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Learning to manage, from kids

There are lots of ways to learn how to be an effective manager. Business school is a start, followed by close observation of good and bad bosses and wisdom gleaned from mentors and books.

But many managers who also are parents get some of their most pivotal management lessons from interacting with their children. The opportunity exists all year long, but it is more likely during vacation season, when managers have uninterrupted time with families.

George Schwartz, treasurer and executive vice president of Boston Private Bank & Trust, says his four children, each with a distinct personality, have taught him that employees should be treated equally but should be managed in unique ways. "You always want to be treating everyone fairly, but you have to tailor your interactions to each employee's personality," he says.

His 19-year-old son is outgoing "with a big personality," while his 18-year-old son is introspective and more apt to keep things to himself. Learning to give a lot of attention to his oldest son, while respecting his second son's need for privacy, helped him at work, he says. "I've got some employees who crave adulation and need a lot of public recognition and others who are equally good performers but are somewhat embarrassed by compliments."

Meanwhile, his 15-year-old daughter's fearless and determined personality has reinforced his comfort with strong women employees, he says. His 12-year-old son's easy-going style helps him identify even-tempered employees whom he can rely on in crises. He says being a parent has shown him the importance of giving workers individual attention, while discouraging them from competing with one another.

Don LeBeau, president and chief executive of Aruba Wireless Networks, a wireless networking company focused on corporate security, says the years he spent out of the work force, helping to raise his three children, honed his skills as a motivator, mentor and strategist. The former senior vice president of sales and operations at Cisco Systems during its explosive growth in the 1990s, LeBeau quit his 24/7 job in 1997 to get to know his children.

"I reached a point where I realized I'd been a good provider for my family, which my father taught me was my No. 1 job," he says. But he wasn't home enough to communicate with his children, share activities or exert much of an influence, he says. His oldest son was already living on his own, his daughter was a high school sophomore and his youngest son was in eighth grade. When he interviewed prospective employees who spoke with love about their fathers, he says he worried, "What will my kids say about me, besides "He made a lot of money'?"

He spent the next seven years as a stay-at-home father. On drives to and from school and activities _ a job he took over from his wife _ he learned "to listen and not judge," he says. "I found out if I wanted my kids to talk to me, I'd better not lecture them about my big ideas."

He learned to be less of a perfectionist and recognized the power of praise over criticism. "I found I had a lot greater impact with my kids if I supported them for doing something right instead of chastising them for doing something wrong," he says. Besides, he admits, when he did criticize them, his children told him to back off, or they withdrew. "Kids are a lot quicker to tell you when you goof up than employees," he says.

LeBeau supported his sons' interest in technology and his daughter's love of athletics, attending sports events with her. When his younger son showed a talent for learning foreign languages, he arranged for him to spend a year of high school in Amsterdam _ and moved to Europe with him.

His efforts to help his children with college and career choices also influenced his own decision in January to re-enter the workplace full time. His children each had a particular talent and also a strong interest in something else. LeBeau encouraged them not only to study subjects in which they were adept but also to "look for the intersection between their skills and passions," he says. His younger son blended his technology and language skills to major in linguistics.

LeBeau was drawn to Aruba because of its blend of wireless technology and security, two hot areas. He could draw on his knowledge of startups while learning about new technology. He saw the potential for fast growth.

But he no longer barks orders. Now, LeBeau _ at 56, two decades older than most of his employees _ listens to their ideas before offering his perspective. He tells them to "take a deep breath" and pace themselves. He also reassures edgy workers who worry about the startup's future, noting how revenue has been rapidly growing. And he no longer measures himself or others on their willingness to work around the clock. "That hurts family life, and it can be less productive for business," he says.

Ron Shaich, CEO of Panera Bread, who became a parent five years ago at age 45, says his son has taught him to think about what he actually does at work.

"I told him I spend most of my time talking to people about ideas, and he suggested that I make a blueberry-banana bagel," Shaich said. "And when I came home the next day, he asked, "Do you have my blueberry-banana bagel?' "

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