What Becoming a Parent Taught Me About Assuming Leadership in a Time of Crisis

Working mom

By Kayleigh MacPherson
Executive Director, Scholarships and Student Support
UCLA Development

Assuming leadership in a time of transition and tumult – parenting lessons that helped our team thrive during the pandemic.

Returning to work from one’s first multi-month parental leave is challenging no matter the specific circumstances. Whether it is a crisis of identity, scheduling, responsibilities, time, or managing the onslaught of individual, familial, professional, and societal expectations, with parenting comes an additional literal and figurative load for nearly every aspect of our lives.

Assuming a new leadership role in one’s profession can be similarly complex – like the adjustment to parenting, one becomes, at times, solely responsible for the actions of others. There may also be crises of identity, scheduling, responsibilities, time, and managing new expectations.

After four months on parental leave, I returned to the office December 4, 2019, and things had changed. I had both a brand-new baby and a brand-new leadership role at my institution. I was thrilled to get back to work and hardly considered the impact my newfound parental feelings and experiences could have on my approach to leading a team.

In times of uncertainty and transition, we are all tested, and history has shown us that effective leaders must rise. They do not step forward and raise their hands, but they are made from their ability to draw upon visceral experiences, to show compassion, make sound decisions, and act quickly. When COVID-19 moved swiftly into our world, upending our way of life, I drew from my own most recent experience of change and uncertainty – becoming a first-time parent.

Here are the lessons I learned and used to adapt throughout a global crisis, building a team that thrived amidst great challenge.

Consider your instincts

As we were packing our bags and preparing to leave the hospital, the pediatrician on call stopped by – did we have any last-minute questions?

I locked eyes with my partner; they nodded. “How do we know that something is wrong, like seriously wrong?” She smiled and shrugged. “If you have a feeling something is wrong you should call us.”

This is not a muscle we flex regularly in today’s orderly and results-driven society. Actions have consequences and we can predict them with a high degree of regularity. We like routine and order. We do well with this way of being. Sometimes it takes a new baby, or a global pandemic, to remind us that perfect order and reason do not reflect the ways of the world.

In March, the lives we once knew began to change by the minute. It was a novel and strange experience that we will not soon forget. Time seemed to move both rapidly and not at all – a paradox in the making. As leaders, we needed to act quickly and make decisions with limited information.

In large and complex institutions like higher education, decisions do not always happen with expediency. This is academia after all, where group thought and debate, forums, committees, and meetings are time-honored and cherished. We have many people dealing with complicated, complex, impactful, and significant issues – it is a never-ending stream of crisis and conflict, a constant reshuffling of priorities.

As I considered the increasingly rapid onset of a global pandemic, it was clear that there was no time to await a broader directive. I needed to consider what was in the best interest of my team members and their families. This was one opportunity to show them that I appreciate and valued them as people above all else. After brief conversation and deliberation with my peers and colleagues, though we had not received official directive from campus, we began to plan for remote work and ensure our team had as much time as possible to prepare for this jarring transition. We began preparing late Thursday afternoon; the official announcement came around 4:30pm the next day.

With so much uncertainty, the extra time we took to ensure each person felt supported, secure the necessary technology, and determine a structure for what workdays would entail was incredibly beneficial to maintaining productivity and a sense of community. With those extra hours, we were able to prepare a list of projects, set up meetings, familiarize ourselves with remote workspaces like Zoom and Slack, create a phone tree, and clear out of our spaces, all within the span of 24 hours. There was so little we knew in that moment, but knowing we had each other’s best interests at heart allowed trust in one another to flourish, each sensing a difficult road ahead.

Using your instincts to be adaptable, flexible, and keep an eye on the future will be essential to our way of life. This is particularly true now as we attempt to navigate this brand-new world.

Frequent communication with a healthy dose of vulnerability is key

The joy and struggle of new parenthood is well-known, hilarious at best and a tired stereotype at worst. So much of struggle is internal or a shared complaint, but what it really comes down to is a lack of our own needs being met.

Sleep-deprived? Normal. No time to shower? Sorry, this is what you signed up for. Hungry? Better feed the baby first. It is an extension of these needs continually not being met that sends parents straight into a beaten-down, negative headspace, causing conflict and distress to radiate through other areas of our lives.

We must acknowledge these needs through frequent communication, while noting weak spots. Ask for someone to bring you a glass of water from the kitchen or insist on a 45-minute catnap at noon. Protect what you need, share your struggles, and you will be a better parent for it.

