Working parents are pulled in so many directions that it’s easy to feel like you’re failing at everything. But when we apply leadership principles and skills across all aspects of our lives – at work, at home, in our community, and to ourselves – our relationships flourish and our lives do, too. The key is to develop a leader’s mentality, say Stew Friedman and Alyssa Westring. Stew is an award-winning organizational psychologist at The Wharton School of Business and founding director of the Wharton Leadership Program and its Work/Life Integration Project. Alyssa is an associate professor of management at DePaul University and the director of research at Total Leadership. They join us to talk about their new book, Parents Who Lead: The Leadership Approach You Need to Parent with Purpose, Fuel Your Career, and Create a Richer Life. Stew and Alyssa discuss the importance of defining your values, deciding what you care about most, and setting your vision as a leader in your life.
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A Leadership Framework for Working Parents
Intro: Welcome to the Equal Parts podcast brought to you by Care@Work.
Emily Paisner: Being a working parent is hard. The constant pushes and pulls, endless to-do list, and the feeling like we aren't bringing our full selves to any part of our lives. Today, we're talking with Stew Friedman and Alyssa Westring. They just wrote a new book called Parents Who Lead: The Leadership Approach You Need to Parent with Purpose, Fuel Your Career, and Create a Richer Life.
Stew Friedman is a bestselling author, organizational psychologist, and award-winning professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. He's also the founding director of the Wharton Leadership Program and its Work/Life Integration Project. Alyssa Westering is an associate professor of management at DePaul University and the director of research at Total Leadership.
She frequently speaks at Fortune 500 companies on work-life integration. We talked about how to embrace the qualities that all good leaders share when it comes to your life at work, at home, in your community, and even when it comes to taking care of yourself. Have a listen. Stew, thank you so much for being here today.
Stew Friedman: Great to be here. Thanks for having us.
Emily Paisner: Alyssa, it's a real treat to have you here too.
Alyssa Westring: Thank you for having me.
Emily Paisner: Stew, let's talk a little bit about this idea of work-life balance. I once heard you say that balance is bullshit. You, like me, prefer-
Stew Friedman: Guilty as charge.
Emily Paisner: - prefer to use the term "work-life integration." Can you explain more for our listeners why you think balance is bullshit?
Stew Friedman: I founded the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project in 1991 because we knew back then at the beginnings of the work-life movement that balance was the wrong metaphor, because it forces you to think from the point of view of somebody or some part of your life is losing while the other is winning like on a seesaw. One's up, the other's going to be down, right?
Emily Paisner: Yes.
Stew Friedman: There's no perfect balance. There is a lot of dynamic movement over time as things shift in your life. The key to finding some sense of harmony or capacity to integrate, to bring the different parts of your life together in a way that works for all of them requires that you think about all the different parts, who the people are that are most important in those different parts, and to discover through dialogue what it is that they really need from you and what you really need from them and to look at that whole set of people as a dynamic system that you can influence as a leader. Prior to that though, you have to have an understanding of what you stand for, what you care about, what's most important to you, your values and your vision as a leader.
Emily Paisner: Alyssa, there's a line in the book that I think summarizes what a leader is really nicely. You write, "Leaders are those who see how to improve things and inspire people to pursue a better future together." What struck me when I read this was that you could easily replace the word "leaders" with "parents" in this sentence. How is honing your leadership skills similar to being a parent?
Alyssa Westring: It's a great point that you could replace them, but I think the way we think about it is you don't even have to replace one for the other that being a parent is about leadership and that leadership isn't just something that happens at work, that you've already honed so many of these skills thinking about how you grow your career. We all spend a lot of time talking and thinking about leadership development. How do you take those skills that you already have and bring them to your role as a parent, I think, is a really important part of the question that we hope to help people answer.
Emily Paisner: I think that couples take different roles within the family structure. I like to joke around my husband that I think I'm the CEO of the family, but I do think that it's an interesting perspective to take on it.
Alyssa Westring: Absolutely.
Emily Paisner: How can you apply what you're learning at work around your leadership skills and bring them into your home?
Alyssa Westring: In my family, I'm chief procurement officer.
