I am that one. The one whose child always makes a guest appearance on the Zoom meeting. The one who always asks, “Can we bring kids?” And yes, the one who must occasionally opt out. I’ve also been a female executive at highly visible organizations for the past 20 years, where my teams strive to enhance cultural conversations at the highest levels and to better reflect experiences of reality in the hopes of inciting positive change and understanding for the future. As both a business leader and a mother, I make no apologies for the balancing boundaries I’ve learned (over time) to set for myself, or for prioritizing the needs of my family equally with the needs of my organization.
Yet, I very often feel like I should — which signals to me that we still have a lot of work to do in both spheres of influence.
Our westernized working culture would sooner have us all believe that successful businesspeople are produced in a vacuum — where all distractions fall away in the face of an important meeting — than allow us to acknowledge that children exist within the lives of working professionals. Should a budding business owner or company leader dare to procreate in the course of his or her career, we expect them to handle it. Period. Out of sight, away from the office, before the event and with minimal parental leave. Full-time nannies, tutors, on-site daycares and private preschools can help accomplish these ends, to some extent, but are typically reserved only for the elite, and still somehow elicit whispered admonishments of the working parents for not being more present in the sunlit lives of their young ones. Many simply choose to forego starting a family in pursuit of their professional dreams (whether or not that is the true desire of their hearts), because, oftentimes, the “American dream” is more rooted in an obsession with living to work than with working to live. We succumb to the ill-conceived notion that our business identity and relational identity are mutually exclusive, and therefore, must be kept separate.
Of course, this disproportionately and generationally affects working women (especially those in underrepresented ethnic and racial groups) more steeply than their male counterparts. And it does so despite clear evidence that the tasks of motherhood breed some of the most important leadership skills, including my personal favorite: the ability to bring calm to chaos. While we have seen a definite rise over the past two or three generations in stay-at-home fathers, dual-income earners and women stepping up as the household breadwinner, society still places a sharp personal pressure on the mother who chooses to engage in the professional sphere. This is problematic in countless ways, not the least of which is the effect it has on our children as they are developing, but it also neglects the mission-critical opportunity to create the kind of leaders at home that are needed in business — and to learn how to become a better leader directly from our children.
You see, I have built my career on the core values of inclusivity, social change and representation through platforms that allow others to dream up new dreams for themselves. While working to steward this legacy professionally, I am constantly reminded of where and how this mission starts at home. It has been well documented for decades now that our children best absorb and retain information at the active, immersive, experiential learning level – rather than from passive lectures or hollow expositions on how one should act, think, live and lead. If our children only absorb auditory information at a rate of about 5% but are capable of retaining and emulating 90% of what they learn from teaching others, it shows just how valuable to their development it is to encourage them to practice leadership at the earliest possible stages. And, as any participating parent can attest, our children teach us in countless ways every single day. They sharpen and expand our emotional intelligence, increase our empathy, right-size our ego and offer us their own precocious, unexpected perspective on the ways of the world as they navigate through it. As such, the children of executives are actually essential to the spectrum, lifespan and effectiveness of that executive’s leadership.
“There is a positive place for our children in the workplace, where we do not include them merely as an allowance but as a vital part in post-pandemic America.”
Our children are the most truthful manifestations of our leadership style at work. Their observational learning mimics and reflects back to us the way with which we speak, the way we interact with (and impact) others, and the confidence with which we carry ourselves. Those behavioral factors were once deemed “soft skills” in leadership but are now proven to be critical to the success of any business. I look at how my own mother, Arnita, raised me and my three sisters by herself, and I know that I owe a great deal of my fierce independence and tireless work ethic to the example she set for me at home. Every single action (and tone) we take in front of our children carves out certain elements of who they will grow up to become — and the time we spend engaged with them offers us limitless opportunities to improve, evolve and learn directly from the generation we are working to positively catalyze.
And yet, so often, we leave our children at home. Take, for example, one particularly hot summer afternoon during my first official season as President & COO of the LA Sparks, when my then-3-year-old son fell sick just before the game started. All he wanted was to be held. So, I scooped him up and carried him with me (in five-inch heels, no less) throughout the Staples Center, with everyone from our fans to our ownership group watching, seemingly surprised to discover that I was a mother who had brought her kid to work. I remember feeling embarrassed while I shuffled the two of us around, trying to do it all without dropping any balls. I also remember the guilt and feelings of failure that pulsed through me when I knew I had to leave what turned out to be one of the biggest comeback games of the season in order to take my sick child home to rest. But I mostly remember learning that — despite all of those impossibly conflicting fears and feelings — the show does in fact go on if you’ve done your job to build a trusted team and executable vision.
That day, I’d demonstrated to those in my organization and in the stands that it is okay to be a working parent, even if it is a struggle. And, more importantly, after watching his mom have access and influence in each corner of an arena that houses sports idols and championship banners, my son still got the care he needed from me at home. Those details, though seemingly small and fleeting, will play out with nuance in his own life and professional career one day. I’ve already begun to see it manifest in the way he shows up as a young Black boy, and in how he’s starting to grasp what it means to lead and empower those around him regardless of race, gender, background or parental status.
So, I must ask, if we seek to positively change what has historically been problematic or challenging through the organizations we lead, why wouldn’t our first focus be on exemplifying that shift and fostering strong voices within our own families? The fact of the matter is: working parents breed leaders, and there is a positive place for our children in the workplace — where we do not include them merely as an allowance but as a vital part in post-pandemic America, with the understanding that they are contributing valuable insight and energy into the work we are doing, even indirectly.
As leaders, it is our job to disassemble the pattern of belief that families cannot coincide with the workplace. We have to stop pretending that all that matters at work is work. We must remember that many of our most valuable traits are drawn from and enhanced by those we are doing life with. While we may or may not ever be able to do it all at home and in business — perhaps, if we allow them, our children can help us more closely hit the mark across the board.
Christine Simmons is the Chief Operating Officer for The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Previously, Ms. Simmons served as the President & Chief Operations Officer of the three-time WNBA Champion Los Angeles Sparks.
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