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  • Writer's pictureBella Trenkova

Taking The “M” From “Mom” And Putting It In “Manager”

Updated: Jun 7, 2019

In my previous post in this series, I shared how I incorporated some of the core Lean & Agile concepts to improve my personal life. It works the other way around too. In this post, I am sharing how the lessons I learned from raising my children helped me become a better manager.

Word of caution: Do not try to treat your team as if they are your children – they may need your mentoring and leadership, but not your parenting!

Now that we got this out of the way, we can talk more about some undeniable similarities and parallels between raising children and leading a team. Some may argue that it is the reverse – honing the managerial skills at work, helps with running a household full of children and domestic entropy. It is only a matter of timing. For me, maternity came a few years before my first managerial job – I had become a pro at managing my little household before managing my first project. I, personally, always thought that raising 3 children is a lot harder than managing a team of 30 (My hat’s off to all parents of 4/5/6 or more!).

Below are my tips and tricks I learned as a mom and applied as a people manager:

Acknowledge Their Individual Personalities, Needs, And Capabilities

A mom must love her children equally, right? But not necessarily the same! Each one of my children has their own personalities, likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses. They also take and give love differently – I have the intellectual, the tree hugger, and the warrior princess. As much as I need to provide an equitable award for equitable achievements (say, GPA >3.8) – I can’t provide the same award to all of them, because they will receive and appreciate it very differently. As a result, one may get the strategy video game, the other – movie tickets, and the third one – a pair of roller skates, all within the same price ballpark, but based on their individual likes and desires.

Analogously, at work, objectivity goes only thus far. Each team member is an individual with a formed personality. We can’t change them, nor make them fit the same mold. A good manager knows her team with their individual strengths, and she puts them in positions where they can play to those strengths and succeed. She also awards them with what they value the most. For one person, that may be a public pat on the back, and for the other – an extra work-from-home day.


Kids have their ways to test it – they’d try to break each and every one of your rules. But more often than not, they don’t do it with the purpose to annoy or anger you. They do it because they are kids – their drive to explore is greater than the fear of consequences.

In the grownup world, hardened patience and ability to not take things personally goes a long way. Always try to understand the other side and what goes behind a missed deadline, or a silly error in the report, or a snappy talk-back. Most likely it is a reflection of that individual’s state of mind and affairs – all they need is some temporary slack to get their bearings together, but they are too embarrassed to ask.

Positive Reinforcement

As a new mom and inexperienced parent, I went through volumes of books on parenting (An exercise as futile as reading the PMBOK in order to learn project management – there may be some good content, but knowing when to apply it and when not to apply is everything, and that comes only through experience). I came across only two pieces of advice that really mattered: “trust your instincts, no one can tell you better how to take care of your own child” and “our children are biologically and evolutionary wired to need and constantly seek their parents’ approval”. The latter one was a game changer for me – it made me realize that as a parent, that is my strongest (and maybe only) tool in the parenting toolbox. Encouraging and admiring the desired behavior is a lot stronger motivator than punishing the undesired behavior. It takes some time and consistency (referring you back to the Patience section), but the results never fail.

Even in the grow-up world, much of our conscious and subconscious actions and time are spent seeking the attention and approval of the group and that of the leader of the group. We, subliminally, want to fit in, belong, and be appreciated. These are the very next layers on the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs right above the needs for shelter, food, and safety (generally already met outside of the work environment, especially for the knowledge workers).

Always find the time and the words to appreciate someone’s effort, even if the results are not quite as expected. And if you need to provide corrective feedback, remember the sandwich rule – start with something positive, spend no more than a minute on the negative, never address the person, but only their actions and outcomes, and finish on a positive note.

Effective Motivation

Sometimes as parents we feel that the kids should do as they are told – because we are the parents, we pay the bills, and we are their sole providers – there should be some respect and subordination, right! (The two are different, but I won’t digress.) Well, “because I said so” is a very poor motivator – at home and at work. It may achieve the short-term objective, but has a detrimental impact in the long run – it breeds deep resentment and disrespect.

