from Ann Crittenden's latest book: "If You've Raised Kids, You Can Manage Anything"



When a two-year-old throws a tantrum in the grocery store, or a teenager yells “I hate you!” parents often think, “If I can get through this, I can handle anything.”

Most mothers and fathers know in their bones that raising a child is the hardest job they’ve ever had. And, even if child-rearing is not that difficult for some, it is certainly comparable to dealing with adults, whether they are superiors, clients, coworkers, employees, or thin-skinned friends. Anyone who has learned how to comfort a troublesome toddler, soothe the feelings of a sullen teenager, or managed the complex challenges of a fractious household can just as readily smooth the boss’s ruffled feathers, handle crises, juggle several urgent matters at once, motivate the team, and survive the most byzantine office intrigues.

Leadership begins at home.

Women have always known this on some level. For eons, they have understood that the skills, the organization, and the sheer character it takes to manage a family are relevant to coping with other challenges in life. “It’s obvious that the skills of parenting cross over into business,” says Jeanne Liedtka of the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. “People are people, and the same basic principles apply.”

As long as mothers remained confined to a domestic ghetto this insight could be ignored, dismissed, or chuckled over. The subversive maternal insight that childish behavior often suspiciously resembles the behavior of grown men in groups could be treated as a joke. Now that women have risen in the professions, business, and politics, however, they can see for themselves that conscientious parenting is one of life’s great credentials. They recognize that the considerable skills they practice at home are transferable to the workplace. At long last, that truth is coming out of the closet.

Two recent surveys of successful female managers have confirmed, almost by accident, that parenting teaches transferable skills. A survey of sixty-one white, well-educated female managers by the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, North Carolina, looked at whether multiple life roles enhanced or detracted from effectiveness at work. The women reported that all private roles enhanced their professional performance, but mothering was by far the most frequently cited. Some of the women had even been told by coworkers that they were much better managers after they had children. “Get a life!” in other words, may be sound career advice.1

Another study by the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women of sixty prominent female leaders, including CEOs, college presidents, lawyers, doctors, and writers, also found that virtually all those who had children thought that being a mother had made them better executives. The authors were surprised by this unexpected finding. Having children, the women reported, had been an excellent training ground for leadership. “If you can manage a group of small children, you can manage a group of bureaucrats. It’s almost the same process,” said one of the women.2

Interestingly, the younger leaders were more apt to see child-rearing as a relevant credential than the older generation of female executives, who had often had to behave like a man in order to get ahead in a man’s world. Nearly half those age forty-five or younger viewed the maternal role as a preparation for leadership, compared with only 10 percent of older women. “It’s a sign of their comfort with motherhood,” said Sumru Erkut, author of the study. “In the past, women checked their womanhood at the door.”3

Surveys like this don’t prove a causal link between being a parent and being a better manager. They may simply reflect the supermom phenomenon: Highly energetic and talented women who become successful also tend to take on multiple life roles, including motherhood. The fact remains that many competent mothers are convinced that the practice of parenting contributes to a higher performance at work. Nancy Drozdow, a management consultant with the Center for Applied Research in Philadelphia, and a mother and stepmother, sums it up neatly: “People become better managers when they take their parenting seriously.”4

Intriguingly, new brain research suggests that there may actually be a genetic basis for a relationship between nurturing and certain competencies. A recent study done on mice by two Virginia neuroscientists found that hormones released during pregnancy and nursing enrich parts of the brain involved in learning and memory. Moreover, these positive changes appear to be permanent. The news prompted headlines that PREGNANCY MAY MAKE YOU SMARTER.5

These findings challenge the conventional wisdom that pregnancy turns women inward and dulls their analytical skills. Clearly, that antiquated assumption makes no evolutionary sense. We know that human infants require more intensive care, for a much longer period of time, than the offspring of other mammals. We also know that the preponderance of this care has always been provided by females. It would be logical to assume that millions of years of evolutionary selection pressures may have given the human female brain certain cognitive advantages that facilitate the survival of offspring—such as the ability to remember and keep multiple tasks in focus simultaneously, the ability to read nonverbal danger signals, and a certain fearlessness when danger threatens. Research on how reproductive roles have shaped our brains, particularly the female brain, is still in its infancy. As this research is extended from mice to social primates, we may discover fascinating confirmation that responsibility for a child stimulates capabilities in parents that were never before imagined.

