What Does Mentoring Look Like in Today’s Context?

July 31, 2014

By: Kathy Kram, Wendy Murphy

When research on mentoring was in its infancy, we lived in a more predictable world, with stable, hierarchical organizations, where linear careers in one organization were the norm for most professionals.  In the eighties we developed an understanding of the critical support that an effective mentor can provide to a novice—support that enables the less experienced protégé to build self-esteem and a professional identity, as well as the skills and opportunities to advance within a chosen career path.[1]

In the intervening years, research on positive relationships and high quality connections have deepened our understanding of mentoring relationships.  We now know that reciprocity, mutuality, empathy, and self-disclosure are key to growth-enhancing interactions and relationships.[2]  There are actions that individuals can take to be more effective as mentor or as protégé, and through self-reflection, practice, and sufficient motivation, anyone can create the opportunities to be mentored and to mentor others.

But, this is not the whole story.  Today’s career environment is very different than it was two decades ago.  The pace of change is ever increasing. Globalization is inevitably requiring most of us to work effectively and learn from individuals who are from different countries and ethnic backgrounds, requiring well-honed communication skills. And, technology has significantly changed the way we work and the way we create and sustain relationships with others. These trends make us all novices over and over again, as we necessarily move to a new job, new organization, or new country.  It is almost impossible to be an expert for very long.

So what does mentoring look like in this new context?  Our review of three decades of research and our own observation and experiences clearly indicate that rather than seek out one mentor who can provide all of the guidance that is needed at a particular point in time, we all need to build a network of developers that can help us to continuously learn, innovate, work with others, and realize our goals.  Some call this “a personal board of advisors,” others call it a “developmental network.” The basic premise is that the challenges that individuals face at work are more complex and ever changing, and that a group of developers is preferable to a single mentor so that multiple sources of expertise, advice and guidance can be tapped.[3]

In our new book Strategic Relationships at Work, we provide a set of practical guidelines for individuals seeking to enlist others in their developmental networks, and for organizational leaders and HR practitioners who want to create and sustain a developmental culture in which these growth-enhancing relationships can thrive.  Whether you are just beginning your career, or are at a critical decision point along the way, we suggest that you start with an assessment of your current developmental network, your personal values and goals, and the skills and knowledge that you are seeking to acquire.  With these in mind, you will have a good idea of what you are seeking from developers within and outside of your immediate work context.  It is then up to you to be entrepreneurial—to initiate conversations (and take a risk) with potential developers about matters of importance to you and of possible interest to them.  With well-honed interpersonal skills and self-awareness, you will be on your way to building a strong developmental network that will enable you to move towards your goals and to achieve a sense of success and well-being in doing so.

If you are in a position to create a developmental culture—one that supports employees in their efforts to make positive contributions in their work, and encourages them to help one another through mutually beneficial connections with others—then we provide guidance to do so.  In the research for our book we found that some companies pay more attention to this than others.  We showcase several—including IBM,  Sodexo,  KPMG, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital—who have developed initiatives to provide education and training on emotional intelligence, mentoring, coaching and leadership, as well as structured opportunities for employees to meet others who share complementary expertise as well as mutual interest in creating growth-enhancing alliances.  What these examples have in common is that they not only provide these opportunities, but they actively reward and acknowledge those who develop their peers and junior colleagues especially well.

Mentoring looks very different today than it did in the 80s and 90s.  The necessary career and psychosocial support that mentoring provides is found in a small network of developers rather than in one hierarchical relationship within one organization. By seeking opportunities to create what our colleague, Belle Ragins calls “mentoring episodes”[4], we are taking actions to build high quality developmental relationships with seniors, juniors, peers, and family members, all of which can provide vital opportunities for learning.

[1] Kram, K. E. (1988). Mentoring at Work: Developmental Relationships in Organizational Life, Lanham, Maryland:  University Press of America.

[2] Stephens. J.P., Heaphy, E., & Dutton, J.. (2011) High Quality Connections. In K, Cameron and G. Spreitzer (eds.), Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship, New York: Oxford University Press.

[3] Kram, K. E., and Higgins, M. A. (2009). “A New Mindset on Mentoring: Creating Developmental Networks at Work,” Sloan Management Review, Cambridge, MA.

[4] Ragins, B. and Verbos, A. (2007). Positive Relationships in Action: Relational mentoring and relational schemas in the workplace. In J. Dutton and B.R. Ragins (Eds.). Exploring Positive Relationships at Work. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 91-116

Kathy E. Kram is the Shipley Professor in Management at Boston University. Her primary interests are in the areas of adult development, relational learning, mentoring and developmental networks, leadership development, and change processes in organizations. In addition to her book, Mentoring at Work, she has published in a wide range of journals including Organizational Dynamics, Academy of Management Journal, Academy of Management Review, Harvard Business Review, Business Horizons, Qualitative Sociology, Mentoring International, Journal of Management Development, Journal of Management Education, Journal of Management Inquiry, Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, Career Development International, and Psychology of Women Quarterly. She is co-editor of The Handbook of Mentoring at Work: Theory, Research and Practice with Dr. Belle Rose Ragins. She is a founding member of the Center for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations (CREIO). During 2000-2001, she served as a visiting scholar at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) during which time she worked on a study of executive coaching and its role in developing emotional competence in leaders.  She served as a member of the Center’s Board of Governors from 2002-2009.  She and her husband, Peter Yeager, enjoy hiking, traveling, and listening to their musician son, Jason, perform in a variety of venues.

Wendy Marcinkus Murphy is an Associate Professor of Management at Babson College. Her research interests are in the area of careers, particularly developmental networks, learning, and the work-life interface. Her work has appeared in such journals as the Academy of Management Learning and Education, Career Development International, Gender in Management, Group and Organization Management, Human Resource Management, Journal of Management, and the Journal of Vocational Behavior among others. She has served as a Representative-at-Large for the Careers Division of the Academy of Management.  She is also a member of the American Psychological Association, Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, and the Organizational Behavior Teaching Society. Murphy teaches organizational behavior, leadership, managing talent, and negotiation for undergraduate, MBA, and Executive Education programs.  She also serves as the Faculty Advisor for the Mentoring Programs through the Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership (CWEL).  Prior to joining the faculty at Babson College, she taught at Boston College and Northern Illinois University.  She and her husband Dan delight in their three young children and enjoy family time swimming and exploring nature.