Five Ways Raising Children Made Me a Better Leader

By Rani Borkar, Corporate VP, Microsoft Azure

When my son was a pre-teen, he taught me a valuable lesson in how to prioritize. It was Sunday morning, and my son and I were having weekly teatime catch-up. Looking across at him, I noticed he was uneasy about something. He had been preparing for an upcoming regional piano competition, and as the reigning champion, the stakes (and nerves) were as high as ever for this year’s contest. On the same date, however, I had planned to be in Costa Rica on important business travel. Looking over at him, I asked if something was wrong. He shook his head no. Though we hadn’t discussed this before, I had a strange feeling about his reply.

I put two hands in front of him. “Left,” I said, “means Mom doesn’t go to Costa Rica. Right means that that Mom stays home for the competition.”

“Pick one.”

The next day, at work, I called off the trip. My son had made a decision, and my plans were changed.

Learn to set your own priorities

That Sunday at the kitchen table, I made the conscious decision to take a stand. As a result, my kids received a clear message that they were more important than my job. My team learned that I was a leader who knew how to set my own priorities.  And, as for me – I learned the power of leading by example to put my family first.

Throughout my career, I’ve become increasingly conscious of the multitude of ways that raising two sons have shaped my approach toward building trust and respect with colleagues at work. As a result, these experiences have informed some of my most foundational principles toward leading effective teams.

Encourage safe risk taking

Another memory from my days as a young mom taught me that empowerment can often come from taking risks. My son had recently begun to crawl, and he was thrilled by his newfound freedom to explore the world on all fours. One evening, at a friend’s house before dinner, we were gathered in the living room, the fireplace gently crackling in the distance. Then something alarming happened. My son began to inch, limb by limb, towards the blazing hearth in his newly mobile state. As I hurried to chase after him, I had an idea. Rather than immediately moving him far away from the fire, I grabbed my son’s tiny hand and placed it close to the open flame. Then, I pressed it firmly to his cheek. “This. Hot!” I said, to reinforce a message. My son had learned his lesson and, for the rest of the evening, stayed away from that fireplace.

In that moment, I came to understand something important about human nature. How my son approached the fire was a natural expression of human curiosity – after all, pursuing new experiences is critical to broadening one’s understanding of the world around them. By giving him the chance to take a risk, I could ultimately keep him safe while encouraging his learning and development.

Applied to business, this means giving teams a safe environment to make bold moves. The simple practice of offering people a sense of security can provide them the freedom to fall, with the comfort to develop and grow. Since that day by the fire, this philosophy has helped me nurture and cultivate deeper relationships with my teams at work.

Build out your own support community

I’m proud to say that I’m a product of my community because from a very young age, I’ve cherished the perspectives of elders around me when making important life decisions, from neighbors, to teachers, to friends. It was the wisdom of my childhood neighbor, a doctor in my hometown near Mumbai, that influenced my decision to study physics over mathematics in university – a critical turning point that shaped the trajectory of my life and career to-date. Because of this, I decided very early on to give my kids the chance to pursue mentorship from other adults in our own community during their most formative teenage years. (And, as parents of teenagers can surely attest – sometimes listening to others’ advice is easier than listening to your own parents!) My adult sons stay in touch with their mentors, often consulting them on major decisions throughout their professional journeys.

Trusting the expertise from those outside of your immediate orbit has been deeply enriching for my sons and for my own career. When it comes to matters of mentorship, it’s also the advice that I love to share with others.

Embrace uniqueness to bring more value to the table

While close in age, my two sons couldn’t be more different in terms of personality. One likes to brainstorm with my husband and me on every choice he makes and shares every milestone, whether large or small. More reserved with his sharing, the other is conscientious about living a fiercely independent lifestyle. As their mother, I have always been quick to respect and embrace these unique traits. In turn, I’ve built trust and have been able to communicate more authentically with my sons.

These same principles carry through when I think about building trust with my teams. All of us have our own individual and unique gifts. We do our best when we can bring our full selves to work – inclusive of our personal traits, cultural backgrounds, identities outside of work, and so much more. Some of my most constructive workplace discussions have occurred in conference rooms that embrace diversity of thought and welcome broad perspectives. Authenticity enables the free flow of ideas and unlocks a higher order of teamwork.

Look for inspiration where you least expect it

For me, my authenticity at work comes from the experiences that have shaped my identity outside of work – as a mother, as an engineer, and as role model to those who have walked paths like mine. The times when I can use those experiences to empower those around me continue to be the most rewarding moments. The lesson here? All of us can seek to apply what we learn in our personal lives towards building more fulfilling careers. Enlightenment can come from all sources – and I invite you to look inward to find your own sources of inspiration.