There is plenty of wonderful content about learning how to be more vulnerable as a leader, but in the early days of the pandemic, many of us had no choice. With the onset of animals and children in Zoom backgrounds amidst lagging internet connections, everyone was experiencing some level of angst.

After becoming a bit more Zoom-savvy, I set up a daily check-in that initially had no agenda other than to create a space for casual human interaction – something we had less and less of as the pandemic endured. What resulted was a close-knit community where every person had the opportunity to connect over shared experiences. It built structure into our days, and gently set a precedent for continued adherence to routine for even the most schedule averse.

The simple act of checking-in every day as a team and taking the time to ask “how are you doing” not only strengthened our bond initially, but it also morphed into much more. We were able to create opportunities to invite speakers and learn more about other areas of campus, discuss professional development, make quick decisions on time-sensitive matters, weigh in on complex problems, and revive issues that had become stale due to remote work.

We practiced vulnerability by sharing more about ourselves and our lives – professionally and personally, creating much-needed space for support and connection during incredibly difficult moments of the past year, including grieving loss of loved ones and engaging in dialogue around painful current events like the George Floyd murder, Black Lives Matter movement, 2020 election, Capitol Insurrection, and Atlanta murders. While engaging in these conversations was optional, the opportunity to dive deeper and develop greater empathy for every person on the team made us stronger and more productive in nearly every aspect of our work.

Identify what matters and simplify the rest

The triple threat of becoming a new parent, assuming a leadership role, and navigating a once-in-a-lifetime global crisis has given me a greater understanding of both what is important in life and in the purpose of our work. Focus on what matters and be flexible with the rest.

But how do you know what matters? One midnight feeding session, deep into internet scrolling myself, I came across a self-deprecating post from another new parent detailing the products they needed to get through the first through months – also purchased in the middle of the night. So necessary! So relatable! But something about the post seemed off. When did being a parent become a problem that needed a solution? Something to be perfected?

Babies have thrived for thousands and thousands of years, some in truly desolate environments. All they “need” is an attentive caregiver, food, and shelter. Once I was able to focus on these seemingly basic tenets of childcare, I was able to let go of the overwhelm and cut down on the mindless scrolling. Closing my eyes for those 20 minutes and considering what went well and what I’d like to improve from the day was a much better use of my time.

How does this translate to the office? First, find your why. What do you love about the work you are doing? Why does it matter? How does it intersect with what matters to you in your personal life? A great place to start is by going through Franklin Covey’s Personal Mission Statement framework; you can sign up for free here.

By considering these important questions for yourself, you are better equipped to translate and adapt this for your team. Hold sessions where you bring these questions to the team and discuss one on one. What do people most enjoy about their work? What do they least enjoy? What can you do to shift your team’s perspective when they are dealing with difficult tasks? Can they too replace the office version of mindless scrolling with intentional, action-oriented reflections? This is not an effort to remove or minimize unpleasant aspects of our work. It is an attempt to step back and look at the big picture, reminding ourselves of the end goal. What does success look like? What projects are we most proud of? The most important thing we can do is inspire purpose in our teams.

For us, everything revolves around a singular mission: improving financial and programmatic support for students. Whether through donor outreach and engagement, strategic communication, events, or campus and colleague partnerships, we believe that when students are well-supported in their pursuit of higher education, they bring it back to their communities, creating a ripple effect for the rest of us.

Each university has its own way to tell this story, but it is more than just being about one student – it is about a better future for us all. Because we have identified our values and what matters, we have also created a thriving environment where people are respected and feel safe to sit with their struggles, just as I hope to do for my own family.

Establish stability and routine wherever you can

Most individuals enjoy agency and being in control. When the pandemic began to spread at alarming speed, many of us felt like a rug was pulled out from under us – so too is this experience a frequent one for new parents. We are told to prepare for shock and surprise in the little personality that emerges from such a tiny baby. They could have all your best qualities, all your worst qualities, or none of your qualities at all, and yet we love them dearly, appreciating every aspect of them with the deepest sense of our being.

Despite history telling us that the only thing we can control is knowing we do not have control, we continue to be drawn to it, seeking it out when it is not possible. In both a pandemic and as a new parent, we have no choice but to learn this lesson – to surrender to it. We may not have control but as leaders and new parents, we can be a source of stability and positivity.

