Parenting through a pandemic: What a CEO has learned while working from home

Will Johnson

THE WASHINGTON POST – A month ago, I would have made an important call behind a closed door to create some sacred business-doing space. But the other day, I was in the kitchen, prepping lunch while holding a video chat with a colleague, as my six-year-old, Teddy, glided into view, iPad in hand, telling me his battery was low. I paused my call to get him a charger.

During that moment, I assured Teddy that I was there for him. When I returned to my call, my colleague (also a father) appreciated my work-family blending. His peek inside my life brought us closer, and it seemed, in the days that passed, our work went more smoothly because of it.

As the pandemic requires the hundreds of folks who work for my company to redefine how they do their jobs, we’re noticing an unexpected rise in morale. After more than six weeks of working from home, we’ve shared life-management tips, successes and the inevitable failures.

My workday now includes new direct reports – ages three and six. Absurd demands that we’d never consider in normal times are daily negotiations. Add managing a new home-schooling routine, and the struggle for balance can exhaust and discourage. Buried in this moment is clarity – my kids upend my old ways and show me how to be a better CEO.

While I didn’t welcome working from home, it’s taught me some lessons.

MANAGING RISK

During pandemic parenting, we’ve grown more comfortable taking risks that make an impact. By my kids’ standards, “making an impact” is anything fun and engaging. So far, this has gotten us a small explosion, a black eye and plenty of crying – but also several repeatable, impactful ideas. “Edible crayons” have entertained my youngest son for a solid week. That’s a strong return on investment (ROI) by any measure.

INCENTIVES

I’ve been re-examining incentive structures. In a stressful environment, incentives for good performance are particularly essential. And while I’ve always known this as a leader, seeing it play out firsthand with my kids has reminded me just how personal incentives are. For my three-year-old, doughnuts get the toys put away. For my older son, it’s flight simulator time on the iPad. As both kids remind us every hour, attention is love. And, yes, we crave it in our work lives, too.

THE VALUE OF PATIENCE

A “sense of urgency” that has always dominated work is now what my kids demand. My boys want everything this minute. The challenge is balancing their drive for instant gratification with the proper order of things. I now see that when I expect my work team to deliver on every goal by an arbitrary time, I’m acting a bit like my children. Better to be clear, patient and fair in my expectations. When giving feedback, I also need to focus on the positives as I explain what needs improvement.

THE LIMITS OF FRAMEWORKS

In my field, we love frameworks and philosophies. But when they become stifling, you need to drop them and find some comfort with chaos and uncertainty. My wife and I are both Type A, so this is especially hard. We want to measure, plan, anticipate and, above all, control. Good luck doing that consistently in business – and just forget about it in parenting.

RELINQUISHING CONTROL

You become flexible or you break. And sometimes you only become flexible after you break. Parenting is the ultimate slow-motion illustration of this lesson. You lose control almost from the first day. So you control what you can and let go when you have to. With luck – and effort – you’ve built the kind of connections that endure even as the power structures fade. And at the end of the day, that’s what will drive behaviour. At home it’s love. In the office it’s loyalty or respect, but still a personal bond. One benefit of the pandemic workplace, where our personal lives are often on display, is that opportunities for forming these bonds have increased dramatically.

LISTENING

When you pare back the c-suite trappings and refocus on the basics, parenting and managing a company have a lot in common. If you pause, focus and listen, you can hear what people need even when they are talking about something that seems irrelevant. In this new work-from-home era, one-on-one conversations with colleagues have helped me understand work problems in new ways. I have also discovered new talents and abilities in my team.

Now, when my employees call me to talk something through, I find myself more focused on their needs and more disciplined in resisting the urge to suggest an instant solution. In short, I’m listening. I’ve noticed that they are hearing me, too.

When I look back at my list of lessons learned, I realise the big takeaway: Inside all of us is a six-year-old. We want to feel safe, to feel we belong and are loved, to have clarity about what is expected and to have the freedom to figure out how to do it on our own. And we want acknowledgment when we get it done. We want the things that make for real self-esteem: earned accomplishment and contributing to a worthwhile endeavour. Our job as parents and business leaders is creating that environment. The better we do at that, the easier our jobs become.