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It’s time to myth bust. There’s a rumour going around (and has been for an eternity) that once an employee becomes a parent they lose interest and motivation to advance their career. It’s commonly thought that working parents ‘have enough on their plate’ or ‘would not be able to commit the necessary time and energy to a more challenging leadership role’.

But what if these beliefs are out dated or, perhaps, were never true at all?

Consider for a moment the extensive experience gained and life lessons learnt whilst raising a family. The subject is vast but in a recent article from the Harvard Business Review Professor Jelena Zikic explores three main skills that are sharpened when one becomes a working parent:

1)    Working parents are excellent at adapting to change

The pace our children learn and grow is undeniably quick – there is a constant flux and chaos with every new learning becoming yesterday’s trick. Kids don’t often wait for an applause – it’s all part of their evolution and they are seemingly hard wired to move on to the next thing to learn – a survival mechanism if you like. Parents, in order to keep some semblance of order need to adapt quick and be dynamic in their parenting so as to create some sense of stability and reassurance.  As Jelena said: “In this process parenting allows us to reflect and adapt together with our children, and sometimes even learn from our mistakes.” [1]

2)    Working parents encourage strengths and develop weaknesses in others

They have an innate understanding that in order for people – young or old – to prosper and be productive, considerate human beings they need to feel safe. Parents do this all the time in order to support their children to learn and grow. This is very much transferrable to the workplace as Jelena points out: “As we strive to make our children resilient and capable of finding their own solutions, we can do the same with our team members. This means creating a culture at work where psychological safety comes first, where your co-workers feel comfortable and willing to share their concerns, needs, and ideas.” [1]

3)    Working parents self-reflect an awful lot

Sometimes to their detriment (when guilt and a lack of appreciation take hold) – but often to their advantage. This desire to parent well comes from a deep-seated sense of responsibility and care. All people innately want others to succeed but parents do this really well. Reflecting on parenting skills and a child’s feedback can support us to experiment more with new approaches. Our children are probably our best and most honest judges; they provide the most direct, trusting performance evaluation we’ll ever get. We can reflect on what they teach us to be better leaders,” points out Jelena. [1]

Bring Parenting Skills to the Boardroom

What if these life lessons create more, not less opportunities to excel at leadership on a personal and team level?

All working parents, but women in particular (as studies have show it’s mothers who are more likely to sacrifice their career or be overlooked for promotion) must first see and value parenthood as a career asset rather than a career diminishing move.

So what do the experts (otherwise known as 4,000 executives – who are also working parents) say?

5 Ways Executive Leaders Manage Work and Family Life 

Research conducted by Harvard Business School a few years ago highlights how the high performers manage their work and family life. The study evaluated interviews taken over a 5 year time span and categorised the ‘How to’s’ into five main categories. In brief these were:

  1. Define success for yourself. Success is going to look different for everyone so it’s important to not buy into images and ideals about what success ‘should’ look like. Spend time nominating what is means to you. In the HBS study one executive explained theirs “I just prioritise dinner with my family as if it was a 6pm meeting with my most important client”. [2]
  2. Manage technology. In other words, give you, your family and your work time to breathe. “Overall, [leaders] view [technology] as a good servant but a bad master… Make yourself available but not too available to your team; be honest with yourself about how much you can multitask; build relationships and trust through face time; and keep your in-box under control.” [2]
  3. Build support networks. Support at home and the workplace is a necessity – especially for female executives who want to spend quality time with their family when at home. Hiring people to do logistical tasks like cleaning, grocery shopping as the like, means parents can spend more quality time with their children. Ensuring they have the right support and culture that supports work-life balance was also highlighted.
  4. Travelling or relocating selectively.  “Female executives are less likely than men to be offered or accept international assignments, in part because of family responsibilities but also because of the restrictive gender roles in certain cultures or perceptions that they are unwilling to relocate.” [2] But not travelling so much needn’t hold working parents back… exposing themselves to all the business lines accessible to them or changing industries can keep them in the leadership game. It is about being selective and weighing up the impact of these choices on both career and family.
  5. Collaborating with your partner.  A supportive partner can be the making of an exceptional leader – male or female. “The pressures and demands on executives are intense, multidirectional, and unceasing. Partners can help them keep their eyes on what matters, budget their time and energy, live healthfully, and make deliberate choices—sometimes tough ones—about work, travel, household management, and community involvement.”  [2]

With the gender pay gap so wide and a serious lack of women on boards in Australia, it is time to start appreciating what working parents (both mothers and fathers) bring to organisations. When we do this and support them to action some of the How to’s of ‘managing work and family as an executive’ then we will start to see a shift for the better – higher productivity, improved employee wellbeing, more women in leadership positions – all in all more enjoyable and prosperous organisations to work. Who wouldn’t want that?





[1] Jelena Zikic, Harvard Business Review, Being a Parent Made Me a Better Manager, and Vice Versa, viewed 24.5.2016

[2] Robin Abrahams, Harvard Business Review, Manage Your Work, Manage Your Life, viewed 24.5.2016