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Balancing motherhood, work teaches leadership: Susannah Gal

Posted 5/22/19

I am a mother of two daughters, and we celebrated the college graduation of our younger one this past weekend.

College was a tumultuous ride for her. Changing majors, finding jobs, building and …

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Balancing motherhood, work teaches leadership: Susannah Gal

Susannah Gal, daughter Katrin Baxter and husband/father Hilton Baxter prepare Saturday for Katrin’s graduation ceremony at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
Susannah Gal, daughter Katrin Baxter and husband/father Hilton Baxter prepare Saturday for Katrin’s graduation ceremony at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
photo courtesy of Susannah gal
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I am a mother of two daughters, and we celebrated the college graduation of our younger one this past weekend.

College was a tumultuous ride for her. Changing majors, finding jobs, building and then ending relationships. It was also tumultuous for us sometimes, not the least of which were the tuition and housing bills.

I’ve also been in a leadership position in my work and personal life in several different ways for a few years. Because of Mother’s Day recently, my first without my biological mother, I took to thinking how my leadership is shaped by my experiences as a mother.

My husband and I established guidelines (i.e. limits) for our daughters so that they could know how to work within them. This would include getting to bed, eating their vegetables and doing homework before fun stuff.

I think this has some parallels in the workplace when you consider guardrails for decision-making or activities that leaders provide to their staff. I think these limits allow people to learn how to focus efforts on activities that fit certain parameters. It might feel a bit restrictive. However, in some ways, it can be liberating to have an approximate lane in which to work.

Empathetic listening is something I feel I’m pretty good at, although I still have trouble not stepping in to try to solve the problem for my daughters and my staff. I think solving someone’s problems is not necessarily a good thing as it may not allow the person to develop their own ideas of how to move their lives or a project forward.

In a webinar class I did with a group called Fundraising Leadership, they espoused the idea of coaching by asking questions. Questions such as “What’s the real challenge for you?” and “How do you think that problem could be solved?” This group feels that by asking questions rather than telling someone, you actually reduce the work you, as a manager, need to do. Again, I’m still working on perfecting that approach.

Another aspect related to this is the encouragement of staff/children. I had to guide my daughters and try not to push them, or impress my own will on their dreams and aspirations.

This was super-evident when my recently graduated daughter wanted to switch from majoring in engineering to theater at the end of her freshman year. I understood that she wasn’t happy in the former pursuit, although I was concerned for her ability to find a job in the theater field.

In fact, my parents who worked in theater and met there always told us kids not to go into that for a career. In this case, though, I held off and let her make that decision, and I found she is much happier. She doesn’t yet have a job in theater, but she is working on it.

I think the encouragement of staff without forcing them into a specific strategy or approach is really useful for improving staff morale and engagement at work, and hopefully in reducing turnover.

In looking for some additional inspiration on this topic, I went online and found several articles in which the activities of mothering translate into strong leadership. I found an article titled “Mothers — Our First Example of Real Leadership” by Tanveer Naseer. I loved that as it points out that these first relationships can be super-critical to the success of the children being raised.

Another important aspect of mothering that relates to leadership is believing in your kids and your staff. With my younger daughter, that approach came in handy recently when she called in a panic saying her roommates were not going to renew the lease and wanted to move out.

I resisted the strong urge to tell her where to advertise for roommates or to look for other places to live, and just said: “What do you think you should do?” and “I believe you will make the right decision.”

At work, I’m still perfecting that approach, although I think it has real power for helping to strengthen skills by staff and gain confidence in themselves to make good decisions.

Naseer also wrote about this, saying: “Although the general definition of a leader is someone others follow, the fact is to be a true leader means developing your team members so that over time, they will no longer need your direct support in order to achieve growth and success.” This is such a great ideal that I feel may be lacking in our local and national politics as well as in some of our workplaces.

Other things I found included quotes from some famous leaders who are also mothers. This included one from Kathy Hochul, lieutenant governor of New York and mother of two. “While mediating an argument [often between my children], I sought to teach empathy for the feelings of others and respect for different faiths and backgrounds that may give others a different point of view.”

There were also several about how time management is important and the skill of multi-tasking as a mother. Those are definitely helpful in both leading and parenting. Danielle Marchant, recruiting manager at Recruiting Social, wrote: “I’ve learned patience, humility, and some killer multitasking skills. This translates in managing my team; how they succeed, grow and become better individuals professionally and personally.”

I’m definitely in the growth mindset — looking for ways to learn new skills and use them. It’s hard at various times to keep on this given all the other things we do, as I’m sure you can appreciate. If you want to share any additional tips or ideas you have about mothering or leadership development, please do. I’ll look forward to hearing from you.

Susannah Gal is associate dean of research and outreach and a professor of biology at Penn State Harrisburg, and is a member of the Press & Journal Editorial Board. She has lived around the world and made Middletown her home in 2015. She can be reached at susannahgal1000@gmail.com.