This book is based primarily on my own extensive interviews with more than 100 prominent mothers and fathers who have been the primary caregivers in their family. I talked with people who have been active, involved parents as well as successful in business, law, politics, diplomacy, academia, the entertainment industry, and the nonprofit world. (I tried to avoid interviewing the kind of parents described in the New Yorker cartoon showing two toddlers being wheeled in their strollers by nannies, as one tot says to the other: “My parents are the same way. Lots of ostentatious child-rearing, very little direct nurturing.”)

I interviewed far more women than men, simply because the daily work of child-rearing still remains an overwhelmingly female occupation. In 2002, for example, 11 million children had stay-at-home mothers and 189,000 had stay-at-home dads.6 Single mothers greatly outnumber single fathers (16.5 million vs. 3.3 million), and among married parents, mothers spend at least three times as much time on child care as fathers, and even more than that in the early years.7

What’s more, the multifaceted individuals who have been conscientious, hands-on parents and successful professionally also tend to be women. Of 1,200 executives interviewed by the Families and Work Institute in 2002, an almost equal percentage of men and women had children (79 percent of the women, 77 percent of the men). But 75 percent of the men had stay-at-home wives, compared with only a handful of the women.8 So, the great majority of the people who are in a position to compare the work of child-rearing with professional work are women.

I asked these people directly whether they thought they had learned valuable management skills from motherhood. Only a handful failed to see a connection. Here are a few typical comments.

     “Both parenting and managing adults require that you accept people for who they are, find out what they are good at, coach them on how to do their best, support them when they need help, and get out of their way when they don’t.” Pamela Thomas-Graham, CEO, CNBC.

     “Running a large organization is pretty darn close to running a kindergarten.” Louise Francesconi, who manages 11,000 people as head of Raytheon’s Missile Systems Division, which supplied the laser-guided bombs used against al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

     “I’m concerned about all this commentary that you cannot have children if you’re a successful executive. Nonsense! You’re a better executive if you have kids!” Shelly Lazarus, chairman and CEO of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide.

     “I’m a better manager because I’m a parent, not in spite of being a parent.” Deb Henretta, president, Global Baby Products, Proctor & Gamble, and, with Lazarus and Francesconi, one of Fortune magazine’s top fifty women in business.

     “I learned more about managing my subordinates and my superiors from raising my children than from any management course.... Two-year-olds taught me a lot about customer service, managing by objectives, and utilizing a system of rewards to improve performance. Women who have managed toddlers can manage just about any crisis situation.” Geraldine Laybourne, chairman and chief executive of Oxygen Media.

     “There is no better career preparation than parenthood.” Shirley Strum Kenny, president of the State University of New York at Stony Brook and mother of five.

     “When you need to lead people, when you need to organize people, there’s probably not a skill set better than what the average mother knows at home. The same lessons you yell at your ten-year-old in a twenty-four-hour period are probably the same lessons you ought to apply in the business world.” Ann Moore, chairman of Time Inc. (Moore’s four basic rules: no whining; listen to the teacher; do your homework; and always remember to say thank you.)

Harold Saunders, the American diplomat who negotiated the peace settlement between Israel and Egypt in 1979, told me he could never have persuaded the two sides to accept a settlement if he hadn’t been widowed and left the sole parent of two youngsters, who for years sent him Mother’s Day cards. In particular, Saunders said, he never would have understood the Israelis’ profound sense of insecurity had he not had the experience of comforting his own children for their loss.

Management gurus, authors of business books, and executive trainers have connected the dots between managing a home and managing an organization. Joshua Ehrlich, an executive trainer with Beam, Pines in New York City, gives all his clients copies of Leadership Effectiveness Training, a sequel to Parent Effectiveness Training, based on the assumption that the same management techniques work at home and in the office. Martha Brest, an executive recruiter in Boston, says her clients see a clear connection between the way they are with their kids and the way they operate in the workplace.

“I have one client, a very senior person in an investment management firm—one of the brightest guys I know—who has had children since I was last in touch with him. He volunteered that he had learned a lot about how to manage his staff from managing his kids. He thought that managing children actually took more raw managerial skill, because there’s no protocol, no structure, no real training. I think people are acknowledging these connections.”9

Stephen R. Covey, bestselling author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, has written a sequel called The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families, in which he admits he learned it all at home. “Applying the 7 habits material to the family is an absolute natural,” writes the father of nine. “It fits. In fact, it’s where it was really learned.” (emphasis added).10

In still another sign of the growing willingness to credit the leadership capabilities of the person in charge of the home, a majority of employed adults polled recently said their mothers could do just as well or better than their current chief executives. Ajilon Office, a New Jersey recruiting services firm, surveyed 632 people and found that nearly three-fourths thought their mothers would be better or at least as capable at communicating with employees as their CEOs. Two-thirds thought Mom would be just as good or better at resolving employee disputes, and almost two-thirds thought she could handle company finances just as well or better. Not surprisingly, fully 80 percent thought their mothers could teach their CEOs a thing or two about ethics.11

When Judy Blades, an executive vice president of The Hartford, was honored in 2002 as Insurance Woman of the Year at a luncheon at the Russian Tea Room in Manhattan, she told the assembled insurance executives, speaking off the cuff and from the heart, that she had learned everything she knew from her family, including her children. She later told me that she had never had such positive feedback from any talk she had ever given.

