The Business of Parenting: Great Leaders in the Home

How many of you feel confident in the workplace only to melt in to a pile of frustration and fear when in comes to parenting? Why do high functioning managers who lead successful teams come home and turn into autocrats or doormats to their children?

I grew up with a father who 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. 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. We are the dictators, enforcers, and judges of all that our children do. This tended to be the discipline style of most of our grandparents and many of our parents. Some of this came from living through wars where obedience and order may have meant the difference between life and death.

With lots of research on self-esteem appearing in the 1970s and 1980s, parenting styles began to shift. This led many parents to reject the stern disciplinarian style of previous generations. Unfortunately this caused a bounce to the opposite extreme, where we view our job as to make sure our children are happy all the time. We turn every decision in to a discussion of many choices. We 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 it’s the right thing to do, but because they fear our rejection. Alternatively, it leads to rebellion and resentment, neither of which helps kids learn to make a different 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 one that values team work and respect for each individual part 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. They help employees find 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 it differently the next time. They understand that shaming doesn’t produce results, but encouragement does.

Are running a successful organization and running a healthy family all that different?

I don’t believe they are. Great parents are great managers. They use the same leadership skills in the family that 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, lets look at a few key ideas in two popular business leadership books and examine what they look like in the family environment.

The first book is First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently by Marcus Buckingham & Curt Coffman. This book was based 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 is a catalyst who looks at the unique talent of each individual and builds on their strengths. They understand what inspires and motivates an employee and help them harness this energy to perform well in their job.

This is huge with children. When children (and adults) feel shamed or blamed, we usually rebel or retreat. When we shift the focus to what our kids are doing well, we inspire them to do more of it. Observe when your child helps with something and let them know by saying, “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 with in 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 take their behavior alone, we are missing that they are part of a larger system. The older child is feeling displaced, unsure of their 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 them 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. Howard is my father, and this 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.

Involving Your Team

One of my favorite chapters in this book is 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! They are the experts on sweeping after all. 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 up and anyone can put items on it during the week. One week, our main problem to solve was food waste at meals. You know, the vast amount food left on the plate because they wanted something more or different and then never ate it.

We have taken time for training, another point which Behar, Buckingham and Coffman all spend time on. This meant, our children, ages three and six, 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, 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 in these two books could lead us to better parenting when used in the home. 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 out 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 its 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 was encouraging or discouraging.

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?