15 hard-learned business lessons from being a parent
I’ve been pondering this post for some months now. As a co-parent of a three year old boy and a nine month old girl, it’s been pretty humbling and demanding last few years. So what can handling pregnancy, (I got the easy side of that) and being a parent teach us about how we work? Here’s a few thoughts, in no particular order:
- Humility: Particularly as a father, you go from being 50% of the relationship, to the least important person in the room, most of the time. I mean this in the sense that children and their mother of course come first, particularly in those early months and years. I went from being the boss at work, to being the sleepless gopher running to the shop before it shuts, desperately hoping they stock the right nappy size. Business lesson: As the founder of my company, this has helped me think more about my team, and their well-being. My first investor once said to me “the problem with you, is your business is all about you, and not about them. Make it more about them, than about you, if you want to keep good people”. I’m not sure I’ve totally got there with that, but fatherhood I think, has definitely helped.
- Patience: I’ve never had much of this. I’ve been forced to learn it. For example, the patience to know that eventually the baby or the toddler WILL sleep, you just need to wait for that, (often much delayed gratification of rest) and it will come. Business lesson: Learning to tackle the “more haste, less speed” problem. Get the basics right, focus on the product, the people and the customer, and success will come.
- Resilience: This is a big one. Kids teach resilience by example, but then you learn it as a parent, given you are what lies between the children and the wider world. You just have to keep coming back to the challenge of say, getting their trousers on in the morning, no matter how long it takes. Business lesson: Find the strength to keep going as if you have absolutely no choice (like caring for a sick child, for example), and that perseverance pays off in the end.
- Strength you never knew you had. There are themes and overlaps developing here, I realise that. Strength you never knew you had, can come from carrying a wriggling screaming toddler 1-2kms home, after a long day at work, with no sleep the night before. Or putting them back to sleep for the 10th time in four hours. There are many examples. Business lesson: You can always do more than you think, even when exhausted. Think Shackleton’s example.
- Humour: Changing the mood, or not letting the mood go bleak, tense or angry, using humour is so important. After 30 minutes asking my son to put on his socks this morning, I did it in ten seconds by pretending one of his socks was having a conversation with the other about going swimming later. Ten seconds after that socks and shoes were on, and we were headed out the door. I can’t stress enough how important it is to change that mood when things aren’t going well, business-wise or with kids, and how easy it is to forget to do it, in the heat of the moment. Business lesson: I’m not suggesting puppet shows in negotiating meetings, or difficult employee reviews, but keeping the mood light and changing atmospheres in a well chosen way is so vitally important, particularly in small groups doing complex tasks on deadline.
- Persuasion: A compelling word that’s much harder to put into action than it seems. You can cajole and bribe toddlers, even threaten (no toys for you) but persuasion is the king. If your idea suddenly seems like their idea, it becomes a good one, even a great one. This is where I often just try and use enthusiasm instead, and it’s not the same thing. A work in progress. Business lesson: Lay the breadcrumb trail, as the saying goes, and if they can buy in using that, and other methods, you’ve done well.
- Carrot over stick but…Incentives are simple, blunt instruments if materially based. Have a cookie, go to the beach, watch Paw Patrol tomorrow, these are simple cliches most parents use. But they don’t last long and become addictive for kids, and a way for them to manipulate situations. Business lesson: Very much the same. Think hard about incentives, and what unforeseen consequences they may have if purely financially or status/materially based. Persuasion for better motivation that drives a progressive culture, is far more effective long term, in my view.
- Stick when it’s needed (actually boundaries) Ah discipline. With kids, (and what do I know, I’ve only been doing it just over three years), setting boundaries and enforcing them is vital. Where you set them, on the other hand, ain’t so simple. Business lesson: In management, particularly people management in knowledge/service businesses like mine, clear boundaries, better put as expectations, helps define culture, and we all know how much that matters.
- But praise matters so much more. My toddler son responds so well to praise. Shouting “I did it, I did it” and getting praise for simple achievements, which are huge to him, I’ve realised is incredibly important. Business lesson: Praise more than you think you should, just don’t go too far and become insincere. But you have to go much further than you might think to do that. Tone and language are obviously crucial.
- Empathy. Showing you feel their frustration and want to help fix it, I’ve discovered, counts for a huge amount. A bit like praise, you should show more than you might think. Business lesson: Leadership theory today mainly says showing you care and having them believe you are sincere, (and being so!) is really the most important element of leadership. Linked to the above lesson I got from my first investor, caring is everything (“sharing is caring” for my toddler son, which he now repeats solemnly whilst handing a toy to another child, bringing a lump of pride to the parental throat).
- Appreciate fun (at unexpected times) You can be at your lowest physical and mental ebb, with little sleep for days, whilst everyone has cold, and you’ve run out of tissues, again. Then a child does or says something hilarious and you celebrate that moment. A recent example was my son, in the midst of a tantrum, breaking wind accidentally in the middle of it, then immediately laughing, pointing at me and saying “Daddy, that was you, you did it”. That killed the tantrum straight away. Business lesson: Not whoopee cushions at work, but looking for the humour (as above) and making competition fun, encouraging creative banter and finding challenges slightly amusing, are all part of that essential mix you need leading and motivating a team.
- Spot problems early. I call it the snowball at the top of the mountain. Catch it early, it’s just a snowball, let it slip and it can be an avalanche. With little kids, it’s easier (is it tiredness, hunger, or frustration?). Business lesson: Drive an open, honest, culture, look for niggles your team might have and ironing them out early, which stops frustration and tension building. They of course, need to know that you want to know, and trust in communication is the key here.
- Learn to apologise, and do it fast. I screwed up my son’s bedtime today. I got annoyed with his endless attempts to stay up by asking me for things, or asking questions. Tantrum and mild hysterics followed when I got frustrated and told him just to go to sleep for god’s sake. I took five, and then apologised to him for not handling it well. I got a hug and he was asleep inside ten minutes, whilst we’d battled it out for an hour before that. Business lesson: If you have a slight feeling you should apologise to a team member for even a mild over-reaction or lack of patience, then do so. Your instinct is likely right. It’s not weakness, it’s great strength. Just don’t do it every five minutes! (if you have to, you’ve got bigger issues to deal with)
- Take them seriously, always. I got this wrong with my kids (I mention my son a lot here as my daughter is only nine months old) by totally underestimating how much is understood at a very early age. Talking to a two year old like an adult sounds like a silly idea. It’s really not. It’s proper parenting. Thank god I read a book that suggested it, and it’s transformed my parenting (by no means perfect but better). Business lesson: Your 22 year old newest team member may have zero experience, but she’s probably got ideas you’d never think of in a million years. Take the time to explain the plan, the challenges and listen. I’m not good enough at this, luckily I have a colleague who is far better. I’m still learning to shut up.
- There’s no point arguing If you are arguing with a child, you lost ten minutes ago. All the other above factors count for so much more. It’s an obvious point, but an easy trap, particularly when you last slept in 2016. Business lesson: If you listen properly, and talk it all through, adding your experience to the conversation (not a monologue!) with proper humility, you can usually reach the right compromise, and move things forward respectfully, and constructively.
I could go on with this list, but there’s already much overlap between by above points, and no little repetition. So I shall stop here, dear reader. After all, the baby clothes haven’t been folded yet, those milk bottles don’t wash themselves, and the sock goblin may well make my boy end up at kindergarten on Monday with odd socks, once again, unless I get busy. Oh, and I’ve got inboxes to empty, and a business plan to write…