What Pandemic Parenting Can Teach Us About Leadership
Though there’s no silver lining to be gleaned from the untold strife of the pandemic, as millions of working parents ready for a return to office work, there are key lessons we can all take back with us about leading our teams and how we show up. The authors present four ways not to let your hard-earned leadership lessons from WFH parenting go to waste. First, use peer data to hone quick decision-making skills. Second, learn how to serial-task (not multi-task). Third, manage a diverse team. Finally, trade perfectionism for compassion. None of us would ever choose to repeat the heartache of the pandemic. But it did yield invaluable leadership lessons we shouldn’t leave behind.
An executive-coaching client of Sanyin’s recently made an offhand comment that revealed something stunning about parenting over the past year. A busy executive with three kids and an equally busy working spouse, she quipped, “Who knew my kitchen would turn into my executive coach?” When Sanyin asked what she meant, she listed a litany of experiences from around her kitchen table: keeping her kids creatively engaged in their school activities while planning a meal and while, on the other side of the room, her laptop was logged into a virtual strategy session with her team. She reflected, “What I had to learn this past year to keep all my worlds integrated was a crucible I’d never wish on anyone. I know I had it better than many working parents. But I gained some new skills that will serve me well going forward.”
As professionals who spend a great deal of time coaching and advising busy executives, we got a firsthand look last year not just at our clients’ work leadership but at their home leadership as well. For many of us, the two arenas have become almost indistinguishable. We found ourselves offering as much advice about creative ways to keep things on track on the home front as we did coaching leaders on their effectiveness and organizational strategies. As it turns out, the merging of those worlds created an intensified leadership accelerator none of us expected. There’s no silver lining to the strife of the pandemic, but as millions of parents ready for a return to the office, there are four key lessons we can all take back with us about leading our teams and how we show up.
Use peer data to hone quick decision-making skills.
One leader Sanyin works with has three elementary-aged children. When schools shut down abruptly, back in March 2020, she (and 63 million other parents) had to pivot quickly to new arrangements. Since then, decisions like that have been required almost daily. And parents often had to make them on very short notice and with very little data, facing the reality that decisions made in the moment can have significant long-term implications.
Because more data about the situation wasn’t always available, parents broadened their option set through peer data. Talking to other busy WFH parents and learning what they were doing and why helped them navigate the unknown.
Back at the office, many situations lack sufficient situational data and demand a quick response. Some leaders are paralyzed by limited information or rely heavily on personal intuition or excessive consensus seeking. Draw on your experience seeking peer data by asking fellow leaders what they’ve done in similar situations. Broaden your network of executive peers within and outside your organization who can serve as thought partners and perspective providers to strengthen and accelerate your existing decision-making process.
Learn how to serial-task.
Parents were forced to wear many hats simultaneously. Often outnumbered by their various responsibilities and the number of kids they were caring for, they could easily feel overwhelmed. Jumping from one frustrated child to the next while keeping Zoom meetings running in the background often left parents depleted and kids feeling neglected. Though we’ve known for years that multitasking is unhealthy for our brains and is rarely productive, the pandemic proved it definitively.
One leader Ron works with learned about the Pomodoro Technique — a form of interval training for the brain. The technique is simple: Work in hyper-productive, low-disruption, 20-minute bursts. Very rarely could parents find an uninterrupted hour during the workday to dedicate to a task or a child, but as this leader reflected, “20 minutes usually felt manageable. I could ask a child to wait or squeeze in a Zoom call during my kids’ virtual gym class. Focusing for 20 minutes at a time became my goal. Usually, I was able to meet it.”
For leaders still working in hybrid environments, the demands of moving from task to task and video screen to video screen may not abate. Rather than resort to the unproductive, brain-draining defaults of texting and emailing during meetings, turning off the camera so that you can fold laundry or eat lunch during a business review, or ordering groceries while completing your monthly financials, chunk your time into short bursts that allow your brain’s natural ability to concentrate on one thing to flourish without interruption. This will be infinitely more productive than a day of haphazard multitasking.
Manage a diverse team.
Parents with more than one child were forced to learn quickly that you can’t parent everyone the same way. They got front-row seats to their children’s various learning styles, motivations, and responses to feedback. To make things work, they had to adapt to the needs of each child while keeping the broader cohesion of the family unit in mind. Paying attention to each child’s emotional and learning needs while preserving the larger family relationships was an art learned on the fly.
As leaders, we’re perpetually juggling the needs of the team against those of its individual members. Balancing the shared commitments and goals of the team while adjusting to the unique needs, strengths, and learning gaps of individuals allows each person to shine while making sure the team as a whole remains paramount. As you see your team in a fresh light back at the office, remember that its members have grown and changed over the past 18 months. Take the time to learn who they’ve become and how you can best support them now. And interrogate any “one size fits all” approaches to leadership you may have thought worked in the past, upgrading to more-nuanced methods to maximize individual needs while keeping your team whole.
Trade perfectionism for compassion.
For many high-performing leaders driven to achieve the best results, the pandemic was a crash course in answering the question, “What really counts as ‘good’?” One leader Sanyin works with remarked, “Some days were better than others. Success meant getting all my meetings in, getting the kids through their schoolwork, and getting the lawn cut. Other days, just getting out of bed was a heroic feat.” Learning to have more-reasonable and malleable standards has been an important shift for him. He said,
It’s not that I’ve lowered my standards — I still want to reach for the gold. But I now understand that there are trade-offs to consider on the way to gold. Sometimes my kids needed more help than I expected to give them. Sometimes I was so exhausted that I stared at a screen for an hour during a Zoom meeting and couldn’t tell you what we discussed. I now have much greater empathy for the full lives everyone on my team is leading. And I’m more compassionate with myself when I fall short of my own standards.
Clearly, this leader has learned to reflect on his limitations in a new way. If your perfectionism gets the best of you, ask yourself, “Why am I trying to operate outside the bounds of those limits? Why do I conflate success with stretching my limits?” Eliminating some of the work/life boundary has forced many of us to be more honest about what we can and cannot do. Consider the impact on those you lead if you were to be more empathic, giving yourself and them permission to say what you need and to do your best work with an honest acknowledgement of limitations.
We tell our children, “Just do your best.” As leaders, do we show ourselves and those we lead the same grace? It doesn’t mean ignoring when someone hasn’t done their best; people need honest feedback to improve. But sometimes “best” should be contextualized into a broader set of circumstances. And “best” will rarely mean “perfect” for us or those we lead. How liberating would it be to accept that fact?
As you prepare to return to the office, reflect on these tumultuous 18 months and ask yourself, “What did I learn or get better at that I hadn’t expected to? How can those lessons benefit those I lead?” None of us would choose to repeat the heartache of the pandemic. But it did yield invaluable leadership lessons we shouldn’t leave behind. Consider opening your first in-person team meeting with, “So, I’ve been reflecting on my leadership and on what the pandemic taught me. Here’s what I’ve learned and how I hope to lead you better.” We promise you’ll have the most attentive audience ever.