The Mother of All Leadership Challenges

By Lisa Marie Main

 

 

Recently, I was facilitating a client video conference on Zoom. The speaker, a young woman charged with leading an organizational initiative, began to outline her project update. As she did, serious and focused on the audience, her toddler, dressed in blue pajamas with brown curly hair, climbed a wooden cabinet in the background. I gasped, anticipating a fall and loud wailing.

The client turned, saw the toddler, grabbed her, and returned to the call with the little girl plopped on her lap. “Now,” she said, “Where was I?”

Welcome to the Pandemic Workplace

Welcome to the workplace created by COVID-19, where the line between work and home has blurred or disappeared altogether. This new workplace is challenging assumptions about the parent-worker identity, as noted in The Upshot’s April 20 New York Times article, “Three Things Lockdowns Have Exposed About Working and Parenting.”

This new workplace is also demanding a different kind of playbook, one that does not differentiate between work and life, or personal and professional, but integrates and leverages both. It’s unknown territory for many leaders but oh so familiar for Wendy and me.

Our Story

The year was 1995. We were single moms with toddlers in tow when we abandoned the security of our full-time jobs to become entrepreneurs and launch RETREATS, Inc., an adventure-based leadership and team development company. We had twin goals: to make a significant difference in the world by working with leaders and teams who would do the same and to raise our children so that they, too, would create meaningful lives for themselves.

Like the client on the Zoom call, in those early days, we juggled conference calls from kitchen tables with kids underfoot. We begged favors from friends and neighbors when meetings ran over and kids needed school rides. We learned how to read financial spreadsheets in between helping with math homework assignments.

Facing the Unknown

Wendy B. White (left) and Lisa Marie Main, co-founders of Continuum, with their daughters in 1995.

Like many women-leaders today, we often faced the unknown. We were clumsy. We sometimes didn’t do it right (and we often didn’t know what “right” was). But over time, we learned to embrace the unknown for the possibilities it triggered and the sixth sense we acquired for what to do and when to do it, even if we couldn’t name it.

We were coaching before it ever became a profession. We focused not on problems but on the possibilities that were emerging from them, using Appreciative Inquiry. We showed leaders how to “see” the hidden patterns and dynamics that govern an organization using Organizational Systemic Constellations. And because we are outdoor enthusiasts, we continued to facilitate team-building using white-water rafting, ropes courses, sailing adventures, and more.

Our intentions and intuitions guided us, and often, we were graced with openings that hinted that we were on the right path, including early on.

The Right Path Emerges

It was a multi-day adventure retreat for an all-male team of Campbell Soup executives. After a day of orienteering through the forest to find parts to build rafts for crossing a large lake, we were to meet for dinner. Because I was breast-feeding at the time, I had brought my daughter with me and hired a babysitter for the day. When evening came, I had no choice but to bring my daughter to dinner, despite my concerns about appearing unprofessional.

Imagine my surprise when this team of high-level leaders embraced not only my daughter, but also me as a leader and mother, and as a parent like themselves. We were connected by our shared humanity and a wall disappeared. Some pulled photos from wallets (this was before cell phones) to proudly show me their kids. We reached a new level of connection and transparency, much like today.

Over the years, RETREATS Inc. evolved into Continuum, a growing global consulting firm and it all began with two moms and a mission. On this Mother’s Day, as we celebrate 25 years in business, we thought we’d share our lessons learned for all mothers (and all parents) leading in the world today.

How to “Pandemic Parent” as a Leader

  • When things get hot, cool down. Put yourself in a time-out and in that time-out, take 10 deep breaths before you return to the hot situation. You may also want to listen to this podcast.
  • Focus on the positive. It’s trite but true that focusing on the positive uplifts us. It also demands that we focus on possibilities, not problems. To focus on what’s good in your life, listen to this podcast. You can also ask yourself three simple questions:
    • What was the best thing that happened to me today?
    • What did I do well or learn today?
    • What am I most grateful for today?
  • Live true to what’s most important to you. Our core values drive our actions. Leaders and mothers make tough decisions every day, and sometimes, you have to stand up for what you believe despite the contradictions. What are your core values? Now is a good time to clarify your values, and align your actions to them.

Happy Mother’s Day!