CONTRIBUTOR
Senior Director of Engineering,
Pluralsight Flow

The session on advocacy that I was co-hosting for a women’s leadership group was about to kick off.  It was time to introduce myself.  “My name is Lilac Mohr and I’m the senior director of engineering for the Flow product at Pluralsight. I lead an internationally-distributed team of over fifty engineers, but most importantly,” I paused and took a breath, “… I’m the mother of five amazing children.” Nervous laughter rose from the audience. It caught me off-guard. My introduction was not meant to be a joke.

Looking back at my career, whenever I accidentally mentioned my children in a job interview or performance discussion, it was always followed by an apology: “I have kids BUT I can still put in the hours.” “I have kids BUT work is my top priority.” It makes me ashamed.

I now realize that work-life integration is something to embrace, but it was a long journey to get here. I can proudly say, “I have kids and I prioritize my family. That is one of the many reasons why I’m a great leader.” The company I work for, Pluralsight, gets it. They encourage all team members to bring their authentic selves to work each day because that is how we achieve great outcomes together. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all mothers felt safe making these same statements at their own organizations?

I’ve read countless books on leadership, listened to podcasts, and attended conferences.  Motherhood has prepared me for leadership positions in ways that rival any of these resources.  Here are a few of my learnings:

Prioritize your Team

“The true price of leadership is the willingness to place the needs of others above your own. Great leaders truly care about those they are privileged to lead and understand that the true cost of the leadership privilege comes at the expense of self-interest.”

– Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t

In his book, Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek relates how junior members of the Marine Corps are expected to line up first to eat while the senior leaders take their place at the end of the line. This demonstrates that leaders must prioritize their team’s needs. While I’m a big fan of Simon Sinek, this concept didn’t strike me as earth-shattering. In the nearly 13 years I’ve been a mother, I can count the hot meals I’ve eaten on a single hand. Mothers eat last. If you visit mom groups on social media, you’re sure to run into a self-care meme reminding mothers to “put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.” It’s instinctive to prioritize the needs of those you love. This is why mothers are naturals at servant leadership.

As mothers, we create space for our children to be the best version of themselves.  We do this by making sure their basic needs are met, but also by clearing distractions and providing them with opportunities where they feel engaged, fulfilled, and happy. Similarly, as business leaders, we create room for our team members to solve problems and do their best work. For this type of leadership to be effective, we must genuinely care about our team members as people – as family members, not resources. As a servant leader, what are you truly willing to give up for your team?  Did you hesitate answering that question?  Pose the same question to a mother about her family and there will be no hesitation.

Stay Calm When Things Go Wrong 

“You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing and falling over.”

-Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group

I recently watched a toddler at the playground underestimate the speed of the slide.  He launched in the air momentarily before landing on the ground with a hard thud.  The child immediately turned to his mother in an attempt to determine if this was a catastrophe worthy of tears.  The mother leaned forward to meet his gaze, but didn’t get up from her seat.  She spoke in a calm, reassuring voice.  “That was a rough landing, buddy. I bet it hurts, but I’m so glad you tried.  Let’s give it another shot – this time you’ll be ready for how fast it goes!”  The message was validating, inspiring, and simple.  The toddler didn’t even bother dusting off his clothes before heading back to the stairs to try again.

When things don’t go as expected, children look for their parents’ reactions.  When a project at work goes sideways, your team will also turn to you, their leader, to determine how they should respond. The ability to lead through rapid change is arguably the most important factor in separating a leader from a manager.  It takes experience to do this effectively.  With my fifth child, I’d like to think that I handle situations similarly to the mother at the playground, but I can’t say the same about my reactions when I was a new parent.  As first-time parents often struggle with helicopter parenting, many new leaders need to resist the urge to swoop in and save the day when things go wrong.  Experienced leaders will model calm, rational behavior in the face of the unexpected.  They will reframe discomfort as an opportunity for learning and growth.  These things are hard, but they go a long way in trying times.

Confirm Intuition with Data

“Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion.”

