March 10, 2020


Alyssa Westring on What Parents Can Learn from Business Leadership

There is no shortage of advice for business leaders seeking to optimize their performance or for parents hoping to do the best for their children. A DePaul professor says it’s time for one group to consider learning from the other. Alyssa Westring, an associate professor of management & entrepreneurship and a DePaul Presidential Fellow, and a colleague recently published a book, “Parents Who Lead,” about how applying leadership principles to parenthood can help parents lead more purposeful lives. In this episode, Westring suggests solutions for the burnout years of parenthood and describes how leadership provides some guidance. She also discusses her Presidential Fellow project, which evaluates DePaul’s culture to identify opportunities to enhance the engagement, retention and career advancement for women and faculty of color.



LINDA BLAKLEY: Welcome to DePaul Download. I’m your host, Linda Blakley, vice president of University Marketing and Communications.

Maya Angelou once said, “Making a living is not making a life.” While it’s hard to disagree with the notion of cultivating purpose, many working parents face pressures that make it difficult to find time to do so. Mothers and fathers often struggle to find a way for careers to coexist with arranging childcare, supporting their children’s hobbies, putting meals on the table, tending to a home, and surprise elements such illnesses and snow days. Self-care and self-reflection are considered afterthoughts, if they are even considered at all. But it doesn’t have to be that way. A DePaul professor of management and entrepreneurship says leadership principles can help working parents discover how to thrive in all aspects of life.

Alyssa Westring joins us to talk about her new book, "Parents Who Lead," and her thoughts on leadership in the 21st century. Thank you for being here, Alyssa.

ALYSSA WESTRING: Thank you for having me.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Your book, "Parents Who Lead," was just released. What’s it about and why is it important?

ALYSSA WESTRING: As you mentioned, parents and working parents face a number of challenges in our society today. There are long work hours. There is inconsistent childcare. There are school schedules. So many of us feel like we’re just in reaction mode, that we’re always coping and trying to put out the latest fire. Our book focuses on how we can take the principles of leadership and apply them to be more effective and more proactive as parents and in all parts of life.

LINDA BLAKLEY: In addition to your academic credentials, you bring other expertise to this conversation about working parents. You’re a mother, as am I. How old are your kids?

ALYSSA WESTRING: My kids are 7, soon to be 8. My daughter is 7, soon to be 8. And my son is 10.

LINDA BLAKLEY: My son is grown now, but I still remember coming home from school with him one day and he was wearing clothes I didn’t recognize. When I asked him about that, he explained that at recess he had gotten really, really soaking wet and so the teacher thought he needed dry clothes. At the time, I worked about 30 miles from home. I said where did these clothes come from? He simply said, “Oh, I had her call one of the other mothers.”


LINDA BLAKLEY: We had a team of folks who all helped to share in helping working mothers succeed. How has your own life as a working parent and having lost your mom while working towards becoming a tenured professor at DePaul helped shape the book?

ALYSSA WESTRING: I think my interest in writing this book is borne from the fact that I am a mom, and I think a lot about how I can be an effective mom, be a great mom, but also find fulfillment in my career and have an impact on other people. I really want to use my work to help other people have better, fuller, richer lives. Having the experience of actually going through it myself has been really informative. My stories of my life are in the book. They’re part of the stories. We also interviewed about 30 other couples that we worked with over the course of a year and their stories are in the book as well. It’s really capturing the real, lived experiences. As opposed to an academic theoretical approach to parenting, we’re bridging that with how people do it on the ground and how you actually make things work in the real world.

Talking about my story in terms of DePaul, my mom was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer about a week before I was set to start my job here at DePaul. The doctors said that she had about six months to live. Those very first few weeks before I even started work, I was asking my boss to rearrange my schedule, to make accommodations for me. And then knowing that she might not live for very long, I sort of kicked my personal life into hyperdrive and got married and started a family so that she could be there for it. She ended up living three years. But it really is part of my story at DePaul is having so much life happen while also pursuing my career. I got actually the chance to try out these theories that I’ve been working on and to live the research in real time and to see what works and what doesn’t. I feel like my story can really resonate with other parents who know that life happens even when you’re at the part of your career where you want to drive and be impactful the most.

LINDA BLAKLEY: What are some common misconceptions around working parents?