In contrast, motivating by showing the “why” and also linking it to a deeply-held value or belief may take a little longer to formulate, but it has a lot more lasting results.

“Clean that room now!” vs “Let’s pick up the blocks so that the tooth fairy doesn’t trip on her way to your bed and get mad at you.” (does wonders for a 5 yo) vs “When you clean your room, that saves me $20 from the house cleaning bill, which I’d gladly pass on to you.” (@ 14 yo. That worked well until he started taking small web development contracts earning $200+ a pop) vs. “Son, I am proud to see how much you have grown up. You are telling me you are now responsible and careful enough to drive the family car. One way to prove that is to start maintaining your room clean.” (@16.5 yo when he got his drivers license).

Analogously: “You must complete the last user story before the demo tomorrow!” vs “I know your task got derailed a little during the sprint, and you may have to stay late tonight. Wouldn’t it be great if tomorrow, you can demo the fully completed feature – you worked so hard on it for the past 3 sprints and you know how much it will delight our customer to see it live this weekend.”

The 14-yo example above brings up another point – money is not necessarily the best motivator. Inadequate money compensation may be a great disincentive but is not the best incentive. In order to effectively motivate, a good parent and a good manager should look up higher at the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Studies have proven the best motivators (especially true in the knowledge economy) are Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. (Click here for a short article and a great video)

Setting Boundaries

As much as our love is endless, setting boundaries for our children is a healthy and important part of their growth. “You can have any dessert you like, but only after you eat your dinner”; “You can play with any of your electronics, but only for an hour and after you finish your homework and chores”; “You may hang out with your friends, but you must be home before 9 pm”; “I love you to death, but you must be in bed by 9 pm and I don’t want to hear a peep from you afterward”. Such “mommy rules” still provide some decision choices for the kids, but they also set clear boundaries they shouldn’t cross. The kids may not always like them, but they absolutely need them. It is a safety mechanism – just like the training wheels on their bikes. Sooner or later the kids realize you put the boundaries in place not to ruin their lives, but because you care and want to protect them (And when they admit and say that out loud, then you know they’ve really grown up). However, don’t forget to gradually expand the boundaries as the kids grow, or they will outgrow and bust them.

Boundaries at work are just as healthy and important. Some are legally required (refer to the Privacy, Workplace Harassment, Equal Opportunity Employment sections of your employee manual) and some are more subtle:

1. We want to encourage communication and collaboration, but does that mean that Mary can sit at your desk all the time, or that you have to always and immediately reply to her chat message?

2. We want to promote self-motivation and innovation, but does that mean that Jim can disappear in the weeds working on his new cryptocurrency proof of concept for weeks neglecting the team priorities.

3. You want to be helpful to your boss and offload her plate, but does that mean that you must take everything she throws at you?

The examples are rather exaggerated, but I hope you all agree that some boundaries must be set – set your own boundaries and allow your team to set their own as well. There is no single correct answer for where to draw the line – it is individual and environment-specific. Here is a great article discussing how to set up your own boundaries. If you are a manager, coach your team members how to do the same for themselves.

One of my most favorite forming-storming-norming exercises when working with a new team is writing the Team Agreement. I only facilitate and elicit the team members to express and set the rules and boundaries they want each other to respect and abide by. Thus, the list we create is not Bella’s code of conduct – it is THEIR list. The team is empowered to keep each other in check, allowing me to focus on the bigger picture.

Balance Freedom and Privileges With Accountability and Responsibilities

There is hardly anything more exciting than watching a child grow and develop. They start as little bundles of joy that are 100% helpless and dependent on us. It is our job to raise them to be fully self-sufficient and independent individuals. It is a process of a tug-of-war with kids always demanding their next level of independence (“Can we push the curfew to 10pm on weekends?”, “Can I borrow the car?”), while the parents are trying hard to hold on – partly because we don’t feel the kids are ready, partly because letting go makes us feel less needed and less relevant.

