Why working mums make exceptional managers
By Amy Bach
Women hold just 11 chief executive positions for ASX 200 companies, despite the current discourse from Australian politicians and business leaders that gender equality is high on the priority list across the nation. It begs the question: what needs to change in order to bridge the divide between policy and what actually happens on the ground? And, are we missing what working mothers can offer the workforce in senior roles?
Leadership evidence suggests that the most effective managers often possess desirable leadership traits such as an agile mindset, resilience, empathy, problem solving, time management and prioritisation. These are all areas that working parents upskill in during their time raising small children.
Yet often during child-rearing years, the primary unpaid carer in a family (70% of whom are women) will take a career hit. Sometimes, this is a choice made by the primary carer, but often it can be circumstantial or due to a gap in support and flexibility from their workplace. Recent research from McKinsey also indicates that there may be wider-reaching economic benefits from working mothers, with a positive association between maternal employment and adult children’s employment and domestic outcomes.
While there are clear differences between mothering small children and managing adults in the workplace, the transferable skills across the two areas indicate that working mothers may indeed make quite exceptional managers.
Children, as well as adult employees, can be unpredictable. Primary carers of small children frequently have to think on their feet, change plans at the last minute, and juggle numerous tasks and demands. Perfectionism is not an option and speed and flexibility are essential. Perhaps motherhood is the ultimate lesson in “agile thinking”. Research by McKinsey indicates that, in professional settings, productivity gains of around 27% can be realised using an agile development approach. Learning to reduce the need for control is also an important skill when managing either small people at home or adults in the workplace, as both cohorts need autonomy and space in order to learn in their own way and in their own time. As mother or manager, an important element is to provide a safe, structured environment for that learning and independence to flourish.
The initial transition to parenthood requires acceptance to move from a world that is relatively predictable and controlled in terms of career, social interactions, hobbies, fitness and travel choices, to a far less predictable environment. Women are often adjusting physically, emotionally and mentally to the changes that having a baby brings, and becoming a mother can redefine what it means to build true resilience. Tenacity is required to provide a consistently safe, loving and nurturing environment for a child despite sickness, financial hardship or family issues, and that tenacity and resilience is also essential for a manager, to provide strength and guidance regardless of the circumstances or stressors that a company is facing.
Becoming a parent often forces people to re-examine priorities. Whilst there may be no right answer about the correct work and family balance, working parents have to make decisions that are best for them and their families. Making decisions that hold true to core values is an important life skill, and a decision to live in a values-based manner transfers across to the workplace. In a company, the example must come from the top, and if managers don’t “walk the walk” then any stated company values are merely for show. There is a reason that companies invest so much time and money in trying to achieve alignment between articulated values and the culture on the ground; it is because a values-driven culture can drive organisational growth and attract and retain top talent. Working mothers have a head start in this area as they strive to provide a values-based home on a daily basis.
With an increasing number of families opting for both parents to remain in the workforce, and an ever-demanding need for equality and diversity in the workplace, companies would be hard pressed to find managers who are more committed, agile, empathetic and efficient than working mothers. This may quite possibly be the best untapped cohort of managers a company can invest in.
Amy Bach is a healthcare manager, a physiotherapist by background, and mother to her one year old daughter. She has extensive experience in both clinical and senior management roles in the healthcare system in Australia and the UK, and is an MBA candidate and private tutor at Melbourne Business School. Amy is passionate about making a positive impact in a workplace, shaping team culture and staff engagement, and helping to facilitate and empower women to succeed in senior leadership positions. She has presented at a number of healthcare conferences on the topic of leadership and staff engagement.