Managing as Mothering: What Mom Taught Me About Servant Leadership

My mom died last month, and amid the sadness of losing her was a silver lining: learning what a great boss she was.

I knew my mom, Marty Frauenheim, had risen steadily in the ranks of Catholic education. She progressed from teacher to principal to associate superintendent of Chicago Catholic Schools to superintendent of Catholic Schools at the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis.

During our visits and phone calls, she shared mostly her worries — about student, staff and school challenges. She didn’t brag about achievements.

Needed: Leaders who care about people

But in her humble way, she stood out as a star leader, her former colleagues and teachers and students came forward to say. My father added that a number of people over the years called her the best boss they’d ever had. Even a teacher my mom had effectively let go –declining to renew the woman’s contract — called my mom her top supervisor.

I think the key to this high praise is that my mom combined caring and firmness in equally large measures as a boss. She set high standards for her teachers and staff. But she also worked her tail off to try to help her folks meet those expectations.

She also wasn’t afraid of firing someone who didn’t hit the mark, but she did so only after working alongside them to lift their performance — and most of the time those efforts succeeded.

Maybe it’s because my mom passed away suddenly of an apparent heart attack that the issue of bosses has been on my mind lately. But I’m seeing the importance of sound leadership and supervision all around me these days.

More and more, it seems to me, organizations have to make sure they have leaders who dedicate themselves to their staff’s growth, who care about them as people, and, who will let employees go as a last resort — rather than at the first sign of trouble.

Why boss “quality” is so important

Several factors are bringing boss quality to the forefront:

  • Tighter labor markets — The U.S. economy is growing. Unemployment has fallen from about 10 percent five years ago to 6.3 percent. Hiring is increasing, and top performers have more options than ever. Those stuck with crummy, uncaring bosses are going to be among the first to leave.
  • Growing transparency into organizations –The pressure to have good bosses is intensified by the way people can see into organizations like never before. Social media channels and sites like Glassdoor.com and my own site, Great Rated, allow people to learn about firms and the quality of their leaders. Increasingly, companies can’t hide mean or mediocre managers.
  • Data-driven job seekers — Job seekers, especially young ones, expect to be able to research decisions and to rate their experience. People used to using RateMyProfessors to select classes, Yelp to find restaurants, and CNET for electronics, are hungry for information about one of the biggest decisions they make — who to work for. It’s not hard to imagine a time in the near future when companies themselves will want to expose 360-degree reviews of their middle managers as a recruiting tool.
  • Authentic employment brands — Closely related to the transparency and data-driven job seeker trends is the way companies increasingly are revealing what it’s really like to work there in their pitch to employees. False or hyped claims about culture are easier than ever to uncover. And organizations are recognizing that a genuine presentation of their workplace — including what bosses are like — is efficient. It attracts people likely to be a good fit, and wards off people likely to fizzle.

Some people may want bosses who are ruthlessly effective — those who set the bar high and fire fast if employees don’t clear it right away.

Low performers are the greatest managerial challenge

But I think most people prefer leaders who are effective in a ruthful way (yes, ruthful is a word!). They want leaders like my mom. And I notice more and more business leaders following in her footsteps.

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Take Andy Khawaja, CEO of online payment processing firm Allied Wallet. I spoke with him recently, because his 1,000 employee firm proved to be one of Great Rated’s 10 Great Workplaces for Millennials.

His philosophy about low performers is that their trouble is the manager’s responsibility. The employees deserve help in getting up to snuff, he argues. “I don’t like to just get rid of them,” Khawaja says. “I want to teach them.”

That takes real work. And real worry. The kind of fretting my mom did about sub-par staffers, and whether she could get them where they needed to be. She cared about her employees, even as she remained focused on the ultimate goal of serving students.

Servant leadership? It’s managing as mothering

You might call how my mother led servant leadership — being humbly in the service of others, including her staff. But another term comes to mind. My mom raised me and my brother and sister with the same combination of love and elevated standards that she brought to her work.

Maybe this approach to leadership — an approach that companies would do well to adopt — could be called Managing as Mothering.

Yes, mothering in the best sense. Long may it live.

Ed Frauenheim is an editor at Great Rated!™, the workplace research site that gives job seekers the inside scoop on companies and their cultures so they can find their best fit. ?Ed produces content for Great Rated! and for its parent organization Great Place to Work®. Ed has been writing about work, business and technology for 15 years, including eight years as a reporter and editor at Workforce magazine. He is also co-author of two books: "Good Company: Business Success in the Worthiness Era," and "Organized Innovation: A Blueprint for Renewing America’s Prosperity." Contact him at ed.frauenheim@greatplacetowork.com.

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