I’ve always told my kids that if they want some new privilege, they have to earn it by showing more responsibility. “If you want to hang out late with your friends, first you should show me some better time management setting up your own alarm and not being late to school for a month”, “If you are old enough to drive around, you are old enough to earn your own gas money and drive your sister to practice when I can’t make it”.

At work, often the dynamic is reversed – people are given additional responsibilities without being given additional decision-making authority or other privileges. I never took that “bargain” and I never expected it from my team. “I think you are ready to take over the Scrum meeting – feel free to run it when and how you renegotiate it with the team”. And it goes the other way around too: “I know, I am asking for a raise that may put me above the 75% percentile compared to my peer group, but here are the 5 things I am doing that no one else does”.

Obtaining a privilege (whether it a new role, promotion, raise, or a video game upgrade) only after one has earned it and proved they could sustain it, provides one of the greatest satisfaction and sense for fulfillment. Don’t take that away by giving unearned rewards.

Challenge Them

Most of us tend to underestimate our abilities until we are put in a challenging situation. That’s how we grow – by pushing the boundaries and challenging the limits. Sometimes, it takes a gentle nudge. Be that nudge!

After the second time my hyperactive toddler leaned on the stair gate so hard he made it pop off its hinges in order to turn into a very dangerous “sleigh”, taking the baby down for a full flight of stairs “slide”, I completely took off the gate. I put the baby at the edge of the stairs and sat with him until he learned to safely climb up and down the flight on all 4s. He never fell off the stairs again – not in my house, not in any other house that wasn’t baby-proofed.

At work, some of my team members are naturally more inclined to speak up or explore and others are a lot more timid, not knowing their own potential or being too afraid not to step out of a boundary. Setting a goal outside of their comfort zone and assuring them you have faith in them, goes a long way.

As my personal rule of the thumb, I always strived to change my role and find my new challenge every 1.5-2 years. Why not expect the same from my team? And if I don’t provide them the challenge and opportunity within my organization, someone else will do it externally.

Let Them Fall/Fail

It is our natural instinct as parents to protect our offsprings and shield them from any harm: “Don’t run on pavement, because if you fall you will scrape your knee and it will bleed”, “Don’t climb that tree because if you slip, you may fall on the ground”, “Don’t apply to that school because their average acceptance GPA is higher than yours and they may reject you”. Well, that was never me and I have to credit my parents for raising me leash-free. That’s how I have learned that scraped knees hurt (but eventually heal), falling off a tree on a tuft of mulch or grass is not pleasant (but won’t kill me), and the worst that can happen when I apply to a school out of my league is to hear “no”. Had my parents tried to warn me and protect me – I would have never listened to them anyway and I would have certainly attempted the same while they were not watching. On the other hand, running, climbing and reaching far did build in me certain muscles and reflexes that served me well later in life.

When grooming your team and the next generation of leaders, the objective is not to get them from point A to point B the fastest and error-free way possible. The objective is to show them just enough so that they find their own way to B, and then make it independently to C, and in turn show the next gen how to get to D. Let them stumble a little! Just keep an eye on them, just as my parents did – to make sure I am not climbing a tree with pavement underneath – that may actually break a bone or crack a skull – we don’t want this either.

Emotional intelligence is arguably one of the most underrated, unacknowledged and hard to measure competencies in the workplace. Yet, it is key when working with people, no matter at what level and type of relationship. Raising kids that we love to death (we can’t fire, and they can’t quit on us) forces us to acquire those subtle skills for motivation, patience, and let-go that are so crucial in a leadership role.

I hope you were able to relate to the examples and you found something that you’d like to try at work. Post in the comments!

/Fine print: all references to characters and daily activities are actual and true. Life is stranger than fiction – why waste time making up stuff.
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