-W. Edwards Deming, father of Quality Management

My younger children call it “Mommy Magic”. The older ones have simply grown to accept it.  Intuition.  I know what they’re going to say before they say it. I know when they’re lying.  I know when something’s wrong.  Perhaps motherhood has indeed given me some special intuitive abilities, but I’ve also learned that I’m often wrong.  The other day when two of my boys were fighting, I was convinced that I knew exactly what happened and who was the provoker in the situation.  It turned out that I was way off and had blamed the wrong kid.  There are many things my intuition misses – I was clueless that my 10-year-old son had skipped brushing his teeth for a week, or that when my 12-year-old daughter said she had been doing her homework she was guessing on every question, or that the same daughter was staying after school to ask her teachers if they needed help cleaning up their classrooms – I never knew!  As parents, wouldn’t it be lovely to have an automated report to help us gauge the wellness of our family members, alert us with early indicators of areas that need our attention, and help us recognize high contributors who are flying under the radar?

In my position as an engineering leader, I do have this level of visibility.  Our Grafana dashboards report on the health of our systems, and Flow reports let us monitor the health of our engineering teams.  Sometimes these insights confirm my intuition.  Often, they reveal things that I’m missing and help facilitate data-driven discussion so we can all make better decisions and continuously improve.

Celebrate the Little Wins (Progress over Perfection) 

“Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run.”

-Teresa M. Amabile & Steven J. Kramer, “The Power of Small Wins”, Harvard Business Review 

Mothers are good at celebrations.  I’m not just talking about birthday parties – a child’s life is full of little events worthy of acknowledgement: using the potty, being helpful without being asked, creating a Kindergarten masterpiece, improving school grades, and more.  These occasions can be large or small, and praising the effort is as important as praising the outcome.  It simply feels good to celebrate together.  Critics argue that we’re creating a generation of entitled children who expect awards for just showing up.  Leadership research, however, has uncovered the power of incremental progress and frequent displays of gratitude in increasing workplace motivation and productivity.

The Flow Engineering team at Pluralsight follows Lean principles including breaking up large initiatives into small deliverables, limiting work-in-progress, and aiming for single-piece flow (where we focus on getting a single piece of work flowing through the process all the way to production deployment without unnecessary hands-offs, queues, or context switching).  We celebrate wins of every size together as a team, and we have a culture of appreciation.  Borrowing from the dinner-table tradition that we have at home of asking our children to tell us one good thing that happened each day and to recognize a family member who did something nice for them, I started a Gratitude Friday tradition for Flow Engineering.

On Fridays, team members post Slack messages naming their ‘coworker(s) of the week’ to recognize someone who showed up for them.  Sometimes the appreciation is for a person who fixed a major bug or for a team that delivered a new piece of functionality.  More often, it’s for a person who was just willing to jump in and help a coworker, reinforcing the importance of our organization’s collaborative culture.  It creates a positive feedback cycle that benefits everyone.  Saying ‘thank you’ frequently and genuinely is not just for kids – a good leader will encourage their team to celebrate each win, celebrate each day, and celebrate each other.

Be Kind to Yourself

“Honesty and transparency make you vulnerable. Be honest and transparent anyway.”
-Mother Teresa

Motherhood, like leadership, is a journey rather than a destination.  You’ll face challenges, make mistakes, and feel like you’re the only one fumbling in your role.  The truth is that there is no perfect recipe for success as a mother or as a leader.  Neither of these journeys are easy, but you’re not alone.  Connect with your peers, own your missteps, and remember to always give yourself some grace.  You must keep a learner’s mindset and a desire to get better.  Focus on what really matters: that you are part of something bigger than yourself.  Whether you’re raising little human beings or coaching your team members in their professional growth, you are making a difference in other people’s lives.

I wanted to share the leadership lessons I’ve learned from motherhood in this article because we need to stop siloing our personal lives from our professional lives. We need to normalize the discussion on how those two aspects of our identity can affect each other not only in negative, but also in positive ways.  In their book, Leading with Gratitude: Eight Leadership Practices for Extraordinary Business Results, Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton write “The fact is, people aren’t going to give their all unless their leaders drop fear-based tactics and display caring behaviors: being transparent and fair, listening, admitting their own mistakes, and acting in the team’s best interests.”

I can’t help thinking that these qualities apply as much to motherhood as they do to leadership.  Being a dedicated mother and being a great leader should no longer be seen as mutually exclusive.  One day I’ll be able to introduce myself as both, and nobody will blink an eye.

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