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It's amazing to have a passion and to start and grow something that you believe will change the world. It is amazing to be a parent. Both of these experiences have been life changing and I didn't expect any less. What did surprise me was how these two would fuel and further each other.
I have founded and have been running the science education nonprofit Iridescent for seven years. I also have two little girls and I work from home so I can spend more time with them. This means that motherhood and entrepreneurship are tightly woven together for me in one fabric. Over time, this has enabled me to identify analogies between these two worlds that I may not have otherwise observed.
Although these two environments (parenthood and running a startup) are starkly different and society doesn't traditionally view them as analogous, there are carryover skills. What I have learned is that if you are cognitively aware of the parenting ninja skills you possess, then you are able to recognize similar situations in the startup environment and apply those skills.
Here are three major skills or character traits I have developed as a parent and that I would look for in a C-level leader:
Drive for Innovation
Being innovative requires a leader to work far outside her comfort zone, to evaluate the status quo and throw out starting assumptions. Many times what worked at the startup stage may not work two years later. Innovative leadership also requires decision-making with very limited information. If you are doing something new, it's very likely that you won't have a blueprint to work from, and you will not have the comfort of knowing if an approach will work or not. You just have to have the courage to leap into the abyss and build a bridge while falling down.
Anyone who is a parent knows that nothing really prepares you for parenthood. I read many books on parenting and talked to friends, but went into it very wide-eyed and innocent. What I discovered was that children grow, learn and change every day and I was always trying to catch up with my girls. Thus, parenthood requires us to work far outside any comfort zone on a daily basis. (And if you are the primary caregiver, then you really have to figure out the answers, often the hard way and solo.)
Any working mother will tell you that she needs an all-star home team that enables her to work: For some, this team includes a partner--one who believes in her and respects her--and for others it might be a grandparent, a friend, a nanny, or daycare. You have to fluidly share information during hand-offs and empower your team, not micromanage. The latter is especially hard when you are operating on low sleep in a physiologically high-stress environment with high noise and high stakes decision-making. It's so much easier to bark orders and disregard feelings. You quickly realize that you cannot move forward if you are not pulling the whole team together.
Long-term Vision: Enjoy the Journey
One of the most valuable lessons I learned while starting Iridescent was that it paid to look three years ahead. That kind of long-term vision required tremendous confidence - almost akin to putting on blinders. I just knew in my gut that what we were doing was right and we would still be around a few years later. But I lacked the data to convince everyone around me of my vision. I could only vociferate what I felt passionately and that worked!
But day to day it is hard. You are working alone and you get a lot of quizzical looks. The hardest is dealing with the feeling that somebody else is doing something similar. In the beginning you are naive and young, and you get a sense of panic. Now I have realized that ideas in themselves are not very valuable. It's all in the execution, the details, the process, the journey. You have to look far ahead and be steadfast. But you have to enjoy the journey.
The very nature of parenting requires you to constantly scan the environment, react to the short-term, but keep the long-term in a corner of your mind. You are tired and hungry. Your toddler is tired and hungry, but she won't eat anything. Miraculously you remember that you read Roy Baumeister's book on Willpower and you get her to eat some sweet snacks. You eat some too and everyone's self-control and willpower come back up. Now we can all eat dinner.
However, Baumeister also says that you can toughen your persistence, willpower and self-control by delaying gratification. You hear his warning voice in your ear, but you are also tired. Next time you will learn to pre-empt the meltdown and provide a snack in the car.
Being a mom and an entrepreneur at the same time has revealed depths that I didn't know I possessed. Steel does become stronger after tempering. Doing both, I can achieve more and learn more in one single day than I ever thought I could. We as parents--mothers, especially--need to recognize the leadership skills, strength, perseverance, and versatility we've developed so that we can become powerful leaders. The key is to be aware of the parallels and to actively work on transferring the skills.
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