Learning from the Field of Work-Based Mentoring

by Jean Rhodes

For decades, the fields of youth mentoring and work-based mentoring have operated on parallel tracks–covering the same terrain but somehow unaffected by of each other. With few exceptions (e.g., the excellent  Blackwell Handbook of Mentoring, which is edited by Professors Tammy Brown and Lillian Eby), disciplinary boundaries have gotten in the way of learning what others are doing in the field of mentoring.

Screen Shot 2014-09-23 at 10.20.05 PMProfessor Kathy Kram is a pioneer in work-based mentoring. Her book, Mentoring at Work, is considered a classic and has influenced generations of scholars working in this area.  Professor Wendy Murphy is Professor of Management and Associate Dean at Babson College. She has studied mentoring since she was a doctoral student, completing her dissertation on the roles of work- versus non-work relationships. As we talked, the parallels between the two subfields became clear. Perhaps most striking was a comment by Professor Kram in which she briefly described the history of work-based mentoring. “Throughout the 80’s and 90’s, most companies wanted formal mentoring programs and considerable time and expense went into creating one-on-one matches. The problem was that this approach did not yield good results, and least 20% of formal mentoring relationships were unsuccessful. So companies are beginning to consider alternatives that include creating a culture of mentoring. To the extent that mentoring is incorporated into performance reviews and promotion criteria, today’s workers will be more likely to serve as informal mentors to others within the organization.” The relationships don’t have to be one-on-one, in fact innovative strategies including peer mentoring and mentoring circles are gaining steam.

As Professor Murphy described, a person’s network can be assessed by asking:   “Think about the people who have taken an active interest in your career by assisting you with your personal and professional development.  Think broadly, these may be people from your work or outside of work (i.e., family, community).”  Professor Murphy also shared an Murphy 2011 AMLE with the developmental initiation scale—the definition/background of the construct is on p. 611 and the scale items on the bottom of p. 613.

These topics and more are covered in depth in their book, Strategic Relationships At Work: Creating Your Circle Of Mentors, Sponsors, And Peers For Success In Business And Life. In this book, Professors Kram and Murphy at Babson College distill 30 years of research into practical wisdom about  mentoring, coaching, mentoring circles and developmental networks—all of which leads to guidelines that will enable you to build relationships critical for your personal success.

The first part of the book provides an overview of what makes for high quality relationships and gives the reader a number of assessment tools to create a personal strategy for building an effective circle of mentors, sponsors and peers. They argue that a mentee must first know him or herself—values, goals, interests, talents and limitations—before beginning to build relationships that will support him or her in achieving aspirations.  Once this self-knowledge is developed, it is up to the mentees to assess whether they  have relationships in place that can support current and future aspirations.  Through a structured process, they are invited to assess their current developmental relationship map,  and to systematically identify where they may have some gaps that should be filled.  They also outline the relational skills that are essential to reaching out to cultivate such growth-enhancing relationships including proactivity, curiosity, deep listening, self-disclosure, and self-management.

The second part of the book offers strategies for building different types of relationships and invites those in leadership positions to foster developmental relationships in their organizations through formal programs, their own efforts to build effective alliances, and rewarding others for doing so.  Drawing on examples from well known businesses as well as small startups and healthcare systems, they illustrate differences between mentors and sponsors, the potential of peer coaching, and the multiplier effect of peer circles whose primary purpose are to enhance participants’ learning .

Finally, the last part of the book outlines what to do when relationships go awry to minimize negative impact on mentees’ careers.  Via case examples of “tor-mentors” they illustrate the “red flags” that suggest when a relationship is no longer mutually beneficial, and offer specific communication tactics for ending it and moving on.  In this part of the book, they also outline specific strategies for building mutually satisfying relationships across gender, racial and ethnic boundaries to foster diverse relationships that also support learning and development.   And, since technology is transforming the way we do business and relationships, they consider how to leverage this powerful tool for creating and sustaining high quality connections at work.

Ultimately, this step-by-step guide will help programs leverage interpersonal skills, using the most effective tools available for creating a strong developmental network that grows with your career.  The reader will find ready-to-use checklists and worksheets, self-assessments, reflective exercises, graphs, charts and other visual tools to map out personal networks of developers inside and outside of work.  With this book in hand readers will be able to form mutually rewarding relationships at work, create strong connections with meaning and purpose, and experience greater satisfaction and success—in business and life.