Leading Starts at Home: Life Lessons From a Domestic and Corporate CEO
Although many people (ahem: men) might be just now realizing this, women (and mothers, in particular) have been breadwinners for generations. Consider the case of Tammy Duckworth, who didn't let having a baby keep her from her job. Senator Duckworth made headlines when she became the first senator to cast a vote on the Senate floor with a newborn in tow. In fact, she helped change the rules about how lawmakers are allowed to vote for laws in the U.S., which allowed her to bring her baby with her to vote.
And she's not the only powerful woman balancing her career and motherhood. Take the Federal Trade Commission’s Rebecca Slaughter. As a recent piece in The New York Times noted, Slaughter skillfully leverages every waking moment to be fully there for her three kids and her government agency team. In fact, she hasn’t let giving birth or nursing slow her down — she takes her child to the office and pumps breast milk during commutes.
Not even Houdini could whip up such time management magic. Of course, he wasn’t a mom. And that’s the reason businesses need to consider how valuable successful mothers are to the future of their companies, especially when those women take on pivotal roles.
Navigating the Challenges of Dueling Responsibilities
Although every parent deals with the anxieties that come with raising children, moms tend to take on the brunt of the self-doubts. I know I constantly wonder whether I’m doing enough for my daughters. Am I helping enough with homework? Am I visible enough at their schools? If not, is that a terrible thing or just the way life goes? After all, time doesn’t stop for anyone — especially a mom pulled in many directions.
Another struggle facing mothers who work is defining who we are. Where do we fit in? Are we the sum of our parts, or do we have two sides competing for dominance at any given time? I tend to lean toward the former description, which has helped me move past the challenges of being a mom and corporate CEO and embrace its advantages. As Stacey Epstein, Zinc’s CEO, has said, running a company is “raising humans to a different end, but it’s the same thing as being a mom.”
For instance, I’ve become more patient and open after having kids. Truly, I don’t get ruffled by much because I’ve traveled with kids in tow. I also listen more to my staff and don’t automatically pass judgment like I might have when I was younger; it’s a carry-over from sitting at the dinner table and taking in the discussion rather than overtaking the conversation. Instead of yelling, I can sit down with an employee and solve the problem.
Additionally, being ultra-busy has forced me to find good resources at home and on the job. Outsourcing isn’t a dirty word in business and shouldn’t be at home, either. You just have to be ready to pay for great service in both worlds. Our family has very little turnover in caregivers because I treat them like family and offer competitive salaries.
In other words, I nurture in many ways throughout the day. You can, too, by embracing the unique opportunity to concurrently bring up children and guide a team while leaning on some important tips:
1. Look for a corporate culture that fits your needs.
On my path to becoming a CEO and earning a seat at the table, I started by working for my father. I was lucky, for the most part. Most female leaders — with the exception of entrepreneurs with startups — have to find a place they can call their home away from home.
If you’re searching for a new position because you feel like your current workplace isn’t supporting you as a mom and leader or isn't offering upward mobility, keep an eye out for better organizations. Do a bit of research on the individuals you will be working for prior to accepting a position, and conduct as much due diligence on them as they will on you.
2. Transfer your home skills to the workplace.
Parenting and managing are remarkably similar. You’re probably already using plenty of your mom skills at work, like organizing your team's meetings as you would your family calendar. But your employer might not realize how valuable your abilities are. Be sure to look for ways to showcase your unique assets, such as mentoring a group of newer employees like you mentor your kids’ Girl Scouts troop.
Not sure what you bring to the table in terms of transferable skills? Map out all the tasks you perform on a daily basis, from budgeting to the last penny to negotiating affordable piano lessons for your budding virtuoso. You’re probably already capable of handling more leadership duties at work than you realize.
3. Find the right person for the job.
Remember when I said I outsource domestic jobs without shame? I don't just grab the first person I hear about. I take just as much time to vet those candidates as I would a potential employee who wanted to join my company. In other words, I’m constantly searching for the best outcomes, no matter the situation.
We don’t hire people off the street in business; there is a process. Mimic that process at home so you can build in redundancy and backup plans with ease.
4. Set clear boundaries.
Setting boundaries between work and home life is tough. Still, it’s necessary if you’re going to be seen as a leader at work and a mom on the home front. Try to limit the amount of time you talk about your kids on the job. At the same time, don’t grouse about work all the time at home.
Delineating life between the two hemispheres you lead will generate a better sense of balance. Plus, you’ll be showing your kids and employees how to manage in a healthy way.
When it comes right down to it, “momming” and “leading” are two sides of the same coin. The sooner you lean into that reality, the stronger — and happier — you’ll be overall.
Alison Gutterman is the president and CEO of Jelmar, the family-owned cleaning products manufacturer of CLR and Tarn-X products. She began her career at Jelmar in 1993 without a title or a desk, and in 2007, she was named president, bringing the company unprecedented success with her modern approach and leadership techniques. She also balances work with parenthood as a single mother of two children, and she resides in the greater Chicago area.
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