Child’s Play – leveraging the lessons of parenthood

Parenthood can be the most powerful leadership and development course you’ll ever take.

Two parents on couch looking on in despair as their two young children run amok.

When I joined the Victoria tech sector 10 years ago, the majority of the community was relatively young. It wasn’t uncommon to meet freshly minted founders/CEOs and whole teams just out of university. Back then, we were all just trying to figure out what “being a business” even meant.

Since then, the Victoria tech scene has matured significantly, and so have the people in it. Gone are the days of our culture being wholly defined by beer nights and Ping-Pong tables. What’s stepped into its place is a desire to build intentional cultures, which help create strong, resilient and high-performing teams.

With the progression of those cultures comes the progression into the stage of life where parenthood features prominently, myself included.

Parenthood has been the most powerful leadership development course I’ve ever taken. Here are a few of my top takeaways so far:

Change is inevitable. Flexibility is key.

If there’s one thing that being a parent has taught me over and over again, it’s that flexibility is one of the keys to survival.

When sleep training my daughter, I made what I thought was a perfect plan. For a while, everything was on track. And then a sleep regression hit. And then teething. I fully expected to stick to the plan, but the more tightly I held on to it while conditions shifted, the more stressed and out of control I felt. When I finally learned to shift along and be flexible, things got easier and more fun again.

The same goes for business. Sometimes everything is in a groove — your team is working cohesively, you’re hitting your targets easily, things are feeling effortless. Those beautiful, on-plan moments are worthy of celebrating because you are bound to veer off-track again: when a competitor comes up with a solution that the market really responds to and you lose some market share; when one of your top producers gets poached or an unexpected global pandemic hits.

Author and leadership guru Simon Sinek refers to this idea as “the infinite game.” Unlike a game of chess or hockey, there is no definite end in business. Sure, there are fiscal quarters or other markers of time, but, unless you’re planning on selling the company or closing up shop soon, the game keeps on going indefinitely. While a crystal-clear plan might work well in the near term, change is inevitable in the long game, so flexibility is key.

Make a Plan B and a Plan C that keep your core values and what’s most important at the forefront, and adjust as necessary.

Focus on what’s important and mute the rest.

Ever been that parent at the grocery store with a tantrum-throwing toddler at the till? Or a screaming beastie on the playground? I’ve definitely been there, and it taught me a ton.

One day, my daughter had the most epic meltdown on a walk home from daycare. After a few panicked moments and with some serious effort, I blocked out all of the non-essential noise in order to zero in on what was actually important in this situation. I took a few mindful breaths to ground myself and calmed my mind enough to take the right action. (In this case, the right action was getting down there in the grass to comfort and regulate a three-year-old.)

In Shirzad Chamine’s New York Times bestselling book, Positive Intelligence, he talks about the importance for leaders being able to calm their minds when situations are at their epic-meltdown-like peak.

“You need to learn how to activate that brain in the middle of war, in the middle of challenges, in the middle of crises,” says Chamine.

As a leader, there are a million things happening all the time. You might feel out of control, drowning in demands and decisions. In those moments when things seem to be going off the rails, it’s important to be able to tune out the noise, pause and ask yourself a few questions:

What doesn’t matter right now that I can let go of? What about this situation is in my control? What is the best next step I should take?

When things are crazy, get Jedi-focused on what’s real and important. Mute the rest.

Develop a growth mindset for the win.

As a recovering perfectionist, this was a hard lesson for me to learn. It’s common for entrepreneurs to expect that they will succeed at everything they attempt. After all, that drive for success is probably a large reason they got to where they are. That competitive spirit can push you to do better, but it can be dangerous if you’re defining success solely as winning.

If you’ve ever tried to teach a small child something new, chances are you witnessed dozens of failed attempts. What did you do when they failed? I’ll bet that you didn’t shame them and tell them that they’ll never be able to learn this new skill. Instead, you probably talked them through it, helped them take stock of their learnings, then encouraged them to try again.

“In the fixed mindset, everything is about the outcome,” writes Carol Dweck, the Stanford University professor who introduced the concept of growth mindset. “If you fail — or if you’re not the best — it’s all been wasted. The growth mindset allows people to value what they’re doing regardless of the outcome. They’re tackling problems … Maybe they haven’t found the cure for cancer, but the search was deeply meaningful.”

As leaders, we can strengthen this growth mindset when something doesn’t go quite right. Identify what worked well, what was tricky and what you might do differently next time. What lessons did you learn that could be important for the next attempt or the next challenge? How can you be 10 per cent better next time? Then, armed with new insight and new perspective, try again.

In my opinion, striving to be a great parent is the closest thing to great leadership. In both roles, you are wholly committing yourself to the growth of another human being, through all of the ups and downs.

Asking great questions and actually listening to the answers, having tough but effective conversations and building trust and connection so the other person feels safe to learn are all skills to master when stepping up your parenting or leadership game.

Vivienne Damatan, ACC, is a certified executive coach with the International Coaching Federation. She is the founder of Lead-on-Purpose, focusing on resilience and the development of emerging leaders.