Could your Mom be your best mentor?

by May 21, 2015

A recent Wall Street Journal article suggested that today a young woman’s best mentor can be her own mother. The mother in question was a former sales manager and managing director at Lehman Brothers, and her husband runs an investment partnership.  Not unsurprisingly, the daughter is considering a career on Wall Street. The mother was also able to “tap into her network” to open the right doors and guide her accordingly.

This was a situation that clearly worked – but is that typical?

Perhaps not always.

Not the best mentors

A 3Plus survey that asked if moms are the best mentors, said that 78% of those polled, believed that moms do not make the best mentors. My personal view would be to say that it depends on a number of variables:

  • the nature of the mother/daughter relationship – not all relationships could successfully accommodate a mentoring component
  • the needs of the daughter
  • the professional activity of the Mom.

With my professional hat on, as a career coach, I have observed and coached some difficult situations in this area. The mother/daughter relationship is rewarding but can be a potential minefield, let alone adding a mentoring element. Mixing in natural, close family dynamics and history to a cocktail based on chemistry, can produce unforeseen stress.  Tension can emerge, as young women sort out their own thought processes and decide on their own paths,  which might be at variance with the mother’s expectations. Factor in generational differences and norms, Mother’s have to be careful about managing multiple divides. This can be between guiding their daughters to make their own decisions, and heavily influencing them,  to even unconsciously,  imposing their own views.

Managing expectations

All mothers want their children to be “happy,” but by their own definitions of “happiness.”  I  recently worked with Leanne, a young woman who wished to pursue a career in the international economic transformation sector, which involved spending long periods in post-conflict regions.  Her mother, a financial management consultant, was strongly urging her to consider a job in consulting, which was far more secure physically, as well as financially.

Leanne, 25, with a Masters in International Development says “She is concerned about my physical safety and wants me to think long term about the benefits of working for an international consulting firm, which has great perks for women and their careers. Although she has never said so, and has applied no pressure, I also think she would like me to be physically closer. I just won’t be able to see her as often as she would like if I go overseas. She is also a single parent and financial security is her overriding concern. I don’t have the same financial ambitions as she does.”

Career paths and job search techniques are also now so different, and changing so rapidly, that most parents, despite what they think, are not up to date. Some of the worst career advice I have come across, has come from well-intentioned parents.

Role models

Where mothers can make invaluable mentoring input is on situational advice, especially if they have relevant professional experience. And sometimes, even if they do not. Many women just have an innate wisdom, acquired from observing hundreds of non-related experiences and can apply that wisdom to the situation in hand. My own daughter might call and say “This is going on… what do you think?”  Sometimes she accepts my input, sometimes she doesn’t.

Patricia who works in Digital Marketing said affectionately “My Mum is a nurse and has no clue what I do even. But as a role model for how to handle stress and difficult people, she gives the best advice ever. I turn to her every time”

In my day almost none of my peers had mothers who could act as professional role models. There just weren’t any. There were a handful in the traditional professions, but none that I can think of in industry or business. My own mother was actually a working Mum, at a time when all mothers were homemakers. That is just what mothers did, the phrase “stay at home Mom” had yet to be invented. So although she wasn’t a professional mentor, at a subconscious level, that was profoundly influencing.

Beware helicopter parenting

If professional mothers have good networks that is a wonderful bonus, but being careful to let the daughter manage any future process themselves. They should definitely not assume responsibility for job search, which is something that is becoming increasingly common for both sons and daughters as helicopter parents crash into the workplace.

The reality is that the seeds for a young woman’s approach to life and career have been sown long before the first mentoring questions are posed. As unconscious role models, then a mother’s influence is not just invaluable, but critical. As mentors it is less cut and dried.


Book a session with a mentor here!



Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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