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  • Sarah Calfee

Mom Lessons

My mom and me, May 2012, just prior to my MBA graduation at the University of San Diego.

We don’t always recognize how knowledgeable our parents are or see the good they taught us – whether from their guidance, behavior, or mistakes. But we wouldn’t be who we are without those intended and unintended lessons. In honor of Mothers Day, I would like to share five lessons my mother taught me that have served me well in my career.

Emotions Matter

My mom was a licensed therapist. I grew up in a household where we paid attention to how actions and events made us feel – and made others feel. I learned that our emotions largely drive our actions – directly and indirectly.

Yet, how many times have you heard you should not bring your “personal problems” to work? Conversely, how many times have you heard “passion” being valued at work? We can’t have it both ways! If we need to be passionate and excited at work, we need to be people who express our emotions outside of work too. We just need to be considerate when we do it and not expect the world to cater to us.

When we allow others to show their human side and we show it ourselves, we create loyalty, passion, and comfort that allows everyone (including the business) to thrive.

Notice the underdogs

Some people always root for the expected winner and others usually root for the underdog. My mother has a proclivity for trying to help the underdogs. Because of my mom, I tend to notice the underdogs too.

What about when both the underdogs and the presumed winners are all on the same team? The underdog usually goes unnoticed because they are overshadowed by the perceived “winners”. The person may be an introvert who is reluctant to speak up and draw attention to themselves. Or, maybe the person is just different (ex. has a thick accent) from everyone else so others don’t socialize and interact with them much.

But, the unnoticed introvert may have the key ingredient to making the team shine and just needs to be asked or given the right platform to share. Or, the ignored employee may be the one who files an expensive lawsuit for discrimination due to being excluded regularly.

You shouldn’t ignore these people. They can make - or break - your organization.

Love Everyone

Okay, this sounds corny even to me. But it’s true depending on how you define ‘love’. In this case, ‘love’ means that you are kind, respectful, and don’t actively work against others. It doesn’t mean giving everyone hugs and kisses. That would get you in trouble.

When I was little in the 70s, desegregation wasn’t that long in the past. Gay rights were barely beginning surface. And the Equal Rights Amendment was a hotly debated topic. Yet, my mom somehow raised us without focusing on differences in people. She actively worked to place us in environments where differences weren’t called out negatively, removing us from environments when she saw they were. Not that I grew up in a perfect world with no discrimination or harassment. It just always seemed wrong because my mom made sure it wasn’t the norm.

It wasn’t until I was an adult and witnessed the disparities more clearly that I realized how special it was to be raised to love everyone. It enabled me to raise my own children with open minds. It gave me the words to stand up for what I believe is right – whether at home, at work, or in society. Which in turn enabled me to help organizations improve their diversity, inclusion, and sense of belonging.

Ask Questions (people will answer)

People are often afraid to ask a probing question like, for example, “why are you so upset lately?” They don’t believe the person will answer honestly or the person won’t have an answer at all. However, people are usually either eager to share or feel obligated to answer. And if they are prone to lying, they often aren’t able to think on their feet that quickly because they don’t expect such direct questions.

Not asking questions leads to unresolved issues, a lack of information, and people thinking you don’t care. So, ask! Then listen. Then ask more questions. The best that will come out of the questions is loads of information and new perspectives that you didn’t have before. The worst is nothing will be different. One tip: ask questions that are open so people can choose their comfort level with their answer. “What do you think we could be doing differently to have the greatest chance of success with our project?” instead of “What is wrong with what we are doing?”

Grammar and spelling are useful

I grew up in a town where appearing educated was highly valued. If your grammar and spelling were flawed, you clearly were one of two horribly shameful things: ignorant or stupid. Then I went to college in a small town where businesses often had signs outside that had (gasp!) spelling errors.

So, I began to shift my belief system. I no longer associated correct spelling and grammar with capability. Afterall, think of how many successful technology entrepreneurs these days flunked or dropped out of college! Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg all immediately come to mind.

But, then I shifted again. I shifted because I realized that while not directly correlated to capability, having good grammar and spelling can help to convey your intended message. Consider these:

“I like cooking my family and my pets” versus “I like cooking, my family, and my pets”

“violators will be towed and find $50” versus “violators will be towed and fined $50”

While I no longer judge others for their spelling and grammar errors, I try to make sure mine are correct in all my professional communications to ensure I have conveyed my intended message. And, yes, my mom still keeps me honest by correcting me if I make a mistake even in casual conversation. And, I might be known for my misspellings and incorrect words in text messages.

Maybe you don’t see your Mom Lessons yet. But, they are there. And they matter. Big hugs and love to mine for all you’ve given me, intended or not!!



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