Emily Paisner: [laughs]
Alyssa Westring: I'm sort of the head of emotional support and my husband does finances. We have divided things up in a way that works for us and in place to our skills and a good leader would do the same thing. A good leader doesn't try to do everything him or herself. They would figure out, what are the unique skills and talents that each employee brings to the workplace and how can I capitalize on that? We've done the same thing in our home lives as well.
Emily Paisner: Stew, you previously wrote a book called Total Leadership and you talk about in it this philosophy around the four-way win. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about that?
Stew Friedman: The basic idea there is to discover more about who you are, what you care about. The vision of the world you're trying to create starts with that. What do you most care about in your life? That's where it begins. That's foundational for affecting work-life integration, for making that a reality, creating a greater sense of harmony. Of course, it's necessary for effective leadership.
You have to have a sense of what you stand for and where you're going and be able to communicate that. We help people do that. That's the beginning. We also ask them to look at the different parts of their lives. What's important to you as you look at your work, your home, your community, and your private self? How important is each of those parts of your life to you now and where do you devote your attention?
How satisfied are you with the different parts of your life? That's what we call taking a kind of snapshot of your four-way view. Look at your reality. We also, in parents who lead, ask people to guesstimate what their partner would say about their four-way view and then we have them compare notes, which often yields really interesting surprises and conversation about how you see each other and how the different parts of your lives intertwine.
By taking the four-way view in the context of what matters most to you as a leader in your life and coming together to identify a collective vision of the future that you share, you establish a foundation for then exploring, "Well, who are the most important people to me, to us, in the different parts of our lives, in our family, with our kids, and anyone else who's a part of our home in our work-lives?
Usually, those are different work-lives for two partners, in our community, in friendships, and then for ourselves and looking at all those different stakeholders, assessing, what do they need from me, from us? What do we need from them? Starting with your kids. From that analysis comes ideas for change that you design to make things better at work, at home, in the community, and for yourself. That's a four-way win. There is an infinite variety of ideas that people come up with to pursue four-way wins that are well to their particular circumstances and anyone can do it.
Emily Paisner: Earlier last year, we interviewed Jennifer Petriglieri who wrote a book called Couples That Work. She talked about how these couples work together to decide what's really important when it comes to prioritizing their career and their family regardless of the pressures that they have along the way. What's your advice on this front?
Alyssa Westring: I think that thinking about what each of you values and really starting from a sense of, what do we each care about individually and as a couple and how will we use those values to drive towards a vision of a future that makes us both happy? A lot of the couples that we talk with when we ask them to think about what their future looks like, they're painting two very different pictures.
If they can't get on the same page about where they're moving, then they may be moving in opposite directions. One of the couples that we worked with, the husband was a serial entrepreneur. The wife told us that she didn't want the rest of their lives to always be around startups and the stress and the pressure of startups. The husband was like, "This is who I am. This is how I like my life to be."
It took a lot of work for them to think about and talk through creating a vision of what their life might look like 15 or 20 years from now where they're both happy and living their values. Part of the work of working together is establishing those shared values and vision, and then you can handle the logistics of who's doing pickup or who's taking the promotion or who's moving where and when. All of that stuff needs to build on a really solid foundation of mutual understanding and communication.
Emily Paisner: Alyssa, I'm sure you can relate to this, but I struggle a lot with mom guilt. Just this constant feeling that I am always letting someone down, particularly my children. I talked to a lot of working parents. A lot of them have these same feelings and concerns every single day whether it's a woman that I'm talking to or a man. Do you have any advice around how we can start to reframe this thinking that is so harmful to probably everyone in the equation?
Alyssa Westring: First of all, let me just say I am fully susceptible to mom guilt as well. Just because I study this stuff, it doesn't mean I'm immune to feeling it. I always go back to, why am I making the choice that I'm making? Justify it to myself, why am I leaving my kids for a work trip or why am I staying home from work to be at my kids' school event or why am I taking time to exercise when I could be with my children?
I always go back to my values and why I make the choices that I make. It calms me down and it centers me to know that I'm making the right choice for myself and for my family and my boss as well. Even if they don't like the decision in that moment that I'm coming from a place of I know my values, I know why I'm making this choice, it allows me to quiet down that part of myself that constantly says, "You should be doing this" or "You should be doing that" or "You should be somewhere else" or "You should be giving something else attention."
