The title is absolutely not to suggest that being a people manager means treating your team like ‘children’. No. Absolutely Not. But it does mean that as a manager you ought to be responsible for their development (even though supposedly mostly professional).
I can bet that your best manager for whom you would have worked best would have played some part in your personal development as well. It also means that you are constantly guiding them, helping them blossom, being there to break their fall…just like you would do for your child.
Phew! Yes. People management is hard to do well, just like parenting.
Surprisingly, I became a better people manager after becoming a parent and ended up learning a lot of transferable skills the hard way in my early years as a parent.
Being a working mom, I take learnings from the parenthood domain to my work and vice versa. Here are my top 5 learnings from parenting and how they can be applied by a people leader at workplace.
On Ensuring trust and respect
‘Respectful Parenting’ is a research based parenting philosophy which is anchored on treating children respectfully, not as if they are an interactive cute toy.
As it turns out, the kids needs to know that ‘someone’ is in charge, and there is only so much damage they can do even if they want, especially given their new-found autonomy. Giving freedom without supervision—even though it sounds oh-so-empowering, is actually quite detrimental for their own development.
Counter-intuitive to some proponents of ‘hands-off’ parenting style, but true. Let me explain how.
When I look at my experiences as a manager, I learnt it the hard way. With one of my early team members, in an effort to be an ‘empowering manager’, I allowed him to work from home or even from ‘timbuktu’ as long as the project was on track (This was way before COVID made work from home a normal thing, and was quite progressive at the time) . He did that, as I had given specific permission for him to do just that. However, the project started suffering, sometimes in an irreversible way, and I definitely could not reverse my permission effectively, even if wanted to.
As a parent I now understand what happened very clearly. Somebody who is fresh from campus is still learning how to work, project plan, prioritize etc. sudden autonomy was too much to handle. For me to push him into unhindered freedom, was actually defeating the purpose and plateauing his learning curve.
I made him believe that he is capable of planning his own time, when I had neither tested nor provided guidance for. What I needed to do was to actually monitor him, guide him gently and then as he demonstrates independence, give him ample opportunity to experiment, take autonomous decisions in low stake environment and only after that provide him a wider canvas.
Even with experienced team members it is very comforting for them to know that if they fall, there is someone to make sure that there fall is not fatal. They will also look up to you if they perceive you as someone who is unflappable rather than someone who is easily stressed, scared and worried. Yes, we must empower the team but it has to be at the right time with the right things, and with the assurance that you are behind them.
How to successfully drive behaviors
In-spite of the number of times I told my toddler to put away his toys, the times he did it most when he saw another older or similar aged kid doing that. Culture is like that.
‘Peer Role Modelling’ gets less credit in traditional culture building concepts (which are more focused on top down culture building model) …but ‘Telling’ your team to be collaborative, punctual, quality focused is not enough. But for them to see you and especially older team members doing that is more than enough. That is how culture is built. That is how it gets transferred and sustained. You highlighting that behavior of a team member is sometimes all you need to do as a manager to shape the culture bit by bit. It works as a great recognition tool in addition to drive behaviors- whether with kids or with adult teams. Unfortunately due to the everyday busyness of things, calling out these things require conscious effort.
Another lever is ‘Start them young’. With organizations looking towards campuses more and more to build their future leadership pipeline, thinking about culture right at the time of hiring, or even at the time of selecting campuses could set that expectation right up front. Followed by tagging these young future leaders to manager who are effective role models of the desired behaviors.
How to shape attitudes
Stories! Such a powerful tool for kids. My kid loves stories as do all, I am sure..and I use it all the time to drive important behaviors. Kids learn best through stories..as do adults. There is ample research on that but we don’t use that enough in our workplaces. Show me an adult who does not like stories, and I will show you a unicorn. They don’t exist.
Love the Abhijit Bhaduri model of storytelling. ‘Once upon a time…’ It can be very easily adapted to suit any business selling. Steve Jobs used it beautifully at the time of iPhone launch being a great inspiration for millions. His model was showing the promised land, and then where we are currently, reinforcing the gap. A cycle of this sequence very effectively not just paints a great picture of future but also inspires people towards it. Stories which gets passed around informally in a team and in the organization form the bedrock of culture. It has to underscore an instance when something different from the norm happened…and why?
How to spot potential
As parents and teachers, we are very cognizant of the fact that each child is different, unique and hence has different developmental milestones. Similarly each team member is different. Just like as parents we intuitively look for ‘higher order’ behavior when a kid does something which his age kids cannot – to spot potential in a particular area of talent, we look at competencies of a higher proficiency level for individuals to spot potential.
But how many managers actually understand clearly the next level of development for his each team member? More importantly, how many managers would have actually had done this for them?
You dish out what you receive is embarrassingly true in this regard. Hence the ability to not just give constructive feedback but more importantly to observe and calibrate it to arrive at key developmental areas can help greatly. If as a manager you do not have the skills to observe and calibrate, time to do some learning.
What your team needs is clarity current strengths and development area. An organization competency model can help, but at the end of it manager has to identify it separately for each of his team member, as each of them is unique.
Rather than focus on current weaknesses, look for what is the next development milestone is for the person and use that as an anchor.
How to accelerate growth
One of the most powerful insight I have learnt in my parenting journey is about what parenting calls ‘A Yes Space’. Basically it’s a space where children can be left free to experiment and learn without being told – “no you cannot do that”. That is the best way for them to learn new skills in a less risky environment.
Similarly, for growing the team numbers there is nothing like giving them a wider canvas, a bigger container to showcase their opportunities. Sure it takes more effort for me as a mom to create that and watch them fail without giving in to the temptation of rushing to make things easier for them and for me. But then how will they learn?
Failing big and early can be a huge motivation for some, and a huge demotivation for some…bad enough to not want them to try that again. A safe and effective path is to identify projects which stretch the capability of the team member but also which will not cause irreversible damage, lest it fails. Small successes are sometimes more important for motivation than we think!
Judge the ability and raise the bar.