How a little bit of parenting advice can help leaders lead more effectively.

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In the middle of what seemed a typical coaching session, a chief executive thanked me for my parenting advice. A bit puzzled, I asked: “What parenting advice did I give you?” (Frankly, I didn’t know that I was in the business of handing out tips on how to raise children, nor sure if I should be.)

He proceeded to tell me the advice was so good he shared it with some of his friends and they were also thankful for it. Still confused about what “advice” he was referring to, I asked again: “Parenting advice? When did I give you this? And if it was so good, what was it?”

In our previous session, we’d discussed the need for him as a chief executive to focus on expecting the standard to be achieved because it is the expectation rather than using the fear of punishment as the stimulus. In the midst of that discussion, I shared an example that had recently caught my attention from my home life.

It was a story I’d also featured in a previous column titled “Leadership by fear means you do not trust your employees”. In short, I had told one of our teenage daughters to be home by, let’s say, 11pm. I had said: “And if you are not, you’ll get grounded”, which is probably common for a parent to say – at least I hoped it was. And it is even common for leaders to tell their employees: “Do ‘this’ and if you don’t then ‘X’ will happen to you.”

As I walked down the hall after making this comment to my daughter, I wondered: “Why did I just threaten her? Why didn’t I just say my expectation?” The conversation in my mind continued analysing what just happened.

Did I not expect her to be home on time? And even if that was the case, is this the right approach? I realised I should have been focused on building her behaviour not just in this instance; the behaviour I want to instil in my kids is to do the right thing because it is expected.

That is the essence of the parenting advice this CEO was referring to, and it is the core of today’s leadership advice – focus on building behaviour.

Following this and completely unrelated, a couple of people suggested I write a book on parenting. This intrigued me so I started pondering the idea. While I am not going to set out and write a book on parenting – the best I could do is to write about raising your child as a leader – a thought jumped into my mind.

As leaders we should do the same as parents – that is to focus our efforts on building patterns of behaviour and the attitude that we want to see in the future. It is too easy to spend too much time on today, and address the immediacy of performance. Just as parents want to see their kids act in the right way every day, they realise it is their role to build the future behaviour.

When you fail to do this you are actually failing your employees and holding them back from realising their fullest potential.

Here is a simple tip on how to make this happen. Create a list noting a specific area that will help your managers be even better. Every leader recognises areas of behaviour and/or skill that if improved would have a direct effect on performance.

But creating a list is not enough, you need to do the hard part and talk with your employees about it. Too often, leaders identify what would make someone better. Then do very little about it.

Once you have the areas of behaviour or skill improvement identified, talk to your employees about them.

I believe in a practice called “feedforward”. Instead of looking backwards as you do in feedback, when employing feedforward, you are looking into the future. You would say something like: “If you do (fill this in with the improvement area) in the future, it will have (be specific) effect on your performance. Now, let’s talk about how you can grow in this area.”

This little lesson from parenting highlights the essence of great leadership – helping people get even better.

Tommy Weir is a leadership adviser, author of 10 Tips for Leading in the Middle East and other leadership writings and the founder of the Emerging Markets Leadership Center