We’re in the throes of one of the most difficult stages of having a baby…where they begin to walk. Throwing themselves at everything with enthusiasm, often before they’re skilled or able, we run around after our son, giving him encouragement, picking him up when he falls, and trying to ensure he learns as best as he can, without hurting himself in the process.
It’s an intense time, and in many ways, it has correlations to how you run a business, and bring on your staff members. Recent stories in the news, like Lucinda Chambers (ex loyal fashion editor of 25 years) unleashing her fury at Conde Nast, and their unsupportive culture internally, made me think all the more that we need to think like parents when we are encouraging and building our teams in business.
So, what can we learn?
(1) Making mistakes is the only way we learn and move forward
The Conde Nast memo criticised the business culture that ‘makes people feel insecure or nervous’ (Lucinda Chambers, Vogue), and one that doesn’t allow people to fail.
I’ve worked in several businesses where projects are given to old hands, rather than young enthusiasts (often more fitting for the job), for fear that the project will fall flat on its face. The entrepreneurs I interview have failure written into their way of working as a modus operandi – it’s not the failure that is an issue, what’s important is the ability to get up and start over.
Like we do with our son, we should give our employees space to try new things. The knowledge that we’re behind them, ready to catch them, should they fall. Encourage them to try a different way. To get up and start again when they do. Not berate them because they don’t know quite the way to success just yet.
(2) Start the day as if everything is new and exciting
Our son wakes up with a big grin on his face, ready to attack the world, and learn everything he can, in every second available. And we encourage that, pointing out new things, explaining what he sees, and nurturing that new curiosity he has.
Counter to this, human nature dictates that we love to get into a routine. Different day, same story. Check my emails (cup of coffee in hand), go to my regular meetings, chat to the same people, get the job done.
But what if we approached things differently? Mixed things up a little? Worked with a different team member to see if the outcome changes? Tried a new way of getting things done? Challenged the format of that regular Monday meeting? Perhaps, just perhaps…things might be a bit more interesting, and we’d have some new and original thoughts, just like our children do.
(3) Everything is a source of inspiration and a game
As parents, we are masters of creative play. A set of keys, saucepans and spoons, pebbles, a leaf on the ground, these are all toys that provide a new interaction, and new way of looking at things, and help him master different skills.
In companies, we have become adept at training our staff, but have we become adept at inspiring them, and getting them to see the world and their role within the world, in a different way?
Companies like Google and Air BNB that provide funds for staff to train in a skill set totally different to their own are cottoning on to the fact that being inspired can be done in a multitude of different ways, and it’s not only in the skills we see as being pertinent to our day to day role. In an old role I had, we were encouraged to think of everything we see and consume as being relevant to our job. We’d come in on a Monday and talk about galleries we’d seen, new pubs we’d been to, a new book we’d read. It was all relevant. How we think and what brings our passions alive can always make us better at our jobs.
(4) Letting them find their own way
It’s incredibly tempting as a parent to either tell your child exactly how something is done (because you’ve been there, done that), or at times to do it for them if they’re struggling. You work out quickly that so many skills we have are instinctive, and that there isn’t only one way of getting to the end goal.
In business, it’s easy to fall into the former behaviour as a manager. Viewing something as wrong because it’s not quite the way that you would have done it (and you’ve been there, and done that too, right?). We need to step back and let our teams find their own way, yes, with some guidance where relevant, but there’s every chance they may improve on our own methods through their own instincts.
(5) Celebrating and nurturing differences
This one feels so relevant in light of the different diversity memo’s circling from companies like Google. Even forgetting about male and female supposed differences or propensity to have different skill sets, this feels relevant to me when I’ve seen people managed into senior positions in companies.
As a parent, we excitedly watch our children develop. It’s clear that from the beginning they have their own personality, and then through trying new things, we see that some things come to them naturally, and others they struggle with. As they get older, we play to their strengths, letting them focus on what they love, and becoming the person in life they want to be.
I’ve worked in companies where there is an obsession with all senior staff having the same set of skills to reach a certain level. They all need to show management skills, sales skills, project management skills…you name it. Management is the controversial one in particular for me. I’ve worked with brilliant tech guys (as just one example, I’m not labelling tech guys in any way!) who could easily play a substantial role in a management team, but are terrible managers of people. The company would force the manager issue, getting them to (terribly) play the role of doing annual reviews, and setting targets for team members. Everyone was unhappy in the situation, but this was seen as essential for any promotion to be made.
Why don’t we play to the strengths of our teams? Celebrate their differences as individuals, and work to a mix that works together for the best outcome, rather than everyone working to build the same skill sets. It seems essential as a parent, but in business we celebrate the mediocrity of similarity, rather than the brilliance of difference.
So, that’s it. Parenting 101 as applied to business. Now to go away and help your team fall over…..