Be more mum

To mark National Work Life Week, Jo Pennington shares her wisdom on balancing work and home life.

“You’re not your team’s mum, you know.”

Direct quote from a former manager of mine, as we discussed my, in his view, slightly fluffy approach to line management.

As someone whose opinion I valued (still do) very highly, I went away and considered his point carefully. And I concluded he was right – but perhaps not in the way he meant.

Before I explain, a small digression.

I’ve been a civil servant since 2004, a manager since 2005, and a mother since 2007.

When I first handed my beloved firstborn over to childcare and headed back into the office, it was received wisdom that to maintain professionalism and retain respect, you must never, ever mention your children.

Friends in the private sector very much found that to be the case, fighting for any adjustment in working hours or flexibility: my abiding pride in, and love for, the Civil Service increased when I found the opposite.

I like to think that, as well as setting a good example, it paid dividends. A rather senior judge, who always made a point of enquiring about my boys, once observed mischievously that he thought working parents were marvellous value; we did 100% of a job on 80% hours (and pay) and were thankful to do it.

He was joking, of course – but he had a point. I have been hugely lucky to work in exceptionally lovely environments, and with lovely people, but the flexibility, and understanding that my family life was important has always motivated me to go the extra mile.

I hope I’ve paid it forward, too. Appreciating the trust placed in me to deliver as I saw fit means that I’m more relaxed about how my teams work; I trust them, in turn, to work hard around their various responsibilities and needs, and I believe we achieve far more for it.

Which brings me back to my original point. We talk these days about bringing your whole self to work; what I realised, after that chat with my manager, was that I wasn’t.

At our next meeting, I explained that he was right. I’m definitely not my team’s mum; I was far nicer to them than I am to my children. I expect the best from my kids; I’m raising them, I know them and I’m committed to getting them to maximise their abilities, because it’s my job to put them on the path to successful adult lives.

Woman wearing glasses and smiling
Jo Pennington

As a manager, I was far too inclined to sit back, not challenge, and – worst of all – step in and sort the difficult stuff. When my youngest whinges that he can’t tie his shoelaces, I show him how and then expect him to have a go; when my team members were facing a difficult meeting, I needed to stand beside or behind them, supporting – not jump in front and take charge. 

In short, I needed to be more mum; to take my team’s performance, progression and development far more personal, and to think about growth and challenge. These days – stealing a line from another manager (I really have been very lucky) – I make sure they know that I’m committed to their progress, and the measure of success will be when they’re earning more than me. 

I learn from my colleagues every single day about how their personal lives inform their professional practice; from acting training becoming an awesome ability to present under pressure, to how the experience of grief can boost resilience in tough times.

We’re a happier, but also far more effective team, because of it. Inclusivity is the right thing to do because it is the right thing to do; but it also makes hard cold business sense. Our personal experiences form part of our collective professional strength as a Civil Service; I say, flaunt it with pride.

National Work Life week is taking place from 12 October to 16 October. Find out more on the Working Families website.

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