Helicopter Parents: Mentors or Mess-makers?

The view from above, like in a helicopter, is incredible. You can see everything perfectly – the highways and byways, the subdivisions and farmland. Sometimes I wish I had a similar perspective on my own life. The view a helicopter provides could bring so much clarity when ambiguity leaves me reeling.

Lucky for me, I know two pilots, and I often ask them, “Mom, Dad, what do you see about my life from up there?”

Our generation desperately seeks mentors, but our parents have acted as mentors for many of us. We trust their opinion and believe we can learn from their experiences. It’s not a matter of low self-confidence or second-guessing my own abilities, but rather knowing that experience yields wisdom. If the view is clearer from above and I know someone who has that view, I’d be foolish not to ask for that perspective and wisdom.

While in school, I’d have my mother read over my papers for English class (thank God I did!), and my dad would help with statistics, geometry and chemistry. It was far better for Mom to tell me that my writing was lacking (and help me improve) than to first hear it from my teacher. Now, in my late 20s, I still reach out to my parents for perspective on work, faith, relationships – even about relocating to a new city. I have been able to leverage their wisdom to navigate this life a bit better than I could have without them.

I would be a dolt to think my parents have all the answers or that they are flawless in their decision-making. I don’t take a recommendation from them as gospel truth. Instead, my parents, as trusted advisers, provide an additional point to consider in my decision-making process. An unrelated mentor can provide similar insight and perspective, but I already know and trust my parents to have my best interest in mind.

In The M-Factor: How the Millennial Generation is Rocking the Workplace, Ian Winbrock,  a 21-year-old market research analyst, says:

“My parents are such great resources for me [that] it would be foolish not to look to them. They have ‘been there’ and ‘done that’ and I want to use that knowledge. The networking component alone is immense. I can’t even tell you how many leads or phone numbers I’ve gotten through my parents. To call them only parents is such an understatement. They are my mentors, tutors, and friends.”

I am, however, now on the receiving end of the involvement of others’ helicopter parents. As a manager for a well-known retailer, I am responsible for managing a large staff, many of whom are Millennials like myself. I must admit, I was shocked the first time I received a call from the mother of a team member who informed me that Johnny would be coming home for the holidays despite the black-out period imposed on vacation requests. I shared with her that I understood the importance of family and tradition, but still attempted to help her understand the needs of the business.

She was kind, but stern, informing me that if it meant Johnny would have to quit and find a new job, he would. Suddenly, I was not only managing the relationships with a team member, but also with his mother. Johnny did end up going home for the holidays, and he did have to find a new job upon his return.

There is great value in providing perspective from above, provided it is used to teach, guide and grow us as individuals. However, when over-used, it inhibits growth and development.

A good mentor provides insight and perspective, asks challenging questions, and encourages one to make a decision. A good mentor does not make a decision for you, or step in to handle your challenges. A good mentor is what we Millennials seek.

According to a survey of Millennials conducted by Price Waterhouse Cooper, “78% of Millennials agreed that working with strong coaches and mentors is a critical part of their development.” Many of us happen to have coaches and mentors in our parents. Our challenge is to seek a balance of perspectives, to see our bosses and even peers as coaches and mentors as well.

We should each strive to be far more than an employee or manager — rather, to be a leader, a mentor, a trusted adviser to our peers and direct reports.

I have no desire to be the parent of any member of my team, but I do hope to build rapport such that I am sought out as a mentor, someone with wisdom and experience who provides a “helicopter view” for others.

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