My own “ah-ha!” moment came soon after my son was born in 1982. I was busily devouring baby books, and noticed an uncanny resemblance between the advice found in many books on parenting and the material in books on management that I had read as a business reporter. I wondered if the how-to books aimed at new mothers and the how-to books aimed at aspiring executives could in fact be the same material, packaged differently for different audiences.

I pursued this hunch a few years later by signing up to attend a three-day seminar at Harvard called “Dealing with Difficult People and Difficult Situations.” The course was taught by William Ury, co-author of Getting to Yes, the bestselling business book of all time. And, sure enough, the management tips that the assembled business executives and military officers were paying almost two thousand dollars per head to hear were largely the same lessons anyone could read by picking up a ten-dollar paperback on parenting.

Ury attributed his advice to such impeccably masculine sources as Sun Tzu, the legendary Chinese general and author of The Art of War, and Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian military strategist and author of On War. But, over lunch, he good-naturedly confirmed that much of what he taught came straight from Haim Ginott, the humanistic psychologist whose 1956 classic, Between Parent and Child, became a parenting bible. His largely male audience at Harvard, thinking they were learning how to apply the lessons of the battlefield to the modern organization, were in fact learning the lessons of child psychology that mothers had been applying at home for decades.

What are these lessons? What skills do conscientious mothers and fathers learn that cross over and enrich their professional lives? In my conversations with parents, four categories of transferable skills were mentioned over and over again.

The first and most oft-cited is multitasking, the ability to keep a dozen balls in the air at once. Among the elements of multitasking are the ability to establish priorities, to maintain focus in the midst of constant distraction, to manage complexity with efficiency, and to handle crises with a steady hand. As a friend of mine once summed it up, “Life is not a final; it’s daily pop quizzes.”

Working with children also develops the interpersonal skills that enable people to understand and successfully work with adults. People skills are increasingly understood to be part and parcel of every competent leader’s repertoire. They include the ability to handle irrational and immature individuals of every age; understanding the importance of win­win negotiation; the ability to listen to others’ concerns; to practice patience; express empathy; and respect individual differences, by learning to appreciate and use the talents of every individual.

A third category of parental skills comes under the heading growing human capabilities. These are the empowering, mentoring techniques that enable a manager or leader to develop others’ strengths, and bring out the best in others. They include positive reinforcement; the ability to articulate a vision and to inspire others to join in creating and executing that vision; and the wisdom to let people go, by giving them the freedom to grow and make their own mistakes while still providing enough structure and feedback to keep them from stumbling too badly.

The fourth category of parental strengths comes under the heading of character, or what political scientist Valerie Hudson calls habits of integrity. Good parenting requires the habitual practice of certain, admittedly old-fashioned, virtues. To be done at all well, it demands steadfastness, courage, humility, hope, selflessness, creativity, and a degree of self-mastery that is often at odds with our indulgent culture. No wonder one cultural psychologist has described child-rearing as “routine, unexamined heroism.”

Joseph Campbell, the great chronicler of mankind’s myths, once defined a hero as someone who has given his life to something bigger than himself. “Losing yourself, giving yourself to another, is part of it,” Campbell told Bill Moyers in a television interview. “Heroism involves trials... tests, and ultimately revelations ... it is the soul’s high adventure.” I can’t think of a better description of the child-rearing experience.

The first habit of integrity is simply being there. Most mothers say that the most important thing they can do for their children is to be there for them. By this they mean being that solid someone their child can always count on in all the ways that count. It also means establishing a stable environment, a home base, that predictably meets the needs and expectations of those around you.

Virtually every parent I interviewed also told me that raising kids gave them greater perspective: an ability to distinguish between what’s truly important in life and what isn’t. Children, like nothing else, set your priorities straight.

Every parent who’s ever divided up a birthday cake also knows that children are hard-wired to detect unfairness. The good parent, like the good manager, strives to be fair and impartial.

