Work is not a family, but we’re all parents at work.
An entrepreneur and mother of a seven-year-old son once told me something she admitted she would never share publicly: “My company is my second child.”
“I know this may sound frivolous if not unacceptable,” she explained, “not just because of gender expectations, but because it may seem naïve to equate actual human life with an organization. But I’m beginning to embrace this as my truth, and split my time accordingly between my two children.”
Being a founder and father myself, I can relate to this. My company is my second child, too. I have created it, and now it has assumed a life of its own, and every day it brings me great joy to simply watch it grow—and ultimately outgrow me.
And indeed, if parenting is at its roots the ongoing nurturing and enabling of growth, a founder’s relationship to their company exhibits many of the traits of a parent’s relationship to their child.
There is obviously less at stake, at first glance: no biological bond, no kinship. And yet, arguably, lives are still affected, at scale: the wellbeing of your employees, but also, depending on the impact your company’s products and services have, the prosperity and wellbeing of many, many more children.
If business is a matter of life and death, then the responsibility that comes with creating and leading a company is parental.
Wouldn’t it raise the moral consciousness of founders, CEOs, and investors if they viewed themselves not merely as the mothers and fathers of an organization, but also of society and the planet? Must they not at least try to reconcile the impossible: improving every single life in their workforce while also improving the world? And shouldn’t it be the ideal of actual parents, too, to share this global ethos, rather than prioritizing the wellbeing of only their child(ren) by all means and at all costs?
These are tough questions to answer, but one thing is clear: the business world needs better parents: people who can devote themselves to a cause greater than themselves. And people who are willing to unconditionally champion another person even if, and long after, that person has declared their independence. People who inspire and guide not just other people’s work, but their life’s work.
But in any parent-child relationship, heartbreak is inevitable.
When employees jump ship to chase their own dreams, risk their own catastrophes, become a manager, a leader, or a founder themselves, they abandon not only your child—the company you created—they abandon you. Like a child in adolescence, they will turn against and see right through you. They know how to hurt you because, if the work you did together was truly consequential, you removed your armor—you had no choice. As a parent, you realize that they’re ready to apply what you taught them and, more importantly, to apply what they taught you, but no longer for or with you. You realize they were never a part of your project, you were part of theirs.
However, unlike an actual parent, as a founder you may suffer from a second, particularly cruel heartbreak. It might just happen that you must leave your home yourself, forced out by staff, peers, or investors.
As an orphan of sorts, all you can hope for then is finding new parents or new children. But as an entrepreneur, at least you know: virtuous or vicious, the circle of life will begin again.