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Parenthood :: Management

Does becoming a parent make for a better manager?

I remember vividly when I first brought it up as a possibility. I was interviewing at a few companies after deciding to end my time at Square, and wanted to continue my career as an engineering manager. I was working with a salary negotiation coach of sorts at the time1, and they introduced me to someone who professed to know a lot more about one of these company’s inner cultural workings. In a subsequent mock interview, I let slip my analogy in dealing with reports as toddlers, and was swiftly chastised for making the connection.

Years later, I gave a keynote during a SFELC meetup which explicitly tied facets of management to my kids. It set the tone, so that panelists afterwards talked about their own parenthoods, and audience members began asking how the two roles overlap.

To be clear, infantilizing your team is probably not a good idea; as exasperating as it can be to deal with unruly reports, that’s still a world removed from actually handling children. The most obvious comparisons are really more commentary on the role of the parent/manager: they are the more seasoned and experienced ones of this relationship, they are expected to keep emotions in check and handle conflicts amicably, they ultimately act as role models through their behaviors and teachings. The same set of attributes apply to mentors and coaches.

Instead of simply providing more experience in being “more senior” to a junior counterpart, it’s more instructive to think whether any aspects of parenting segue into skills around people management or vice versa. For me, one discrete area that my kids have influenced my management style is in thinking with a beginner’s mind. Admittedly, it’s become cliche to apply the principle in a work and business context, but the exercise to try to remove existing biases and assumptions is genuinely useful in incorporating additional perspective.

Toddlers, as it turns out, have to learn as beginners. I often find myself having to truly empathize with their understanding of the world around them, so I can reverse-engineer their thought processes that led to a peculiar question or action. What seems comical or illogical can make perfect sense, if I can reconstruct their self-created rules and map it back to the situation at hand. Better yet is if I’m able to figure out where their mental models and mine diverge, and then tweak their thinking2 with enthusiastic praise or stern disapproval.

Empathy and reasoning from first principles are powerful tools in a manager’s toolbox. In my own career through software engineering and management, I can attest to how many times I’ve had to pick up something completely new—technological, behavioral, procedural, social—that isn’t just natural progression from existing skills. I see the same challenges in folks on my teams, regardless of their level and role, the first times they’ve had to architect a system from scratch, or take on formal people responsibilities, or drive a cross-team, cross-functional project with unfamiliar technologies and domains, or in interviewing and hiring managers. If nothing else, taking the approach of a beginner has made me appreciate the difficulty of learning.

Of course, there are a handful of other skills that I’ve picked up from raising my kids: the importance of repeating the same message; tapping intrinsic motivations; realizing the outsized impact of any negative behaviors emanating from myself. And though you can certainly find these pieces of advice in contemporary management literature, the effect gains additional viscerality when the lessons come from my own progeny.

There are worse ways to hone the craft of management.

  1. Now years later, I’m still undecided whether that arrangement made a difference, especially now that I’m much more familiar with the other side of that table.

  2. Or mine!

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