In the early newborn haze, I committed to a shower and a long walk with the baby (one not necessarily needing to go before the other) every day. From there, it had a ripple effect on my outlook. Rather than one tiring moment blurring into another, I had two positive things I would do for myself, and a (very simple) routine around which to plan the day. While the showers are still quick, the walks got longer and eventually turned into the brisker runs I enjoyed pre-baby, making me feel more and more like myself.

I channeled these experiences as I sought to incorporate structure into the remote work environment.

Here is what it looks like for me:

  • Daily check-ins with the entire team, as mentioned above, which are quick informal meetings that take the place of early morning banter. Coffee is optional. On Tuesdays, each person shares their highs and lows of the week. We celebrate accomplishments, hold one another accountable, and navigate complex issues.
  • Weekly one-on-one meetings with every staff member. I do my best to move them infrequently, only cancelling at the other person’s request.
  • Take time in individual meetings to show genuine interest in something they are doing outside of work. Whether it is planning or returning from a fun excursion, dealing with challenging personal matters, taking care of a family member or pet, or pursuing a new hobby, each topic is specific to the person.
  • Discuss performance regularly, noting praise and criticism quickly and directly. Keep your mind on the future. How does the positive behavior contribute to the bigger picture? How will improvement make us better in the long term? Focus on behaviors and not the person, noting that these lessons will expand our entire team’s future potential and opportunity.
  • Encourage professional development whenever possible, including challenging individuals to step outside their comfort zones (whether it be public speaking, making a presentation, leading meetings, designing a workshop, taking the lead in a collaboration, etc.).
  • Ask people if they have everything they need to do their job well – what else can you provide as a manager? Where are they getting stuck? Follow up and share progress.
  • Make a list of traits and qualities of what you genuinely appreciate about every person on your team; read them before you have difficult conversations. Write down what you want to say in advance.
  • Be a voice and an advocate for your team when things go well and take the fall for them when things do not go as planned.

Humans thrive on knowing what to expect, and for many years we never considered the alternative. The past year forced us into an uncomfortable new space, desperately craving routine and stability. We crave these things too as new parents. Through the simple routines, set meetings, and practices outlined above, I was able to maintain stability and a positive environment through work – making the “office” a haven over the past year. It has also been a valuable way to appreciate every person not only for the value they bring to their specific domain but also to the broader functioning of the team.

You cannot and do not have to do it all

When I am feeling at the top of my game, I can do at least three things well. They are not always the same three things each day, but they generally come from the following categories: parenting, partnership, work, friendship, home maintenance, physical activity, cooking, and reading. Whew – typing it all out is exhausting. It is also a good reminder that it would be impossible for me to be proficient at all these things at once.

Some days, I am an amazing leader at work and present parent, but I did not excel in the partnership front. Did I exercise? Read a good book? This is an excellent way to keep things that are important to me front-of-mind without being too hard on myself for missing the mark.

I acknowledge it and move on with my day.

It took the onset of the pandemic for this mindset to become integrated into how I managed my team alongside my day-to-day responsibilities at work. Originally, because I was “in charge” and knew we had to complete certain tasks or accomplish specific goals, I thought I had to be the one who decided how they were done.

I had invited feedback and open dialogue, but was I prepared to deliver? The team was hungry for more social time and professional development, but struggling with the malaise of the pandemic, each week I found myself coming up short with a lack of resources and creativity, slightly resentful of the work I needed to put into make the various sessions worth everyone’s time.

Resentment breeds contempt and I acted quickly, inviting another member of the team to take over a standing meeting – my input was now peripheral rather than directive. It was one of the best decisions I made all year.

One by one, a different team member was able to take advantage of this leadership opportunity and take charge by planning team meeting agendas, strategic planning sessions, social zoom session themes, and professional development opportunities. By empowering the team to do more of what they wanted and to take agency in its creation, our sessions and time together is more dynamic and meaningful, enabling individuals to showcase topics about which they are passionate. We have all found greater purpose in spreading out these responsibilities and appreciating the unique strengths each person brings to the team.

Be true to yourself

We all had tough days in the past year – for some there were many more than others. Though I was fortunate to have childcare for most of the year, there were days where I did not and there will be times in the future where I will not. Rather than fret over the lack of productivity on these days, I let everyone know the true circumstances as being a parent is one of the best professional development opportunities there is.

The skillsets needed to be a present parent and adapt to the unexpected are complementary to the ability to lead a dedicated and passionate team. Parenting, like other difficult and formative experiences, challenges us to thoroughly understand ourselves and find deep empathy for those around us.

