I have a leadership role at two companies. One, I’d like to think, I’m pretty good at. The other, I’ve discovered over the last couple of months, not so much.
Since governments around the world have put us into a lockdown that we’re only just starting to emerge from, almost all of us have had to spend more time at home. For me, that’s meant focusing on the management of my second business in a way I haven’t had to before. And to be honest, this has made it clear how complex this second business is, and what a multi-faceted set of skills one needs to lead this type of enterprise.
Ashamed as I am to admit it, this second, more challenging business is my home.
I’ve been forced to face a slew of leadership challenges: how to co-lead after a long period of intermittent absence, how to follow, how to manage a (one-person, 11-year-old) team, how to find the right work-life balance when the boundary between the two is blurred as never before, and how to set a direction for a very different kind of business to the one I usually help to run.
I’ve also been working under my wife, who leads this business (you remember the Woody Allen response, when the kid asks who’s the boss, his dad or his mum? “I’m the boss, she just makes the decisions.” That.), that she does in addition to running her own challenging and very successful business. All this has forced me to ask myself a number of questions, first among them: to what extent is my “leadership” actually adding value?
Whilst multi-tasking between home and work is possible, and is, to a greater or lesser extent, done by everyone, pretty much every business leader relies on someone else running their home enterprise, and (often literally) putting dinner on the table. And, like it or not, it is often a question of gender.
The Swedish economist, Katerine Marçal, summed one of the issues up in the title of her first book: “Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?”. According to a study conducted by UCL in 2019 of over 8,500 heterosexual couples in the UK, for every six hours of housework that men do, women do 16. A Wealth of Nations isn’t going to make itself.
Here are some stats about women and the world of work. Over half of all mothers change their jobs after maternity leave, frequently because of the absence of decent flexible working policies, and one in five leave work entirely. It’s a persistent fact that women earn less money than men, and a massive part of this is the motherhood penalty, which knocks a huge percentage off women’s earnings after the birth of their first child. Women make up the vast majority of stay-at-home parents. In fact, there are more men called Steve running FTSE 100 companies than there are women in total.
So, do we really appreciate the value of a well-run ‘business of home’, the difficulty in building one, or the contribution this makes to our wider economy? It would appear the answer is (and apologies to every person who leads a home-business for the axiom) a no-shit-Sherlock, “hell no”.
Divorce law can do its part to redress this - in this country the law reflects the fact that money earned by one member of a household is money earned by the family, but that, surely, is shutting the barn door after the horse has not only bolted, but kicked the door down, and packed its belongings into a saddlebag.
Just as self-evident as the fact that for one person to go out and work effectively depends on the smooth-running of the business of home, mostly done by another, statistics proving that this “another” is most often a woman. And this woman has sacrificed a heap of her earning power and potential to do so.
Why did I need this crisis to remind myself of the “invisible business” that backs B+A up? It’s a hard one to answer because any answer doesn’t make me feel good. I try to be a good husband and partner to my wife. When I get back from work I try to do my share, and, in lockdown, I’ve cooked pretty much every meal (Adam Smith is welcome at mine pretty much anytime – so long as he’s happy with vegan and gluten-free).
But it’s taken the best part of two months in extraordinary circumstances not only for me to fully appreciate the complexity and value of what it takes to run a home. It’s taken me that length of time to even start to get better at it.
So, have a look yourself. And if (and when) you go back to something approaching a “normal” life, look to see what “invisible businesses” there are around you that you have a stake in. Just as this crisis has helpfully redefined who the real “key workers” are in society, ask yourself how you’re working to make life better for your business’s real key workers (be they at home or be they other people keeping the show on the road).
You’ll be surprised by the number of vital nodes you have in your network. They can be partners or suppliers. But there’s also the security staff, the plumbers—the people you might not see that often but who keep everything running smoothly and allow you to do your job effectively.
Do so and you’ll likely be surprised by how much you’ve neglected them, how much they add value to what you do, and how exacting their tasks are.
So this period has been an education. And by appreciating the invisible businesses and essential workers in your life—all of those people who allow you to be effective, you can make your own business (and, just possibly your life-partnership) more resilient, more efficient, fairer and happier.
Andrew Missingham is co-founder of consultancy B+A, and assistant-co-director of a medium-sized terraced house in Muswell Hill
Image courtesy of B+A