It finally happened: You got the buy-in to launch a (much-needed!) working parents’ network in your organization. You’ve sent out the blast announcement and secured a small budget. The kickoff cocktail party drew a crowd of parents eager for advice — and curious about this new resource. You’ve done everything needed to get this thing up and running. But as the energy and excitement from that first event fades, you’re left wondering: Now what?
And you’re not alone…because if you’re spearheading the effort to build a working parents’ group, two things are dead-certain:
1) The work you’re doing is important, necessary, and welcomed; and
2) There’s no template for it. No playbook, no best practices, no roadmap to success.
As a full-time consultant on working-parent issues, I’ve seen this dynamic play out time and time again. At their start, corporate working-parent affinity groups are greeted with enthusiasm. But what these groups should be doing longer-term — what value they should be providing their members, how their leaders should steer and contribute to the effort, and what types of events and services they should offer — is frustratingly hard to see, or agree on. As a result, network momentum — and credibility — can fizzle out quickly. As one of my clients, a VP in a technology firm, told me recently, “Getting the parents’ group launched was easy. But now our meetings consist of working moms and dads sitting awkwardly in a conference room, talking about how hard it all is. There’s so much goodwill, but nobody really knows how to make this thing work.” And when the working parents’ network itself isn’t working, it sends an unintended, negative message: This organization and working parenthood don’t go together.
Fortunately, there’s a fix that any network leader, in any sized company, and in any industry, can use: A set of simple, practical techniques and approaches that can help turn your working parents’ network into an asset — one that improves overall morale and retention, and that provides tangible, practical benefit to individual employees, too. Take the following steps before and after your network is launched, and you’ll develop a network with a large following and with powerful, positive impact.
Build up from what works. Don’t spend time intuiting and hypothesizing what the network should do; scale up what’s already working. Every organization has an existing working-parent network — organic and unseen, perhaps, but functional. Maybe there’s an email chain through which new parents in the marketing department swap out gently used baby gear, and maybe Mary over in finance has a reputation as an “on top of it” mom — and ends up mentoring and informally coaching a disproportionate number of colleagues as a result. In ID-ing these kinds of under-the-radar peer-to-peer relationships, you’ll discover a lot about what employees want and need, how those needs can be met, and who can help meet them. This helps you build an agenda, or plan of action based on a proven approach. Make that email chain an Intranet page or Slack channel, available to all working moms and dads throughout the company. And then rope Mary in as a featured speaker at an early network event — and ask for her ideas on where you should focus future programming.
You and Your Team Series
Be assertively inclusive. Working parents come in all packages. They’re male, female, biological, adoptive, gay, straight, from every conceivable background, and from all parts and levels of the organization. And as network lead it’s your job to make sure that every single one of those parents gets the message, loud and clear, that “You are welcome here. This if for you.” Start by ensuring the group’s leadership is demonstrably diverse; prospective members will want to “see themselves” in the network’s composition. Make sure to keep communications demographically neutral: In emails, for example, specify that “this group/seminar is open to every interested working parent at [organization name].” And don’t be afraid to get personal: walk down the hall and invite that single, adoptive dad of a 16-year old to join you at the group’s next meeting. Remember: The broader and deeper your network is, the stronger it will be.
Align it to the organization’s mission — and DNA. At Kramer Levin, a leading law firm, the Working Parents Affinity Group features seminars on how to navigate legal issues important to new parents, like drafting a will. At Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, the “mission of the Working Parents Group is to improve conditions for the working parent” — just as the mission of Dana-Farber itself is to improve conditions for everyone touched by cancer. In these organizations, the working parents’ groups feel like natural and essential outgrowths of core operations. They’re easy for working parents to align themselves to and for senior leaders to get on board with.
Keep your figureheads relatable. In an effort to generate maximum visibility and “street cred” for a new network, you may have enlisted a working mother or father at the very top of the organization to serve as public face of the effort, or to speak at an early event. But if that person makes an enormous amount of money, has a large in-office team and three nannies on call at home, they’re going to be hard for most employees without those resources or advantages to identify with. Try tapping a broader pool of sponsors and speakers, ones who can address the day-to-day challenges most of your parent-colleagues are living. If you are fortunate enough to have the advantage of a C-suite supporter, help sensitize him or her to what’s really on other parents’ minds: Finding good day care, being able to work from home when their child is sick, figuring out how to save for college.
Have a curriculum that puts parents in control. At the network’s outset, and at the beginning of each year following, have a clear view of what you want members to learn — and be able to do for themselves. Whether it’s “to better manage time,” or “find greater flexibility,” or any other key working-parent skill, organize your events and programming around teaching it. Without that focus and narrative thread, the network’s activities risk becoming disjointed; you may end up with a “grab bag” of events and activities, each of which seemed like a good idea at the time, but which together don’t provide the punch of a more curated, planned-out effort.
Use internal experts and select “friends of the firm” as your faculty. The best way to create a rich and relevant curriculum on a limited budget? Use resources on hand. Have Rob from finance lead a seminar on tax-law changes that affect working parents, or on how to set up a college savings account. Ask someone on the IT support team to do a session on “the best apps and tech hacks for parents and caregivers.” Ask the outside law firm who your organization does a lot of business with to send over a Trusts & Estates partner to speak about how to set up wills and life insurance trusts. Scope the range and depth of expertise around you and bring it to bear for your membership.
You and Your Team Series
Stay in the solutions frame. Working parenthood can be overwhelming, and it’s a natural tendency for working mothers and fathers to connect over — and take comfort in — comparing notes about challenges and pain points: Exhaustion, difficulties with their kids’ schools, long to-do lists, lack of flexibility. But as network lead, your job is to help move people forward: To help them find the ways to cope, to effectively manage through what they’re facing and to feel more empowered and positive while doing it. In other words, your job is to keep the network events, dialogue and members in the “Solutions Frame.” Do so by focusing group discussions — whether in person or online — around alternate approaches, hacks, and fixes. Start a network email thread on “best advice for back-to-school season,” or organize a group discussion on “effective ways to talk to your boss about flexibility.” You’ll be unearthing specific, actionable advice that helps fellow parents find new ways to handle common challenges.
Use it to help amplify other resources and benefits. It may be HR’s job to provide and manage your organization’s benefits offerings — parental leave, flexibility programs, family health care plans, and the like — but it’s the network’s mission to help keep those benefits accessible and top-of-mind. Hold a panel session for expectant fathers about what taking parental leave really involves from men who have already taken it. Lucky enough to have corporate back-up daycare? Organize a tour of the center your company has contracted with: have parents meet the care providers, help them with the enrollment paperwork, and walk them through what the drop-off process looks like. “Believe it or not” says Lindsay Bell, founder and CEO of Bell Family Company, a leading provider of corporate backup- and emergency childcare, “many families that already have these benefits don’t actually know how to start using them. To help them do so, organizations need to work closely with moms and dads — to educate and inform.”
Keep all events on “working parent time.” Make gatherings short, and if possible, hold them outside of the morning and evening working-parent crunch times; the 30-minute brown-bag lunch can be your most powerful format. And always distribute summary notes to those who couldn’t make it, or had to leave early. (Remember, the network is about working parents giving each other a hand!)
Working parenthood is a gigantic challenge for those living it day-to-day — but it’s also a major challenge for organizations, too. People drive performance and they need to feel in control and supported. Luckily, with some advance planning and the right approach, you can create a working parents’ network that will help get them there.