Lessons from the parenting trenches

Jul 07, 2024


Effective team management involves setting clear expectations, equipping and empowering members, and fostering engagement and evaluation.

We all work hard to create effective teams composed of motivated people, so when an initiative or project fails it can be easy to lay blame on the team. But I suggest we take a look in the mirror first.

As a fairly newly-minted senior associate at Cyntergy, one could say my experience at people management is in its “infancy.” But I do have a lot of kids (five under the age of 8), and I’ve learned some important lessons from the parenting trenches that I think apply well to work life. So indulge me, if you will, as I lay out a proposal – the five Es for how we can best cultivate our team members:

  1. Expect. Upon opening the play room door, I experience a familiar spike in blood pressure. I specifically remember telling the 5-year-old, “Clean the room before snacks,” and yet here is the room, a complete mess, and here he is, happily munching away on carrots and hummus (or, to be honest, Teddy Grahams or worse).
    Is he a monster? A manipulative glutton? No, he’s just a 5-year-old. And when I say, “Clean your room,” the expectation isn’t translating.
    How often have we experienced something similar at work? We set the table for our teams and what comes back is not what we wanted. Queue the blood pressure spike. Are they monsters? Manipulative layabouts? No, they’re just not inside our brains. We have to learn to set better expectations: crystal clarity, good examples, and periodic checks are all essential. We can’t blame others for not doing what we didn’t effectively tell them.
  2. Equip. Our family goes through two gallons of milk per week. Do you know how much milk a large Target-brand cereal bowl will hold? I do. It’s about a half-gallon. I learned this one day after instructing my eldest son to, “Get yourself a bowl of cereal so I can finish napping.” Twenty minutes later I entered the kitchen to find him on the floor spoonlessly lapping at a bowl of milk and cereal.
    “I couldn’t move it without spilling,” he grunted between slurps. Meanwhile the milk jug, our last milk jug, stood empty on the counter.
    Is he a monster? A milk-guzzling fiend? No, I just didn’t equip him properly. A pre-poured portion of milk or a quick training on handling the big jug may have spared us a trip to the store.
    What do our teams need to get their jobs done? How receptive are we to their requests? And how often do we ask them, “What else do you need?” Is it a faster computer, targeted training, or a better remote setup? Are our people equipped for the job?
  3. Empower. “You mean, I can just turn on Looney Tunes? Like, by myself?” my daughter, our only child truly proficient in the use of the remote control, asked in wide-eyed disbelief.
    “Yes, as long as you don’t wake us up on Saturday mornings.”
    A bargain was struck, the big sister had become the bringer of Bugs Bunny, and Mom and Dad now enjoy the small luxury of an extra 20 minutes of weekend sleep (which is approximately how long Elmer Fudd and Daffy Duck can hold the 3-year-old’s attention).
    Maybe this seems obvious to other parents out there, but for type A parents who typically closely regulate the use of the TV, empowering our daughter to keep the peace via the glowing rectangle on the wall was both a departure from the norm and a great decision.
    Permission seems like a bad word in business, but a great way to stymie a team member’s development and see projects fall flat is to withhold empowerment. Handing over the reins can be anxiety-inducing, but without intentional empowerment (accompanied by carefully applied guardrails and manager backing) we’ll never release the team’s full potential.
  4. Evaluate. Like all good parents, we hold a quarterly meeting with each of our children wherein we review their recent performance and discuss any warranted increases in freedoms, allowance, etc. The baby did especially poorly last quarter, as his Whining Index (WI) was way up while his Steps Per Minute (SPM) just didn’t meet quota.
    Just kidding – we would never give our kids an allowance.
    What does your evaluation process look like? Does your mind go straight to that perfunctory quarterly (or annual, or bi-annual, or “when we get around to it”) meeting? That’s certainly part of the picture. But are lessons-learned sessions a common practice in your organization? Do you have an internal QC process before the drawings even hit the multi-discipline QC stage? And (gulp!) can you be honest enough to give and take feedback as a normal course of business?
  5. Engage. The backyard had never been so clean, for Mom had offered a prize so magnificent as to be almost unbelievable. Ice cream. And a cookie. And a movie! The children were a whirlwind, and the deck box bulged with toys that had until recently given the backyard such a nice, homey junkyard feel.
    Engaging my children at this stage mainly involves snacks, desserts, and screen time. But over time, we are aiming to develop young people who, Lord willing, might care about others enough to work hard for the team with nary a Twizzler or Mickey Mouse in sight.
    In today’s extremely mobile world of remote work, simply throwing money at a team member may not be enough to earn their long-term loyalty and engagement. The reality is that most of the professional world can trawl LinkedIn for the next great remote position and climb the ladder from the comfort of their home office.
    Engagement is tough to build. Each person is different, and knowing what will best motivate takes careful study and intention. But when a leader shows real understanding and real care, the result is a more tenured, more productive team motivated for the next challenge.

    Sam Graves, PE is a senior associate and senior mechanical engineer at Cyntergy. Contact him at sgraves@cyntergy.com.

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