I connected with Jackie Acho through my twitter-turned-real-life friend Deb Mills-Scofield; subsequently Jackie made several incredibly smart and thought-provoking comments on my blog; we then met in person in person when I spoke at Case Western earlier this month. She's got some great insight about parenting and leadership — enjoy!
The question? By the year 2002 at age 34, it had never occurred to me not to lean in. I had earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from MIT and a partnership at McKinsey & Company. I helped fascinating clients with strategy, growth and innovation, working 80 hours a week, accumulating frequent flyer miles and kudos. I loved it. That same year, my daughter was born and 18 months later, my son. I scaled back work some – fewer hours, local clients. Still, with a reassuring nanny at home, I continued at a relatively fast pace, as did my husband.
Then, at 7 months old, our son contracted salmonella poisoning while on vacation. There is nothing like lying in a hospital bed with your baby, miles from home, to make you question priorities. I wondered, “Am I spending enough time with my kids? Do I understand all I need to comfort my son?” Thankfully, my son recovered but the questions remained. Before I could catch my breath, my daughter had become a toddler with an excellent vocabulary and a strong voice. She started acting out, stomping her feet, not wanting to go to school. She was shouting at me, all the time. I was tired. I was worried. I was confused. I had already changed so much. I wondered, WHAT ELSE DO YOU NEED FROM ME? One day as I was dressing for work, she answered, “I’m okay if you’re gone a day a week, but I’m not okay if you’re gone more!” She could not have been more clear. My children needed me, and I needed them.
My answer? I left McKinsey, taking myself off the corporate fast track to become an entrepreneur. Yes, I leaned out of the establishment. As I saw it, I had no better choice; however, as an entrepreneur, I learned that I could do work in project bites. My network was large. I could sell. As a result, I never stopped leaning into work at high levels of leadership. Most significantly, starting my own business allowed flexibility and time with my children. I didn’t have to compromise. I could work at this level and be whole. It is true that my husband could have made a similar choice, but EITHER WAY, the corporate world would lose one of us. It is also true that most working parents economically have no choice.
When it comes to our children, I feel as if I dodged a bullet. When I became more available to them, I, in a sense, said to my daughter, “I hear you.” Miraculously, she stopped yelling at me. She was transformed. And so was I.
What happened to me personally? Being more hands-on with my children, I stepped outside of myself. I listened more and judged less. I learned what it means to see the world through their eyes and feel with them. In sum, my children awakened my EMPATHY. No one could have done it better. I believe that raising children transforms us, especially people like me who spend their adult lives exercising the “left brain” (e.g., science, strategy). Parenting is not the only way to learn empathy, nor is it a guarantee that empathy will be learned. In my case, I came to realize that as a parent, my intellect was the same, but my heart had grown.
Professionally? Because I had clients who cared not only about my skills, but me, I had the courage to start my own business. Many of them were also parents who had “been there, done that”, faithful that no matter where or when I worked, I would deliver. Some were not parents, but life experiences (e.g., surviving the death of a family member, caring for siblings with disabilities, living outside of the mainstream) oriented them to understand people and value relationships.
Empathetic clients and colleagues also included me in leadership, which is not always a given from the outside nor possible for many hands-on parents. They treated me more as a flexible executive resource than a contractor. When opportunities arose, they let me run with them. They promoted my work. They kept me in the flow. They championed me to run organizations with exciting platforms. Reflecting on it now, my network of clients and colleagues has become the virtual “company” that leans back into me, at a time when most actual companies do not. That, combined with the diversity of their leadership teams, made me think that empathetic leaders drive something else which is all too rare: inclusion.
How can my learnings impact business? The empathetic leaders are driving innovation. Perhaps that explains why innovation is rare. Only 1% of companies drive 40% of new jobs, and only 1 in10 sustains growth.1,2,3 In the last 50 years, companies have driven productivity improvements and grown through acquisition, but few have sustained innovation. My innovative clients were beacons, leveraging something other than usual brainstorming, stage gate processes, disciplined dreaming, etc. I realized that empathic leadership was not just nice to have; it could be a missing link to innovation.
It is therefore not just unfortunate that our current organizational structures often miss out on what hands-on parents offer as leaders from the inside out. It is not good business. What if organizations could really lean into their people in the same way my network has done for me? What if we could build a new leadership paradigm which truly values and develops empathy as well as “hard skills”? I believe we would see more innovation.
What do you think?
Does parenting make you a better leader?
Does it make you more innovative?
Would you like to examine the possibility of empathy driving innovation in your organization?
You can read more on Jackie's blog about the state of empathy in leadership today, and how organizational empathy could unlock innovation here.
Jackie is President of The Acho Group, a strategy and leadership consulting firm. Prior to founding The Acho Group in 2005, she was a Partner in the Midwest Complex of McKinsey & Company. Jackie received her master's degree and Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a B.S. in chemistry with highest honors from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She was named one of the “top 40 under 40” by Crain’s Cleveland Business Magazine and “one of the 500 most influential women in Northeast Ohio” by Northern Ohio Live magazine. Jackie lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio with her husband, John LeMay, and their two children, Sophie (10) and Grant (9).
1 Kauffman Foundation, High Growth Firms and the Future of the
American Economy, March 2010
2 Christensen and Raynor, The Innovator’s Solution, 2003
3 Baghai, Coley, and White; McKinsey & Co, The Alchemy of Growth; 2000