There is one more lesson children can teach. I believe that all those who have dreams for their children have to have a certain faith in the future. For parents, the future matters. It is hard for us as parents not to think of the time that will come after us, and the legacy we will leave behind. In the end, conscientious child-rearing includes working for a world we would want our children to inherit.

Those are the big lessons learned; the major insights the parents I interviewed said they had gained. Obviously not all parents learn all these lessons, and some parents may not learn any. This isn’t about people who simply have babies; it’s about the people who conscientiously raise children. And even conscientious parents are not necessarily equipped to take on serious managerial responsibilities—although many are.

Nor do I want to claim that the only way to acquire these life skills is by having children. These lessons can be learned from any number of profound personal experiences, including serious illnesses and other crises that put one in touch with one’s deepest self. As a rabbi I interviewed eloquently put it, “I don’t want anything I say to be construed to imply that those who are not parents don’t have access to the same lessons I’ve learned from my children. You can learn this wisdom as an older sibling caring for a younger, or as an aunt or godmother or stepfather, or by caring for a sick parent, or simply by growing older. Parents don’t have a monopoly on the lessons learned from caring for others.”12 I couldn’t agree more.

So, let’s just stipulate at the outset that this book is not about glorifying motherhood per se, or reconceptualizing leadership as maternal or parental behavior. It is really a book about people who believe that children did make a positive difference in the way they conduct their work lives, recognizing that this is not everyone’s experience.

Above all, this book is simply about giving credit where credit is due. As the Wellesley study put it, “Crediting good mothering with leadership qualities has been overdue.”13

A final section examines how far we’ve come in recognizing parenting as relevant work experience. The answer is important to the millions of women whose primary job is raising their kids, but who will be reentering the work force in the future. A recent article in the New York Times Magazine warned that “...[i]t is unclear what women like these will be able to go back to. This is the hot button of the work-life debate at the moment.... For all the change happening in the office, the challenge of returning workers—those who opted out completely, and those who ratcheted back—is barely even starting to be addressed.”14 This book addresses that question of re-entry.

On the one hand, there is a growing recognition that a so-called female or benevolent management style is highly effective, and the beginnings of an inkling that the skills associated with that style are very similar to parenting skills. “There is an awakening,” says Martha Brest, “but it’s been long in coming. It should have happened years ago.”

On the other hand, most employers still don’t take child-rearing experience seriously. When I was working on this book and told people what it was about, their first reaction was to laugh. Their second take was often, “Oh! It’s so true! ” So why the laugh? What’s so funny?

Why does the notion persist that the job of raising children is easy, unskilled, and not even real work? Why do we have management books gleaning lessons of leadership from whale trainers, Winnie the Pooh, even Jesus Christ, and not one book on the teachings of Mom, our original leader, guide, and mentor? Why do employers assume your brain goes on holiday when you take time out for children? (I spotted this headline in the Daily Telegraph in London: BOSS SAYS MOTHERHOOD TURNS WOMEN'S BRAINS INTO JELLY.)

And why, when you mention you’ve been a stay-at-home mom or dad to a job interviewer, do you run the risk of ridicule?

A few years ago, I was on a search committee charged with selecting a new executive director of an environmental organization. One highly qualified man had a so-called mother’s resume. He had been out of the job market for seven years as a stay-at-home father of three children. In that period he had also served on a school’s board of directors, and worked on at least four grassroots environmental campaigns. I thought he sounded like a credible candidate, but a male member of our committee, looking over his resume, snickered, “A househusband.” We didn’t even interview the guy.

In the end, we gave the job to a woman who had more than fifteen years of uninterrupted experience as an officer at a major environmental organization. She had two school-aged children who were never mentioned during the interview process. We pretended that she had a surrogate wife to take care of that side of life, and we took it for granted that her experience as a parent was utterly unrelated to her ability to run an organization.

Several months after she was hired, she told me that she had learned many of her management skills in a Parent Effectiveness Training course. She had wisely left that out of her resume.

Research has revealed a significant cognitive bias against housewives that apparently extends to men who spend any time raising children. This bias—that those who care for children are close to incompetent—is so strong that it can rear its ugly head in the most unlikely situations. Nancy Segal, a former Senate staffer and an expert on discrimination against parents in the workplace, in 2003 applied for a job at the Labor Department. The man conducting the interview asked her if she was good at juggling different projects, handling interruptions, and the like.

“Are you kidding?” she blurted out. “I’m the mother of two kids!” Oops. She immediately realized that was the wrong answer.

“Now that you bring it up,” the clueless bureaucrat continued, “and I hesitate to say this considering the kind of work you do, but do you really think you can handle this job?”

