Great Mothers Make Great Leaders

Back Commentary May 6, 2016 By Bernadette Austin

On March 8, International Women’s Day, the local chapters of the Urban Land Institute and the National Association of Women in Construction hosted a joint program featuring women leaders from the construction industry. While our panelists delivered candid insights about how they tackled significant projects and made major career decisions, the audience fell silent with rapt attention when the discussion turned to each woman’s description of how she balanced an accelerating career with the demands of motherhood.

For me, and all the mothers I know, the experience of being a parent has influenced every aspect of our lives, including our careers. I have found that women who make great leaders also make great mothers, and great mothers also have the skills to be great leaders. But employers don’t always see that connection.

Employers are often impressed with employees who undertake activities such as training for a triathlon or serving on the board of directors for a nonprofit organization. They are quick to attribute the qualities of goal-setting, determination and tenacity to a triathlete. They recognize that an employee with nonprofit involvement is honing fundraising skills while doing high-quality networking. However, few employers give employees who are parents credit for the qualities that raising a child entails. On the contrary, too many employers view raising a child as a distraction for their employees. This is particularly true for women. Have you ever heard colleagues speculating about the commitment or productivity of a male associate with a new baby?

In my professional life, I have had the opportunity to work with excellent leaders, so I know one when I see one. And mothers can be especially excellent in that role, as they manage family budgets, leverage resources, harness the strength of their family members, delegate responsibility, manage time and navigate bureaucracies. Mothers can network, collaborate, plan and execute with the best of them.

I’ve taken inventory of the incredible women in my network who lead companies, organizations, agencies, community groups, all while raising children — they inspire me on a daily basis. Contrary to popular belief, I believe the skills of motherhood are directly transferable to our professional lives.  

Mothers lead by example. “Mother leaders” don’t micromanage at the office or at home. They expect everyone to do their part, and in exchange they give their employees and their children latitude to discover their own way to address issues in the workplace or in life. They lead by example, setting the tone for the diligence and innovation for their team, and eliciting the best from each person.

Mothers don’t ask if; they ask how. Mom has one hour to make lunch for the kids, get herself ready for the day, drop off the dry cleaning, and get the kids to school with their musical instrument and class project intact before heading into the office. This scenario plays out daily in thousands of households around our region, and each time it is a small miracle. Moms assess the situation, take inventory of available resources and promptly set to work mobilizing. Great leaders do the same thing: Faced with formidable market forces, a great leader will take stock of the company’s assets, rally the troops, and make the difficult decisions required to keep the company on track for survival and success.

Mothers create a village. It takes a village to raise a child, but it takes a mother to create that village in the first place. Mothers credit a small support system for their success in both the workplace and in parenthood: the helpful spouse, the employer that promotes breastfeeding and the neighbor who can babysit with a moment’s notice. In the workplace, these skills translate to managing the complex ecosystem of departments, clients and contractors who keep the company humming along. Mother leaders excel at creating a group that fortifies them in their journey as both a parent and a leader.

Mothers are the best multi-taskers. How does a mother leader create this village? Incredible multi-tasking. Mothers can cook dinner, check email and help her children with homework — all at the same time. Effective leaders do the equivalent by managing people, projects and budgets simultaneously. The best ones see the forest and the trees, easily pivoting from macro-level analysis of industry trends to reviewing efficiency and effectiveness in specific areas. Good leaders, like good mothers, have developed strategies for juggling many things at once by intuitively budgeting the amount of energy devoted to each endeavor.

Mothers are mission-driven. Women’s brains may be hard-wired for multitasking. In the movie What Women Want, a reformed misogynist played by Mel Gibson can hear the thoughts of women. He is struck by how, when they are going for a run, these women have endless brain chatter about their worries, their careers, their loved ones and more. This only tells part of the story. Mothers quickly learn to cut through the chatter and focus on what is most important in the same way that the best leaders can mentally sift through endless email and multiple demands to focus on what most advances the organization’s mission.

We are fortunate to have so many inspirational mother leaders in our region, many of whom will be highlighted in this issue. Among the working moms I spoke with, every single one acknowledged that her workplace supported her professional advancement by supporting her as a mother. If an employer failed to do so, she left. She sought out another opportunity that worked for her and her family, or re-wrote the rules of the workplace entirely.

But what about the women who weren’t supported? If our workplaces do not accommodate women who are mothers, we will lose talent through attrition or unrealized leadership potential. And when I say “we” will lose talent, I mean that our divisions, our companies, our industries and our communities will collectively miss out on the work and innovation these people would contribute. Both women and men who choose to have and raise children will benefit from family friendly policies in the workplace. My friends who are fathers take a very active active role in their children’s lives due in large part to programs such as extended paternity leave or flexible work schedules that allow them to shoulder their share of childcare responsibilities. Companies with supportive policies retain quality employees, both men and women. It is time for us all to see the skills of parenthood as an asset, and foster a culture that supports the retention and advancement of great leaders.