Parenting is also about recognizing the importance of boundaries. I keep a tight schedule for the workday – during work hours I am very available and take few breaks, but after hours, I put the phone away and spend time with my family. If people need to reach me urgently, they know to call my cell phone. These new time constraints strengthen our ability to prioritize, multi-task, meet deadlines, and move projects forward.

It is important for me to protect time for myself. I am a more present and productive individual in every aspect of my life when I am able to honor this space. In turn, I aim to also set a precedent for our team that encourages everyone to keep reasonable work hours. This looks like:

  • Setting standards: Our team knows that when they send emails at odd hours I will follow up, inquiring about workload and time management.
  • Catching up: We all have days that fill to the brim with meetings. It is impossible to respond to emails let alone produce actual work during business hours. On these days I pick up later in the evening, scheduling emails to be sent first thing in the morning.
  • I use my own sick and vacation time and encourage the team to do so in turn. We take turns highlighting these opportunities to unplug and share openly about the restorative energy breaks inspire – increasing creativity, joy, and productivity.
  • Listen. Ask questions. Provide space for silence and reflection. You may be surprised what you are able to learn.

Change your behavior; Change your mind

For me, becoming a parent was an opportunity for me to be the best version of myself, every day. On days I do not get it right, I have a reason to try again. Rather than viewing parenting as an endless series of mindless tasks, it became a privilege – in my little corner of the world I could shape a new generation and perspective. It was something I “got to do.”

Throughout the pandemic, especially as those first days blurred into weeks, we all experienced a collective sense of impending dread, fear, and horror. Initially, amidst it all, I kept coming back to one thought: This may be the first time in our lives or even in our history that every single person in the world is going through the exact same thing at the exact same moment.

The specifics of each situation were different, but the facts were the same. When else would we be able to consider the impacts of a transformative shared experience? We talked about this as a team frequently and sent messages and notes to colleagues and constituents expressing the same sentiments. These thoughts now seem quaint, naïve, and inappropriate even, considering the widespread tragedy and staggering loss that would soon be apparent.

But even still, I could not help but wonder whether this shift in perspective could be useful, even permanent? Every day I decided to try – to share a story that made me laugh, post a funny picture of my daughter on Slack, recommend a good book. Every day was not full of joy, and there were some days I shared a difficult experience alongside a lesson learned.

At the start of each workday, I reflected on something that brought me joy. Some days it was simply waking up to a goofy baby, and sometimes it was something simpler – an interesting recipe or beautiful weather. I chose positivity and human connection, and though some days it came less naturally than others, it eventually became habit and now I cannot not imagine beginning my days another way. Appreciating the small wins and vocalizing them enhanced a shared humanity for us all – one that has benefitted our team professionally and personally.

Behavior shapes perspective. Perspective shapes your worldview. From there, everything else follows.

In summary

The pursuit of perfection is dangerous path. Had I not experienced three life-changing circumstances nearly all at once, I am not sure I would have recognized how so many of these seemingly simple parenting lessons apply to every aspect of our life – especially in times of crisis. I am grateful for every lesson I have learned over the past year, and for the extra time I have had to think how these time-honored traditions apply to building a positive and productive workplace.

We are not perfect but have so much to be proud of from the past 15 months. I look forward to the next 15 months and more, genuinely excited about all we are going to accomplish. My daughter is now nearly 2 years old and delighted by the outdoors. Every day, we have a new bouquet of freshly hand-picked flowers on the kitchen table. She is finding out what she loves.

Amidst discussions of a return to campus, our team still meets daily. We speak often about how to keep motivation high and avoid poor communication patterns ubiquitous to remote work, constantly reviewing what has worked well and what could be tweaked.

When you invest your time in people and are generous with knowledge, they pay it back with interest – heightening their own commitment to the day-to-day work and serving a greater purpose. If we each take these simple steps to tweak behavior, we can change attitudes, and through changed attitudes we can change our very state of being.

By recognizing lessons learned in crisis and in such significant times of transition, we can all be better parents, humans, and leaders to our team, no matter what is happening in the world. Context is important and being exactly who you are in your exact specific moment can create dialogues that change lives and the very meaning of our work.

Kayleigh MacPherson is Executive Director of Development in the Office of Scholarships and Student Support Initiatives at UCLA. She has worked with a variety of institutions and organizations focusing on important causes such as politics, law, the arts, community activism, and now higher education. She lives in Los Angeles with her partner, toddler, and pet menagerie. She can be reached at kmacpherson@support.ucla.edu.