Emily Paisner: Do you think it's just a self-awareness that people have to have in order to be okay with that?
Alyssa Westring: The self-awareness and then a level of acceptance as well. I think we can be perfectly aware of all of our flaws and our decisions. Giving ourselves that approval, it has to come from within, which is the lesson I've learned. The hard way of feeling like I need to be able to tell myself that these choices that I'm making are okay because they're made in alignment with my values.
Emily Paisner: How can we nurture this whole self-mindset in the workplace so that we don't feel like we are being judged or stigmatized or letting our co-workers down?
Stew Friedman: That's a great question. It's not easy. Having a leadership mindset really helps. By that, I mean taking seriously the responsibility that you have to understand how other people see you. What is it that other people need from you? What are they looking to you for and how can you serve them? A big part of what we ask people to do in parents who lead and in our workshops is to talk to people about your mutual needs and expectations and how well you're doing and meeting those needs and expectations.
What people discover, men and women, moms and dads, is that they're usually not quite so accurate as they would have imagined in terms of what other people expect from them and that the expectations that other people have of them are often less than and a little bit different than what they had imagined going into those conversations. That helps to relieve some of the pressure, some of the guilt when you realize that what other people expect of you is actually less than what you had imagined.
Emily Paisner: Sometimes I think we're harder on ourselves than other people are. I feel guilty. I feel like I'm not giving my team enough of what they need from me. The reality of it is they probably feel like they're actually getting exactly what they need.
Stew Friedman: That's one of the great benefits of doing these dialogues. This is a spoiler alert. One of the surprises that we talked about at the end of the book, what surprises occur to people having gone through this set of activities that we take them through, that's one of them, that you have more support, more love surrounding you than you think. You have to access that by letting other people know what you need from them and being skilled and prepared and learning how to improve your capacity to build trust by hearing from others what it is that they really need from you, not what you think they need from you.
That often results in, again, less pressure, greater trust, and a better sense for what you can do to serve them. In terms of bringing yourself to work, it usually doesn't work when you bring demands. "This is what I need, boss. If you don't give it to me, I'm going to be frustrated and resentful or want to quit or disengage." The approach that we advocate and we help people to learn how to take is, "Here's what's important to me. Here's what I think is important to you. Help me understand more about what really matters to you because I'm here to strengthen our relationship and to make your life better."
Alyssa Westring: One of the mothers that we worked with, she was a team lead. She had about four or five employees. She went through this process and ask them, what do they really need from her? She was so concerned about being a good leader that she would stay up at night answering their emails after the kids gone to bed. She didn't want them to ever feel like she wasn't available to them.
What she heard back was, "We need you to chill out because when you're answering emails at night, it makes us feel like we have to also. It also makes us not want to get promotions and move up in this organization because we don't like what it looks like." When she heard that, she learned that sometimes taking a break and pulling back a little bit at work could actually be exactly what her employees need. They don't need her to respond like everything is an emergency at every moment. That made her family life better too.
Emily Paisner: That's great when you feel like you have a lot of love and support from the people around you, but we all know that that doesn't always happen. How do you handle a situation when you have a less-than-supportive co-worker or manager?
Stew Friedman: In the case of someone, maybe it's a boss, maybe it's a spouse who knows somebody important to you, who you find does not see the world as you do, does not want to support you for their own reasons that you discover, then you have probably more discretion, more choice than you might otherwise think to then say to yourself, "Well, am I going to adjust my expectations accordingly and to accommodate this other person's perspective or can I change the way I think about this relationship and perhaps end it?"
Emily Paisner: As we all know, we are being pulled in a million directions. We are always on, how do we take care of ourselves?
Alyssa Westring: That's a great question. I think the idea of self-care has come to mean things like putting on a face mask or having a glass of wine in the evening. When you take a step back and look at what it really means, it's giving your mind, your body, your spirit what it needs in order for you to not only take care of yourself but to give the most to the people around you and give them what they need.
I think we're often afraid that it's going to be selfish. Rather than disappoint anybody at work or disappoint my kids or disappoint my partner or disappoint my friends, it's easiest to take from me time because nobody else besides me is going to feel it. We sacrifice our sleep, our fitness, our health, what we're eating, meditation time, religious time because nobody complains.