ALYSSA WESTRING: I think that there is quite a bit of common misconceptions. One of them is this myth that working parents versus stay-at-home parents are in some kind of mommy war situation. And while there may be resentment, I think what we can say and what relates to your own experience, Linda, is that we’re really a community in that we can help each other. Maybe I don’t have to be the room parent for my kid’s classroom because I know that there is a mom who has more time available to do that and I can trust her to be there for my kids, or we can take turns. This idea of we’re in this war against each other, I think, is a really common misconception that, in my personal experience, we’re all on the same team trying to raise good kids, so it really can work for everybody.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Many parents—out of sheer necessity—are focused on getting through the day or the week. Why is it important to take a step back and consider leading a more purposeful life?

ALYSSA WESTRING: It’s so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day, even with your partner, to have a very transactional relationship. You do the pick-up. I’ll fold the laundry. You order the food. We kind of miss the bigger picture when the solutions that we’re looking for are all solutions at that surface level. Okay, what if you pick up the laundry and I make dinner? That could be a potential solution, but it’s just a stopgap situation. Right? It’s fixing one problem but potentially may cause others. When parents are able to take a step back and really articulate what are my values, what’s the vision that I have for my family, who do we want to be as a family, it helps generate longer-lasting approaches that everybody can get on board with. So it helps the family function. It gets the kids excited knowing that the reason mom is working late today is because our family values X, Y, or Z, or the reason we’re going to volunteer today is because this is part of our family values. It brings a sense of coherence and proactivity and purpose to making all of the things work. And then if one person needs to do the laundry and the other person needs to do the dishes, you understand that that’s part of a bigger picture. That’s not the relationship in itself. It’s just one piece of a much larger picture.

LINDA BLAKLEY: So can you share one small step that parents can take to move in that direction?

ALYSSA WESTRING: Yeah. I think one that can be really fun for parents and kids is to start to think about creating a list of about four or five core family values and then posting them in a place where everyone can see them. For parents and partners, in the book, we discuss a lot more in-depth exercises about how to really articulate them and get on the same page with your partner and get on the same page with your kids. But as a starting point, if you understand what those values are and you can communicate them, then it makes everything else make sense. Rather than just yelling at your kids clean up your room, you’re yelling at your kids clean up your room because, as a family, we value personal responsibility. And while that might seem like a small change in the experience of the parents and the children, it can make a big difference. It can make everybody feel like they’re on the same team as opposed to parents are just telling kids what to do for no reason.

LINDA BLAKLEY: You’re an associate professor of management and entrepreneurship. What’s a piece of advice that you could apply to both someone working up the corporate ladder and the parent of a young child?

ALYSSA WESTRING: The idea of having to be perfect at everything is something that, especially in my experience for moms, we think that we have to do everything just right and we have to be the best employee and the best parent. Not to say that you can just be a crappy parent and that that’s fine, but to be really thoughtful and strategic about where you invest your time and energy. Not every project at work, not every task at work has the same value for your organization and for you personally in your career. Same thing at home. Spending time reading to a child has a different value than folding laundry. How do you take a more thoughtful and proactive approach to spending your time and energy where it matters most and letting go of some of that perfectionism that haunts us and makes us think we have to do everything perfectly?

LINDA BLAKLEY: How does the culture of DePaul support working parents?

ALYSSA WESTRING: You know, from my own story, my own experience of having to deal with parental care at the same time as childcare, I know that when DePaul talks about the Vincentian values and helping those in need, that it’s not just talk, that there’s actually work and decisions that go behind that that shows that the people here actually care about what we say we care about and it makes it a place where it’s okay to have challenges in your personal life. It’s okay to want something different from your career than just climbing up the hierarchy. Figuring out what your purpose is, what your values are is something that’s highlighted in my research, but I also find DePaul to be such a good fit because it’s part of our values as an institution.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Can we talk a little bit more about leadership?


LINDA BLAKLEY: How does leadership extend from the office into the home or into one’s community? What are some common leadership characteristics that support each of those areas?

