Leaders Can Learn a Lot from Working Moms

If you don’t think of mothers as leaders, you will after you read what these working moms have to say. You’ll probably learn a thing or two, too.


Motherhood, despite the challenging, multi-faceted, always-on nature of the gig, is not a job we would typically associate with leadership.

Worse, when discussed in a workplace context, motherhood is usually a negative. But when I read Moira Forbes’ “7 Leadership Lessons You Can Learn From Working Mothers” this week, I saw things in a whole new light.

Forbes asked a group of successful women to share the most important leadership lessons they’ve learned since becoming a mother. What follows is my take on how a diversity leader might consider a few of those lessons on the job.

  1. Know when to push and when to let go. Christa Quarles, CEO of Open Table and mother of two sons, said that so much of parenting is wrestling with the dichotomy of when to push your child and when to let go and let them drive the direction; thereby enabling the condition that they might fall or fail.”

A leader or manager faced with a problematic employee situation has to walk a tightrope between what’s good for the employee and what’s good for the company. But I would encourage those leaders not to err on the side of caution. Meaning, don’t decide not to say the hard truth for fear of repercussions or making the situation worse.

And it doesn’t need to be a case of “a hard head makes a soft ass,” as my mama liked to say when I got into some mess. With a bit of thoughtful planning – and perhaps a word or two with your HR peers — there’s a diplomatic way to handle almost everything.

There have been many times I’ve learned a lesson late, far later than I needed to because a manager neglected to tell me a hard truth. I can understand why someone wouldn’t want to go there. Let’s say you have a smart, strong black woman known for calling a spade a spade — I may or may not be talking about myself — who’s underperforming in some way; that could be intimidating. I too have shied away from dicey situations with direct reports. But that’s rarely the right way to handle a situation.

It certainly isn’t worth bearing arms for every fight, but when a certain behavior or a lack of knowledge will affect someone’s ability to do their job, or potentially have a long-term impact on their career, for goodness sake. Bite the bullet, and let them know. If they’re anything like me, they’ll thank you for your honesty. “It’s … important to step in and course correct,” Quarles said. “Striking that balance is what defines effective leadership.”

  1. A personalized approach is key. Lizzie Widhelm, senior vice president of ad product strategy at Pandora, was talking about her three sons when she said, “My children are two parts amazing, one part insane, and a whole lot of nothing alike. If I don’t adjust to their unique personalities and spend quality time with each of them, we have total chaos at home.” But leaders have to face the same diversity of opinion and behavior in the workplace. It requires equal parts diplomacy, policy, curiosity and empathetic consideration.

Widhelm said her team at Pandora was able to benefit from the many mistakes she made at home because those mistakes helped her bring a more perfect leadership strategy to work. But there’s nothing wrong with making mistakes as long as you do that very modern thing — fail fast, and learn the lesson.

When working with diverse personalities or individuals, consider their personal and professional situation carefully, and if there’s a challenge, make it crystal clear you’re there to help. Communication is important in most situations, but I’d say it’s critical in a problematic situation with an employee. Ask questions, and listen thoughtfully to the answers. Offer solutions, and where possible, collaborate before making final decisions.

Everyone has different strengths, passions and motivations,” Widhelm said. “The interesting thing about putting the extra time in with your team is they appreciate you for the investment and in turn your relationship grows and leads to more open and honest conversations.”

  1. Embrace unknown territory. Michelle Cordeiro Grant, founder and CEO of Lively was talking about her son and daughter when she said, “motherhood has taught me not to fear the unknown but instead embrace the journey of learning on the go!” But her sentiment is no less viable in a work context. A manager dealing with a diverse team, or certain personality types for the first time, may encounter any number of new and potentially unnerving situations. But Grant’s advice to enjoy “figuring it out” has weight.

Too many of us shy away from any dimension of diversity because of the inherent discomfort when encountering something new or unfamiliar. But that discomfort often goes hand in hand with learning. That opportunity for learning and development is what any leader should embrace.

With learning comes growth, and with both there will be milestones and accomplishments. Grant said each of her milestones built upon the next, creating momentum and empowering her to continue to build. “The big takeaway for me is to use moments of accomplishment, big or small, as fuel to have the courage to go after it all – the sky’s the limit!”

  1. Balance competing needs. Kathy Hochul, lieutenant governor of New York, was talking about her two children when she said, “an essential role of motherhood is being a conciliator: resolving conflicts — which in my case was often with warring children.” But two squabbling kids aren’t all that different from two adults having a heated difference of opinion at work. I know. I’ve seen both.

Workplace conflicts are inevitable as knowledge workers leverage collaboration and are freed from the restrictions associated with command and control leadership. But they needn’t be the end of the world. “While mediating an argument, I sought to teach empathy for the feelings of others and respect for different faiths and backgrounds that may give others a different point of view,” Hochul said. “Children learn by example.” Employees do too.

Leaders may have to teach employees how to collaborate effectively, mediate, even argue or communicate respectfully. But it’s worth it when those different points of view produce great work, innovation or service/product improvements.

I’ve often thought adults could learn a lot from watching how children go through life: wide-eyed and curious, fearless and laughing even when they fall down or make mistakes. We can learn a lot from their mothers, too.

Kellye Whitney is associate editorial director for Workforce. Comment below or email editor@workforce.com.