Segal was momentarily speechless. She recovered enough to assure him that she was up to the task, and she was eventually offered the job. She didn’t take it.15

The persistence of these negative stereotypes poses a real dilemma for women and men who want to be active parents. We look at some of the ways mothers have handled this dilemma, particularly the tricky question of whether to put child-rearing on a resume.

Finally, the book summarizes two of the more interesting and unexpected findings that came out of my research. As someone who has written about the obstacles confronting mothers in the workplace, I was pleasantly surprised to discover just how many mothers have managed to combine engaged parenting with a highly successful career. I found mothers at the top of every kind of institution, from defense contractors to the National Science Foundation, and in every profession, from movie production to the ministry. Moreover, I learned that high-achieving women are no less likely to be married and have children than the average full-time working woman.

Secondly, the presence of all these mothers in high places is already changing the workplace. The language of power is definitely changing, to include metaphors based on childbirth and children’s books. Talking about one’s children in the office is no longer a liability, but can even be an asset, according to several female executives.

I also heard numerous stories describing how mothers at the top of organizations have made them more congenial places for parents to work. I predict that we will see more of this as women come to run institutions, as opposed to being merely high-ranking females in male-dominated environments.

This is not to say that mothers are or will be any nicer or more caring or better managers than anyone else as they come into their own. As Marjorie Scardino, CEO of Pearson PLC, observed, at a conference for women in business several years ago, “We’ve all seen difficult, authoritarian women running organizations and feeling, participatory, collegial inclusive men. We musn’t fall into stereotypical thinking.” I whole-heartedly agree.

But one thing, it seems to me, is very clear. When mothers and others with different life experiences attain leadership positions, they introduce new ideas, find new ways of doing things, and discover innovative solutions to problems that no one even realized were problems before. In the stories I heard, mothers and involved fathers were introducing change, from a better-designed diaper to a more creative way of managing engineers to a fresh way of thinking about international “relationships.” They were expanding our human repertoire. For that reason, acknowledging their skills, listening to their voices, and heeding their wisdom will enrich us all.

—Reprinted from If You've Raised Kids, You Can Manage Anything by Ann Crittenden with permission from Gotham Books, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © 2004 by Ann Crittenden. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced without permission.


1 Marian N. Rudman et al., "Benefits of Multiple Roles for Managerial Women," Academy of Management Journal 45 No.2 (2002), pp. 369-386. A number of other studies have also found that people with multiple roles have higher levels of well-being, and that learning from one life role can be incorporated in another, ain a process called role acculmulation. See Marian N. Ruderman and Patricia J. Ohlott, Standing at the Crossroads: Next Steps for High Achieving Women (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002), pp. 113-115. A few studies of males executives have also confirmed this process. One found that such experiences as coaching children's sports taught fathers lessons of leadership: McCall, M.W., Jr., Lombardo, M.M., & Morrison, A.M., The Lessons of Experience: How Successful Executives Develop on the Job (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1998).

2 Erkut, S. , and Winds of Change Foundation (2001). Inside women's power: Learning from leaders (CRW Special Report No. 28) Wellesley, MA: Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College, p. 79.

3 Quoted by Mary Meier, "U.S. Leaders Say Managing Kids Prepared Them to Be Boss," WOMENSENEWS, October 16, 2001.

4 Telephone interview with author, 2003 (Drozdow).

5, "Pregnancy May Make You Smarter." Also see Fox News Online, "Study: Pregnancy, Nursing May Make Women Smarter," November 11, 1998.

6 Census Bureau, "Children's Living Arrangements and Characteristics" (March 2002).

7 Annual Demographic Supplement to the March 2002 Current Population Survey. Also see Ann Crittenden, The Price of Motherhood (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2001), PP/ 24-26.

8 Families and Work Institute, "2002 National Study of the Changing Workforce" (New York, 2002).

9 Telephone interview with author, 2002 (Brest).

10 Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Familes, (New York: Golden Books, 1997), p. 2.

11 "Personal Business Diary: What Would Happen If Mom Ran the Show?" New York Times, May 11, 2003.

12 Personal interview with author, New York City, March, 2003. (Margaret Moers Wenig) There is even some evidence that caring for adults, as in nursing, develops a superior ability to integrate emotional, cognitive, and behavioral data and enhances skills of complex problem-solving. See Joyce K. Fletcher, Disappearing Acts: Gender, Power, and Relational Practice at Work (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2001), p. 114.

13 Erkut,op . cit., p. 81.

14 Lisa Belkin, "The Opt-Out Revolution," New York Times Magazine (October 26, 2003), p. 58

15 Personal Communication, 2003. (Segal)


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