That puts us in a position where not only are we not getting the things we need in order to function, but it hurts all those people who aren't complaining too. It's just in a much less obvious way. Just, again, going back to the idea of mom guilt and dad guilt, it's reminding yourself that taking care of yourself is actually good for not just you, but for everybody around you as well.
Stew Friedman: And measuring that. If you're going to conduct experiments, which is what we help people set up, these four-way wins are designed as, "Let's just try this for a month or two. Let's just try this new thing that we came up with that we think is going to be good for us as a family. It's going to be good for each of our jobs or careers. It's going to be good for our friends and community. It's going to be good for us personally, our mind, body, and spirit. Let's just try this."
One of the common kinds of experiments that people do are those that involve self-care with the explicit intent of, "This is going to have an indirect impact on my capacity to show up at work with energy and focus and a positive attitude. It's going to affect my ability to connect with my friends or neighbors, not to mention our relationship and our children." Like a laboratory in your life where you're the scientist and you're trying to create intentional change that's going to benefit you and your world, that's what leaders do.
Emily Paisner: I love the saying, "It takes a village," because I truly do believe that it does. In the book, you talked about the importance of childcare providers and teachers and family and neighbors and others in your community. What are some of the things that we should be making sure as working parents that we should be doing to cultivate and strengthen these relationships so that we can be sure to build our village?
Alyssa Westring: The thing we hear most from the people that we work with is that they don't have time for friendship or community life. They're just trying to keep their head above water with the work and family piece of it. We try to help them see how those relationships can actually make their life better and the investing in the extra five or 10 minutes to talk with a childcare provider when you drop your kid off or to build a relationship with your neighbor, that those can make your life feel richer.
They can also create some help when you need it. Something happens unexpectedly and you need someone to let the dog out. That five or 10 minutes that you invested with your neighbor may pay off in a very concrete way, but also just knowing that there are people around you who have your back matters as well.
Stew Friedman: The key there is to go beyond the expression of gratitude and to think forward about how you can be making their lives better in a way that not too taxing for you so that you're continually building social capital, enriching your world by making the people around you feel better about themselves by helping them to be successful in ways that matter to them. It's not like you're always drawing on that account, but rather you're building it.
Emily Paisner: Stew, as we finish up here, I'm interested to hear from you if you have any tips that you can leave our listeners with that they can start thinking about and doing now some of the key principles from parents who lead that they can bring into their whole selves.
Stew Friedman: If I were to suggest just one thing, it would be to articulate, to write for yourself, and then share this with your partner, "What are the four or five most important things in your life?"
Alyssa Westring: I'll add to that. Don't just list work, family, friends, health. Get really specific. Is it fun? Is it connection? Is it feeling authentic? Is it having adventure? Really drilling down to within and across those different parts of your life, what do you really care about?
Stew Friedman: How does that lead you to create the future that you want to create? What are the things that you stand for, the values that you hold most to you, and how does that then lead you to an ideal day 15 years from now? Describe that day. What's happening on that day? What are you doing during that day in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening? With whom and why? What's the impact you're trying to have? Share that with your partner and see if you can come up with an ideal vision of the future. Yours are going to be different than his or hers.
Emily Paisner: I love that.
Stew Friedman: It requires some conversation together to come up with a shared vision. That's so important because it sets the ground for creative experimentation, connecting with people because it's all rooted in the foundation of what you care most about, what your purpose is as a leader in your life.
Emily Paisner: Stew, thank you so much for being here today.
Stew Friedman: It's been a pleasure. Thank you.
Emily Paisner: Alyssa, thank you so much.
Alyssa Westring: Thank you.
Outro: Thanks for listening to this episode of Equal Parts. See you next time.
Emily Paisner: Wait, before you go, I just want to tell you a little bit about Care@Work by care.com. They work with some of the world's largest companies to offer family care benefits to their employees. If you're one of the lucky ones who already has care benefits at work, use them. If you don't, ask for them. It's a real lifesaver. To learn more, visit care.com/careatwork. Again, that's care.com/careatwork.