A stretch assignment is defined as a project or task given to an employee which is beyond their current knowledge or skills level in order to “stretch” the employee developmentally. It challenges the employee by placing them out of their comfort zone in order to learn and grow. Whilst not proposed by an employer, i consider motherhood a stretch assignment. At least it has been for me.
The day our daughter was born six year ago, a mother was also born. I had never walked this road before so it was beyond my knowledge and skills level. Just when I thought I had mastered handling an infant, the terrible twos came with tantrums, and when that stage had passed, it was time to start school, more like one curve ball after another. As my children grow, I am also growing as a mother. I have developed important leadership competencies since I became a mother and I bring these with me to the workplace.
You see some people will have to read a book or attend a course on how to develop these competencies and wait for situations to present themselves in order to apply their theoretical knowledge. I am not implying that there is anything wrong with this approach. I am simply highlighting a more applied way that some might have a blind spot for. Mothers and other primary care givers out there gain these competencies in a practical manner. The motherhood curve balls are always coming and mutating such that if I do not respond with agility, the situation could deteriorate…but let me not get ahead of myself.
Stretch assignments are usually linked to development of specific competencies and below is a list of the important leadership competencies that I believe mothers bring into the workplace.
- Negotiation skills – Our three children are aged 6, 4 and 4. Trust me when I tell you that nobody negotiates like a toddler. Daily I have situations that present themselves where any one of them or sometimes all of them have their own goals and intentions which are completely different from mine and I have to go through a negotiation process of seeking common ground to reach a mutual agreement whilst avoiding a third world war in our household. As mothers go through the negotiation process with their children daily, they are perfecting this very important competency. If the roles you have require a lot of negotiation, then consider a mother. It could save or bring your company millions of dollars.
- Conflict resolution – When the negotiation does not go as planned and the situation has deteriorated to a dispute and tears, then its conflict resolution that is needed and as any mother will tell you, we are highly qualified for this too. It’s from issues like I want to watch Paw Patrol and she wants to watch Sophia the First to You gave him a blue car and you gave me a yellow car but I also want the blue car. I always smile at the end of it when the twins are giving each other a hug after mummy dearest has “handled it”. And if a mother can do it at home, she can do it at work.
- Managing expectations – My eldest daughter taught me this one in an unexpected way. I actually wrote a post about it back in 2016 which you can read here but the brief summary is this. She had her first sport day at school (this was also our first sport day as parents). The conversation in the morning went something like this:
Me I am so excited and looking forward to your sports day.
Her But mummy when we were practicing others were faster than me.
Me (caught by surprise and not sure at all what to say)… Just do your best and have fun
Sometimes I am also caught by surprise by the questions and comments i get from my children but i have also learnt to think on my feet… but i digress, back to managing expectations. So my husband and I went for the sports day which by the way happens during working hours so if you want the benefit of what mothers bring to the workplace, offer them flexibility to attend important events such as these.
The races began and finally it was our daughter’s turn and like all the parents, we were on our feet cheering. To my wonderful surprise our daughter was first in two races and second in the 3rd race. I had an opportunity to talk to one of my daughter’s teachers who confirmed that during the school practice sessions, our daughter had not really been the fastest. When she told me her friends were all faster than her, she was not under promising. She was just telling me what had transpired. Obviously it was unintentional on her part but my expectations for the day were managed. I also believe despite this, she still wanted to do better and still believed she could and hence her really great performance…. well according to me her mother.
I was obviously happy and learnt a very important lesson from this incident and that is to manage expectations, a necessary quality in the workplace, needed as you lead your team and when you manage upwards. No under-promising or saying what you know cannot be done because that is what they want to hear. And by the way, no employer will ever mention that they want you to manage their expectations and yet it’s an important skill for success.
4. Walking the talk – What I have learnt as a mother is that I have to walk the talk and not just be a “do as I say” person. Children will do what they see and not what they are told. It cannot be about putting rules of what should be done, and not do it yourself. One of my Line Managers who made a very great impression on me was very consistent when it came to “balance”. Most of the time he was out of the office by 6 pm. He would pass through our office and remind all of us to ensure we got home before the kids were asleep and we had helped them with homework. It’s extremely powerful when employees see workplace leaders model the behaviors they are requesting from them. As a mother and primary caregiver, I can be trusted to walk the talk in the workplace because I do it daily at home such that now it comes naturally.
5. Receiving and giving feedback – Receiving and giving feedback is important for any successful team. It’s easy to give feedback when it’s positive and even easier to receive good feedback. My children have taught me to receive the not so good but necessary feedback. Any mother will tell you that most times when young children give you feedback, it’s not even done in a considered way. Most times it’s brutal. When my children gave me feedback about my culinary skills, it stung but I received it and invested the time needed to improve in this area of my life. Not only can I receive negative feedback with grace, I can give it gracefully too because I know how important it is for feedback to be given in a considered manner for it to be received well and acted on.
6. Agility – When the curve balls keep coming, agility is the key to survival. Nothing teaches you agility like motherhood does. Sometimes the nanny does not come back from the weekend, sometimes the meetings take longer when I should be picking the children after school and sometimes one child falls sick when I am on a business trip. When things like this happen, I do not panic, I calmly activate appropriate strategies, like leveraging my support structures to help. I liken the curve balls to the V.U.C.A world (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) in which businesses operate today and who better to help a company navigate this than someone who has handled this before and still handles it often, a mother.
7. Teamwork – Teamwork comes naturally to me as a mother. I am not trying to be a lone ranger out for individual glory. In motherhood world, this is not possible. I have a “tribe” of trusted friends, helpers and advisers to help me as I navigate motherhood and yet I am fully aware of my own individual role in the whole process. Most workplaces are made up teams and I know about the chemistry that is needed for teams to succeed. You can trust a mother to build a great engaged team.
Here is what I am advocating for:
- When you have a mother who took time off to look after her children and she is now re-entering the workforce, remember she developed some valuable competencies during her time away. She might have a gap on her CV, but this is by no means a gap in her leadership capabilities. Give her a chance.
- When you have a senior position that you need to fill and one of your candidates is a mother, remember being a mother has already taken her out of a comfort zone and has allowed her practical development of critical competencies. It has stretched her. Give her a chance.
Motherhood is one unending stretch assignment. When you think you have mastered one development stage, the next one comes and you are stretched again. When you thought you had gained experience from child number 1, child number 2 and child number 3 will be completely different individuals requiring you to re-evaluate what you thought you had mastered. Isn’t this the agility needed in the corporate world?. Have I convinced you to consider motherhood a stretch assignment? Let me know in the comments section.
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Love and blessings
Mum in stilettos