Saturday Spark #49
By Susan Hunt Stevens, Founder & CEO
I spent the first six years of being a mother and an executive leader relatively quiet about how my life had radically changed. Sure, everyone knew I had kids. I talked about them and kept the requisite pictures on my desk. But I didn’t talk much about my new life as a parent. I purposely scheduled doctor appointments as early as possible or late as possible so no one would notice. I didn’t go to school or sports events if they were during work hours. I empowered caregivers to solve problems and told them only to call me if it was urgent. Work was work, home was home and I very intentionally tried not to mingle the two.
I don’t know exactly why I took that approach. Perhaps it was because I was the only young woman on our senior leadership team. I observed that the others didn’t miss a meeting for the Principal’s Coffee, talk about childcare falling through or not sleeping due to a sick kid and just followed suit. Perhaps it was because I functioned better by compartmentalizing my executive life and my mom life. Perhaps it was because with a full-time au pair, I didn’t have to handle the numerous issues many parents faced with early release days, snow days, sick days, day care pick up deadlines, forgotten sports shoes and lunches and questions about play dates or carpools from other parents.
Then I left corporate America, started WeSpire and for the first year, we sat around my dining room table. My son was in school, but my daughter was two and home most of the time we were there. She would charm the living daylights out of the team and make it very obvious to everyone that I was a parent. My co-founder was a parent to young kids as well. So we just naturally parented more out loud. Kids doctors appointments would get added to the work calendar not just the personal one, visible for others to see. I would leave to go to the School Fun Run and then come back and keep working. Even after we moved to an office, I’d bring them to events. When I took a video call from home, the kids would check to see if they recognized the person and come say hi.
The other day, Natalie Kogan, Founder of Happier and author of Happier Now posted this tweet. “My daughter came home from school today while I was on a work video Zoom call. I waved to her to come say hi to me – and asked her to say hi to the woman on my call, another working mom. We have to keep normalizing work/life blend in every little and big way.”
What I’ve realized is that by parenting out loud with my team, it’s given them permission to share their lives with each other as well and normalize the blend of work and life. Pets were welcome at our first office. The dogs and cats of WeSpire felt like community pets. As more babies and kids have joined the company, we celebrate milestones through Zoom and empathize with rough nights. We are transparent with each other about medical appointments, including for mental health. We share our other life responsibilities, like taking care of aging parents or a sibling with special needs.
Being able to bring your whole self to work is one of the factors that drives psychological safety, or the belief that you won’t be rejected for being different. Psychological safety has been found in an extensive study by Google to be the key to high-performing teams.
I realize now that by not parenting out loud as a leader prior to WeSpire, I blew an opportunity to be a role model for other parents in the organization. My actions would have, most likely, had at least some small positive impact on the culture of psychological safety and therefore, the performance of our company. No one told me not to do it. I just didn’t try because I didn’t see anyone else doing it.
So if you are a leader who is being quiet about something important in your life, don’t assume it isn’t safe to share just because others aren’t. Just try it, one baby step at a time, and see what happens. Your actions will likely inspire others to do the same and that, ultimately, is how cultures change. Take this risk, knowing that your actions will help your company become more psychologically safe and therefore, more successful. Ultimately, that is true leadership.
Quote of the Week: “Authenticity means erasing the gap between what you firmly believe inside and what you reveal to the outside world.” – Adam Grant
What is Saturday Spark:
As the leader of a purpose-driven company, I’m challenged daily to ensure our company is “walking the walk” and that I’m personally leading with purpose and impact at the forefront. The result is that I read, think, and learn a lot about the intersection of purpose, impact and leadership and have a few successes and a lot more “lessons learned.” I realized that my own insights may be helpful to other purpose-driven professionals if I took the time to reflect each week. If you find this inspiring, practical or helpful, I’d be honored if you shared it with your colleagues, your families and your friends.
Read Previous Week’s Spark: How to Lead Through Trauma