Interview with Deborah Mills-Scofield

Photo of Deborah Mills-ScofieldTo bring additional perspectives to the intersection of leadership and parenting, I’ve started an interview series. Today, I’m thrilled to be interviewing Deborah Mills-Scofield, an innovation consultant, author, adjunct professor, wife, and mother of two. She will now tell you more about herself and her views on leadership and parenting.

1) Tell us about yourself, professionally and personally. 

I went to Brown University, where I helped start the Cognitive Science program. I graduated in three years (everyone said you can’t do it, so I did). I spent summers working at AT&T Bell Labs, and after graduating, I went to work there. I developed technology for speech recognition and messaging, started managing people, and spent a lot of time traveling globally to meet with customers. 

During that time I married my husband, who has left Basic Research at Bell Labs to teach Physics at Oberlin College.  Bell Labs/AT&T moved me to Ohio and flew me back and forth, weekly, to my NJ office and elsewhere in the world so I wouldn’t quit.  When I had my first child, I refused to travel and worked part-time from home, still retaining my management level but reducing my management role.  After my second child, it became hard to keep the enthusiasm going since AT&T was in a downward spiral, and I quit.

At that point, my career started growing in many interesting directions. I didn’t know many people in Ohio, so I reached out to the Brown alumni network and met lots of people, including the founding partner of the VC firm I’m a partner in. I started my consulting business and my blog about innovation, and I now write for Harvard Business Review’s blog twice/month. I also teach innovation and entrepreneurship at Oberlin College and Brown University. Working with students keeps me young, encourages me to continue challenging the status quo, and keeps me fresh for my clients whom I help with strategic and innovation planning. Of course, my two amazing, wonderful, incredible children also keep me young.

I’ve often thought, “Why the heck did AT&T let me manage people before I had kids?” I’ve learned so much about management from parenting! I think management books are great for parents, and parenting books are great for managers. I also believe children’s storybooks are the best books for innovation, and I often use them with my clients. One of my favorite series, Scaredy Squirrel by Melanie Watt, helps people see that looking at the world in new ways isn’t so scary after all. You see, I believe we’ve lost the emphasis on storytelling as a teaching tool. Sure, stories are important for the first eight or so years of our lives, but after that they are deemphasized. I like stories because they let you identify with something outside of your experience. When you hear a story, you can interpret it in a way that is meaningful to you, and apply it to a challenge or goal you are facing. This is why I use children’s storybooks with my clients.

2) You are a recognized blogger on innovation. What is the goal of your blog? 

I started my blog to get people to think about innovation and see that it’s not formidable, it can be broken into bite-sized pieces, and you can learn from others. Over time, it’s evolved to less about the specific practice of innovation, and more a reflection of what I’m finding interesting that others seem to as well. I’ve also opened it to others to express their voices. I have clients write guest blogs about creating an innovative culture. I have students from Brown write about how they view entrepreneurship and society. With each post, I want my readers to think about how they can apply it, learn from it, or do things different for their company or community.

Moving forward, I’ll also be writing about how to use your network to make something happen. Regardless of how many people you know, you can and should count on people you know to help you achieve your goals.  One of my recent posts in Harvard Business Review on the power of the “Ask” seems to have a hit a chord!

3) What three adjectives do you think describe the best leaders? The best parents?

Leaders:

  • Visionary (helping you see the forest from the trees)
  • Humble & vulnerable
  • Trustworthy

Parents:

  • Loving, unconditionally if possible.
  • Prudent, balancing the short and long term. I.e., Is what I’m doing now leading my child to be the person I think they should become, a person of integrity, character and someone who can make and keep a commitment?
  • Authentic, using actions, not just words, to be a role model. Don’t tell your kids one thing and then do something else. Help them to build trust in others.

4) What skill or best practice have you used both as a leader and as a parent? What challenge were you facing at the time, and what did you learn?

I’ve learned how to try to motivate people to do what’s best for them (not for me) so they can come to it themselves and learn how to keep doing it. I’ve also learned that what motivated someone two weeks ago may not work again today, and just because it worked for one kid or employee, it may not work for another person. It takes time to know what motivates an individual, which includes balancing short and long term.

I’ve also learned to motivate from the heart, both at work and home. I look at the relationships I had at AT&T Bell Labs, and I look at my clients today. Someone commented recently that everyone hugs and kisses me. I feel a genuine affection for my clients. Love has such power, but we have demeaned it in the workplace to a sexual definition, not in an Agape or Philos way. As a Jew who is also a Christian, I believe that my kids are a gift from God, and that I have been chosen to raise them on His behalf. With God’s help, my ultimate hope for my kids is that they will bring Him joy.

5) Is there anything else you would like to share with us?

Because of the generation of women who worked before us, it’s easier for us to apply parenting lessons to the workplace. We don’t necessarily need to keep our personal and professional lives separate. There is an ability to carry the lessons back and forth. The next generation should be even better.

Are those bosses who are more enlightened managers better parents and vice versa? I’d like to see research done in this area!

Thank you, Deb, for taking the time to share your thoughts with us! If anyone knows about research on the positive effects of parenting on leadership, please let us know in the comments. We’d like to hear from you.

–Karen

© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Interview with Deborah Mills-Scofield

  1. Judy Smith

    What a great interview – this lady has so much going for her, as do you, Karen. So fascinating to realize the connection between parenting and leadership in the work field. Keep up the good work!! Love, Mom

    Reply

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