ALYSSA WESTRING: In management, in organizational behavior, we have this vast store of knowledge about what effective leaders do. So far, that knowledge has been generally shared with people in formal leadership roles in organizations. When you’re a CEO, here are the best practices. But we know that those best practices don’t just work for CEOs. They work whether you have a formal leadership position at work or whether you are an independent contractor or a freelancer. We also know from decades of research, especially the work that I’ve done with Stew Friedman and Total Leadership, that when you take those behaviors and you extrapolate them into all parts of your life, then not only do you perform better in each of those parts of life, you perform better at work, too. Things like having a clear vision, communicating your values, getting stakeholders on board, trying new ways of doing things, we know that those are effective leader behaviors. Now the key is to take those behaviors and have people bring them out into all parts of their life.

LINDA BLAKLEY: The word values has come up a couple times in our conversation. Why is it so important for leaders in any of these areas to first understand their own values?

ALYSSA WESTRING: We want leaders who are authentic. We want leaders who can communicate what they care about. People today, especially millennials, they don’t just want to work for a company for a paycheck. We want to work for a company that values what we value. We want to shop and give our money to companies that value what we value. And we want to be friends with people like that. We want to support others like that. We want to be parents who do that. It’s sort of the foundational language for building relationships. When we are able to articulate that, we’re able to connect with others better. Most of us internally have sort of a vague sense of what our values are, but we don’t spend a lot of time clarifying and communicating that information with other people, which is where the challenge lies.

LINDA BLAKLEY: I’m going to switch gears one more time.


LINDA BLAKLEY: You’re one of DePaul’s inaugural Presidential Fellows working with the university president and vice president for Institutional Diversity and Equity to create research that addresses diversity and inclusion issues. Could you tell us about your project?

ALYSSA WESTRING: Yeah. It ties in really nicely with the other work that I do and I’m so glad to be able to have this opportunity to take some of the expertise I’ve developed outside of DePaul and actually bring it internally to help DePaul as well. When thinking about the future of leadership at DePaul, part of our values are making sure that we have leaders in place who share those same Vincentian values and who also represent the diversity of the university community. My project is really focused on how do we create a pipeline of leaders at DePaul who are prepared to take those values and bring them to the future of the institution. I’m looking at how we develop our leadership, and in particular how we do that making sure that faculty who are underrepresented and staff who are underrepresented are getting those leadership development opportunities. Oftentimes, people may be overlooked as potential leaders because of the biases, either conscious or unconscious, that we have about who would make a good leader. If we just rely on sort of our natural instincts, people may be left out from those opportunities or may not even come to see themselves as potential future leaders at DePaul. We want to be, again, proactive and living our values and saying even if you might not have been the first person that came to mind as, oh, this person would make a great leader, that we believe in developing the capacity of the people we have here and allowing them to grow into that position of influence and leadership at the university.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Why is this such an important topic for DePaul to understand?

ALYSSA WESTRING: I think – and I’ve had this year the opportunity to sit in on so many meetings with the president and with the Joint Council talking about what the future of DePaul looks like and what it’s going to be like. DePaul’s in a really good place, in my opinion, because we’re so used to talking about values and articulating our mission and living by it, but we don’t want to rest on our laurels. It’s important to take steps now to think five, 10, 20 years down the road who are we going to be as an institution, especially in light of how society is changing in terms of what people expect from a college education, who can pay for college, who college is available to, what students want to study. We need to think about what the future looks like and how DePaul can continue to uphold those values that it’s based on.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Can DePaul become an example in higher education of a university that’s truly enhancing the engagement, retention, and career advancement for women and faculty of color?

ALYSSA WESTRING: Absolutely, the potential is there. DePaul already is recognized in so many ways for being a leader in the diversity and inclusion space. We’re fantastic at representation. If you look at our students, our staff, and our faculty, the diversity is there. The question becomes: how do we take advantage of that diversity to succeed in a competitive environment and also to be a place that people want to work, that feels inclusive, that students want to be a part of? We’re getting there and we’re already there in so many ways. We’re well-positioned because those values are so clear at the forefront of every conversation that we’re having about strategy and the future of the university.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Alyssa, thank you for being here. Maya Angelou also said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” After preparing for our conversation and talking with you today, I have come to believe your family is lucky to have such a thoughtful woman in their lives, and DePaul will be a better place with the insight we’ll gain from your work.

I’m Linda Blakley. Thank you for listening to this episode of DePaul Download presented by DePaul’s Division of University Marketing and Communications.