Milk Manager Series:
Why Buying into Servant Leadership Matters

Insights from a Commanding Naval Officer and Manager of Breastfeeding Employees Pumping on Duty

I have had plenty of experience managing.  I have managed programs, schedules, administrative functions and more. I have also had the privilege to lead.  I have led small groups, large groups, and most notably – the sons and daughters of this great nation. One of these functions tests your ability to organize things, the other tests your ability to move people. As we transition through the “ranks” of managerial status we will at times find ourselves moving across the spectrum from a more managerial-focused position to a more leadership intensive position, and back again. I challenge you to find your happy medium – where you can “manage” both. No matter what level of the organization you are a part of, if you “buy-in,” you will find that servant leadership pays dividends.

People matter. Remember: Mission first. People always.

So why does this matter? And what exactly does servant leadership have to do with managing milk? Didn’t we just say these two functions were entirely different? Well, yes. Sort of.

A single mother and one of our top performers (read: top five employees within our organization) had a childcare issue. We changed the start time fairly last minute for the following day (remember: mission first), which did not jive with her daycare hours. She let everyone know her situation. Yet, when she arrived to work that next morning (20 minutes late), she was put on report. My thought, as well as many others – back then, as a brand new “leader” – her fault. She should have figured it out. Child care is a parent’s issue, not ours. Fast forward two years later – more seasoned, new mom – I should have advocated for her. I should have known about the strained childcare environment we were experiencing where we lived – endless waitlists, maximum hours. And those 20 minutes that she was delayed – she didn’t miss a single thing she was required to attend. Looking back, I’m embarrassed. If we had done something different, maybe she would have stayed with the organization. Maybe if we were reasonable, empathetic and understanding we would value priorities over mere presence. It shouldn’t take a leader to be a parent with childcare issues to recognize that we could have made a difference that day. We should know the environments our people are working in. We absolutely managed the schedule, but we failed to lead our people. I failed.

Fast forward to a different time and place; a bright, hardworking mom approached me for breastfeeding help. She was still breastfeeding her 18-month-old (AMAZING!).  Here was our working environment – made of steel, floats and can be away for extended periods of time. She was concerned about storage space and even being authorized to store her breastmilk on duty days or for short away periods. She met hesitation when she asked about her options and asked me to step in. I advocated – I read, understood and presented the regulations, discussed the importance of breastfeeding and why we should support her. I was asked to weigh in and discuss policy. I will never forget my short conversation with my boss. He said, “I want to support her. What do we need to do?” No explanation, no defense necessary. His concern was supporting her and my job was to make sure we implemented the correct measures. She had support across the board and was able to manage herself appropriately to pump and meet the mission. She breastfed her daughter for two years. She was also the example of what exactly mattered to our organization – supporting our people so they could meet their professional and personal goals. That is what leadership can do. We need folks to manage the logistics, but we need to create an environment where a potential problem can be discussed, deliberated and solved for the betterment of our employees. That’s a culture of excellence – that is servant leadership.

Over time, we have experiences that develop us. We learn from those around us, and pick and choose the characteristics we want to embody. I have seen fathers schedule their meetings around their own lunch so they could share a school lunch with their children once every few weeks, and they have allowed and expected for their employees to do the same. I have seen leadership refuse to schedule meetings after 4pm because they wanted to be home for dinner and wanted the same for those that worked for them. The example we set as decision makers can change the personality of the organization. We should be demanding a culture of excellence – as leaders and employees. When we set the priorities, make changes to benefit everyone where we can and advocate for our people – you meet the deadlines, you meet the goals, and you keep the talent.

We can breastfeed and meet the mission – I had the privilege of being among hundreds of mothers doing just that. And as far as being a parent goes – we can manage to maximize milk (information/production/support), lunch and meetings. We’ve done some of it on ships and offices in many organizations – we can find a way to do it in yours. Leaders – buy in. You’ll find parents are well worth the investment. Let’s take the steps to do it. Know your environment. Know your people. Know what matters. Buy in. Buy in. Buy in.

– Lieutenant Gaby Cavins is a MommaWork lactation counselor and career coach.

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