What they don’t teach you in school

I was fortunate enough to go to school for an MBA in management and leadership, where I learned from renowned professors. I have read countless books authored by some of the greatest leaders of our time and have been grateful to work for and alongside some of the best people our industry has to offer. But when it comes down to it, I’ve yet to find a single better leader than my mom.

The critical lessons she imparted to me as a child continue to resonate today. She is a woman who led without realizing it, taught without being a teacher and has guided me through every step of my journey.

So, this is for you, Mom. I only hope I can do your lessons justice.

Think before you speak

I think we can all agree that the old saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” isn’t quite right. When I was younger, I got into a fight with my mom and, in a moment of fury, spat out, “I hate you,” then stormed off to my room, mad about a subject that I can’t even recall. I woke up the next morning flooded with guilt. I apologized to her, and while she forgave me, she reminded me words cannot be unspoken.

Words, like actions, set off a chain reaction that cannot be undone.

Words are powerful entities that can divide or unite people with equal ease. As we grow in our careers, we often forget that our voice is elevated, too. Whether it’s the advice you give one direct report or the vision you set for a 300-person team, your words are powerful and they hold weight. Your words can be the difference-maker in a day, relationship or career. What you say cannot be unsaid, so use your words carefully and kindly.

Face conflict head-on

When I was a teenager, I got into a fight with a girl at school, and I asked my mom if I could stay home sick the next day. I was panicked and didn’t want to face her. To my shock, my mom said, “No.” I felt betrayed, but she impressed upon me that avoiding a problem will never be a solution. My 16-year-old self hated this guidance, but she was right.

Fast-forward to my first time managing a team, and I realized I hated giving critical feedback. I avoided it at every turn but realized that without it, situations only worsened.

Being a good manager means having tough conversations; being a good leader means handling them with grace.

Whether it’s performance feedback or addressing differences of opinion, I’ve learned to be direct, honest and respectful. Avoiding tough conversations doesn’t set anyone up for success. It doesn’t help people grow, change their behavior or understand how to improve their work. As much as facing confrontation head-on can be anxiety-inducing and uncomfortable, honest conversations are where growth resides.

Pay it forward

When I was a kid, one of my now very good friends was painfully quiet and shy. As a result, she mostly kept to herself. On a Girl Scout trip we both attended, we were asked to pick buddies to spend the day alongside. She wasn’t on the top of anyone’s list. What my mom saw that I did not was that she likely wouldn’t be at the top of any of the girls’ lists. My mom quietly volunteered me to be her buddy before the selection process began.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that inclusivity is not always a natural instinct. It takes practice, and that starts with recognition. I now take stock of the room and who is in it: Who is comfortable talking? How do your colleagues engage with one another?

What my mom taught me that trip stuck with me. Not everyone is going to be the most outgoing or easy to spot in a crowd — and it doesn’t make them any less qualified or capable. When you’re lucky enough to have a position of choice or a voice, use it to bolster others. Make everyone feel welcome and a part of the team.

Be protective but honest

Growing up, I absolutely hated school. After skipping class beyond what could be considered typical for a senior, my mom was asked to sit down with my principal and the teachers of classes I had a particular distaste for. I noticed that time after time, my mom listened but also challenged their feedback. She called out my stellar grades when faced with feedback on poor attendance. She also championed my passion for and commitment to after-school activities. When we left and got home, she screamed at me. I didn’t recognize the woman who was just standing up for me an hour before.

As I grew in my career, I worked under managers and then became a manager myself; that’s when I learned the lesson underneath:

Praise in public, criticize in private.

My mom used to love to tell me that she could say whatever she wanted to me but that no one else could. When I took on leading a team, I realized I felt the same way. I was fiercely protective of my people. I stood up for them, fought for them and pushed back on their behalf—but I never lowered my expectations for them.

As a manager, you have to strike a delicate balance between giving critical feedback and pushing someone to grow, and it’s different for every person. Some people love direct feedback; others find it soul-crushing. As managers, it’s our job to find that balance by person so we can help them achieve their max potential in their professional journeys.

As a teen, I begrudged my mother’s advice. But now, I crave it, study it and hold onto it. In fact, when someone is kind enough to pay me a compliment, I often proudly reply, “Thanks, I learned it from my mom.”