Articles > More than a mentor or a pal: a hearth friend

More than a mentor or a pal: a hearth friend
Globe & Mail, April 29, 2009

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

Early in my career, I conducted a workshop for middle managers on behalf of a major oil company. When the break came, my co-trainer popped out for a few minutes and returned with a package she presented to me.

Inside it was a pair of stockings.

She'd noticed the stockings I was wearing had a run, and thought that made me look unprofessional. She would never allow anything to harm my reputation - not even a pair of ruined stockings.

It wasn't the first such move she made for me during those early career days. If I spoke out of turn at the podium, she would jump in with a comment to soften what I had said. If I was upset about something, she would take me aside to calm me down.

She was more than a mentor, and more than a pal. She was my hearth friend.

I recently came across the term in a novel, The Other Side of You, by Sally Vickers. A protagonist used it to describe the bond between himself and a woman, explaining that he would always be there for her, to cover her back and look out for her.

I loved the expression and the description. It captured a very important type of relationship that has the power to shape the course of a person's career and life.

Everyone can benefit from the attention of a hearth friend, especially in these chilly times, when everyone is watching their back and could use someone special in their corner.

Both parties - the giver and the receiver - should cherish the relationship. But it's not without confusing elements.

A hearth friend is a nuanced bond - neither purely friendship nor mentorship.

In most pure friendships, for example, there is equal power between the players; sometimes one gets to hold court, sometimes the other.

In contrast, hearth friends often don't have their attentiveness and concern equally reciprocated by the person whose back they are covering.
And while friendships typically occur between people of similar ages or life stages, and with similar life experiences, the hearth friend is usually older and more established - in my case, we were separated by about 15 years.

If not chronologically older, then by virtue of his or her life station or temperament, the hearth friend is usually wiser in the ways of the world, and better positioned to be helpful.

A hearth friend also differs from a mentor, even if some interactions may be similar. Like a mentor, a hearth friend may, for example, coach on tactical issues - how to ask for a raise, how to deal with a difficult boss, or how to pitch for a new job. They may even discuss personal career-related quirks, such as a lack of patience or assertiveness.

But hearth friends will cross boundaries a mentor never would. Usually, mentors will avoid intensely personal subjects, unlike hearth friends, who will dig deep, and tell the no-holds-barred truths, whether of a professional or personal nature.

Often, no subject is off limits. One woman acquaintance described the range of discussion topics with her hearth friend as follows: "A condensed conversation might go: 'Don't wear white; it drains you. Why do you keep thinking your boss is going to change? Do you see any patterns here in terms of how you relate to your husband?' "

Indeed, intimacy is a major feature of a hearth relationship - the result of the nature and depth of the bond between the parties.

While mentors may like or respect their "mentee," a hearth friend feels a special connection to the person he or she is protecting.

The preoccupations and needs of the person with which they share the bond are front and centre in a hearth friend's mind. Unlike a mentor, a hearth friend feels compelled to try to look after the other person.

This might involve aggressively lobbying for the friend's promotion, going the extra mile in helping him or her find a new job, arranging meetings with potentially useful contacts - or buying a pair of stockings.

A hearth friend can also see deeper into the other person's essence, recognizing talents the person might not be aware of or couldn't articulate, but which make them special.

As one woman said in a recent conversation about her hearth friend: "She took me seriously, and made me feel like I was important - like she had chosen me from many others. That gave me a lot of confidence."

How involved does a hearth friend get in your life? That will depend on the hearth friend's resources, talents and interests.

Some people confine their support largely to the work arena. This may be the boss who covers for you on the job when you are going through a difficult patch in your home life, or the co-worker who helps you out on a challenging assignment and makes sure you get the credit.

They may even engage in some subterfuge, like a client who sent his boss notes singing the praises of a colleague whose performance had been faltering as a result of a marital breakdown.

Others go much further, involving themselves in a hearth friend's children, marriage, travel plans or home renovations.

A hearth friend can evolve from any types of relationship - a parent's friend, a relative, a former professor or boss, a consultant, client or colleague.

It is obvious what those who are lucky enough to be the recipient of such attention get out of the relationship, and how this attention will affect their career.

But givers also have psychological needs met, deriving satisfaction from the knowledge they have contributed to shaping the course of someone's life by giving them a leg up. And having their opinions sought makes them feel valued.

Sometimes they may even live vicariously through their protege: They see their own unfinished business, or things they regret doing. This is an opportunity to turn their mistakes around.

They may even benefit at a practical level. When I'm struggling with an idea, I often solicit the opinion of one young woman whom I've taken under my wing. She's sharp, and brings to the table fresh observations I wouldn't have made.

Of course, all relationships can unravel. Sometimes the befriended outgrows his or her hearth friend. And when the hearth friend is no longer needed or relied upon, he or she may feel rejected and become hurt and angry.

And sometimes it may be the hearth friend who does the rejecting. The befriended may confuse helpfulness and interest in their life with unconditional love and acceptance. But the hearth friend isn't a mother. Even hearth friends have boundaries that can be violated.

One client, for example, took one of her daughter's friends under her wing.

She took the friend out to dinners in interesting restaurants, lent her clothes for a job interview, helped her with grad school applications and career problems, and gave her advice related to dealings with her mother and boyfriend.

But the relationship ended badly. The protege called her "friend" to discuss a job opportunity while the friend was recovering from an operation.

When my client said she wasn't feeling well enough to discuss it, the daughter's friend became angry at being rebuffed. They haven't spoken since.

It's not only easy to cross boundaries, it's also easy to misread signals and to get into tricky interpersonal territory.

Over the course of my career, I've taken a modest interest in a number of people, complimenting them, helping them to find a job or connecting them with clients.

But they mistook what I would consider basic kindness as a strong personal interest in their welfare. They attached too much meaning to my small interventions and developed expectations that I was constantly watching over them.

They thought I was their hearth friend when I wasn't.

This leads to awkward conversations - breaking up with someone you were never really with in the first place.

Hearth relationships in the workplace can also lead to challenges about loyalties. One client's hearth friend was an employee. She was told, in strict confidence, that the friend's job was on the line because of lackluster performance.

She struggled with whether to tell her friend. In the end, hearth friend loyalty won over company loyalty - she felt compelled to help her friend try to save her job.

But sometimes it's difficult to tell who really is a hearth friend - and who is not.

I was devastated when I learned that that I did not get into the PhD program at Concordia University. Sobbing, I ran into the office of the supervisor overseeing the clinical internship I was doing at the time.
I expected her to console and reassure me. She'd been the one to encourage me to do my PhD. She was, I thought, my hearth friend.

When she said, in a very chilly voice, "We will discuss this at the end of the week," I was even more devastated.

It was a harsh lesson to learn: Someone may take an interest in your career and future, but that doesn't mean that he or she cares deeply about your disappointments or will always try to make themselves available in a time of need.

And now that I think of it, I am sure that she would never have bought me a pair of stockings.