or, in your kid’s case, her allowances, shopping budget, etc.). In the worst cases, you may even have to fire someone.

And yes, you should have a level of trust that allows for difficult conversations in a great friendship. But those are relationships of choice. At work and in family, you’re forced to interact (or not — but you’ll pay a price). It’s unrealistic to think you’re going to like everyone you work with, and you may have, um, complicated feelings about your relatives. Gaining trust and respect from someone you’re not naturally fond of is hard. But do the work, and you’ll be rewarded with a deeper connection of a different kind. 

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