Many of the roles we play in our lives do not fit neatly into professional and personal categories. Covid-19 has brought this into high relief, by significantly eroding the distinction between work and home. Coping with life’s challenges in this ambiguous context can become a real challenge, but there’s an office practice that can help: mentoring.
Our thinking about professional mentoring has evolved in recent years. The traditional model involved a senior-level mentor who advised and actively promoted the careers of more-junior employees, but a new and more effective model has emerged in which employees attach themselves to a whole set of mentors—a personal board of directors, as it were, that you can consult regularly to get advice and feedback on your work and career.
This new model can actually help you at home as much as it does at work. Consider expanding your personal board of directors to include people who can help you think about family issues. It should comprise people you trust, have an interest in you and your family, and have experience or perspective to share. You’ll want to select a range of people from all different aspects of your life. Since each person has their own network of contacts, choosing mentors whose networks don’t overlap will make your interactions with them more beneficial.
Here are some suggestions of people to include and how they can help:
- Someone who shares your family’s goals. This person will help you support your family ambitions. Committed teachers or coaches are possible resources. If you want your daughter to get a soccer scholarship to college, the right coach can cultivate your daughter’s talent, recommend activities to help her improve her skills, help assemble a highlight reel, and ultimately write her a college recommendation. If your son is great at academics but lonely, his junior-high drama teacher can help him develop confidence and friends as well as acting skills.
- One or more work colleagues who have families. These people can help with employer issues, such as how to ask for a raise, which departments are hiring, or which managers are sympathetic to working parents. You’ll find these colleagues through casual conversation. Notice and comment on the family photos on a person’s desk. Listen for folks who chat about their families at work in a way that you admire. Or bring in pictures of your own to share at work.
- Working parents of children the same age as yours. You’ll find lots of candidates organically through your children’s schools or activities. These parents can help you through crises great and small, such as, “Should I allow my kid to get that app?” or “How do I help the kids accept our divorce?” These parents can help you find the up-to-date resources and referrals you need.
- Working parents of children who are older than yours. Connect with at least one mentor who has children who are a school farther along than yours. If your child is in elementary school, tap someone with a middle-schooler. These mentors will give you a hint of what’s coming as well as some optimism about the future. I asked my school-ahead mentor how she was managing as the empty nester I would become in a few years. “There are some compensations,” she replied. “Like private time with my partner on Sunday afternoons.”
- Parents with children who are younger than yours. These parents give you some perspective on what you and your family have already achieved, which is easy to forget but should be a source of pride. Sharing the tactics that worked for getting your child to do her homework may help the younger parents too—whether it’s the tactics themselves or just the knowledge that your family has also struggled in this area.
- A parent you like and respect but who frequently disagrees with you. There isn’t a clear right way to handle most of what life hands working parents. When things are confusing and ambiguous and you don’t know how to act, a little disagreement from a source you respect can go a long way toward helping you understand what to do and why. I have a go-to relative for this kind of advice. Usually, 90% of the time I don’t do what he suggests as the “only reasonable” thing to do. But the discussion always helps me think it through.
- Someone who thinks you and your family are wonderful. This person is a consistent cheerleader, maybe a grandparent or special aunt, someone your family is in regular contact with. These mentors see your potential and your future. They know you can get frustrated by the day-to-day, and they can remind you of the big picture. I remember when my husband and I were trying to assemble a simple swing set. My parents-in-law were kibitzing from lawn chairs. “These things are never easy to put together. But you’re doing great! The kids are going to love it.” They were right.
Once you’ve assembled your board of directors, stay in touch—and not just with holiday cards. Connecting on social media is the easiest and most fun to do. Pictures are wonderful ways to convey what you and your family are up to. But every so often, take an extra step to reach out to say thank-you for their friendship and support. It’s important. So is letting them know how their advice turned out. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. Just an email saying, “I followed your advice and talked to her teacher. It really worked!”
But as all the writing on mentors will tell you, contributing your gifts in return is key to sustaining strong mentoring relationships. Pay it forward by contributing not just to your mentors but to their contacts and the professional or community organizations they support. Something as simple as donating to your mentor’s charity walk or buying pecans to support their kid’s school fundraiser. And if they help you with a reference to a great pediatrician, it’s easy to pay them back with a tip about a job lead.
You probably already have friends or family whom you consult when you need to, so expanding them into a board of directors isn’t difficult. It’s only a matter of being intentional about it. With a little thought and effort, your board of directors will provide your working-family juggling act with resources, information, and emotional support, as well as a sense of perspective—the gift of a new way of thinking.