A New Approach to Mentoring

In a September 22, 2008 Wall Street Journal/MIT Sloan School article by Kathy E. Kram and Monica C. Higgins, the authors suggest protégés create and cultivate a small group of people to whom they can turn for regular mentoring support.  They believe the traditional mentoring relationship is not sufficient to navigate  rapidly changing technology, the challenges of globalization, a multicultural work force and team-based decision making. Their view is tha the  world of work has gotten too complicated for one person to provide all the guidance and opportunities you need to manage challenges and prepare for the future. How can one teacher know enough to help you keep up with this complexity?

The Situation: The traditional mentoring arrangement just doesn't work anymore. A single senior colleague can't possibly keep up with all the changes in the fast-moving world of work.

The Solution: People should create and cultivate developmental networks instead -- small groups of people who provide regular advice and support.

The Strategy: There are a number of steps to take when setting up a network, such as carefully assessing your strengths, weaknesses and goals and figuring out what you need to know to advance your goals. And when your network is in place, you should regularly reassess it as your situation changes -- while making sure that you help out your allies as much as they help you.

The composition of the group depends on where you are in your career and what you're looking for. If you're just getting started, you could certainly turn to your boss or assigned mentor for help. But you should also look further, seeking out peers to get feedback on areas where you need to improve, such as public speaking or working in teams.

At midcareer, you might look to other managers and people outside the organization; someone you know from a professional association might have insight on new ideas in your industry, for instance. Senior managers might get coaching from peers on the next steps to take in their career, from family members on achieving a better balance in their lives, and even from juniors who have crucial technical expertise vital to immediate business challenges.

What sets this group apart from people you network with more generally or from casual or one-time relationships? The relationships have a high degree of mutual learning and trust in which both individuals give and receive various kinds of informational, emotional and strategic support.

Developmental networks can also be extremely valuable in the context of global and multicultural business environments. For example, the challenges that expatriates face as they move abroad, and then again when they return to their home country, can be met most effectively when the expat has a strong developmental network to draw on.

Here's a look at the steps you need to take to develop your own developmental network.

1. Know Thyself

Although this tip may sound clichéd, it's crucial. When people seek out help, they generally aren't as well-prepared as they could be. Only if people know their own goals, strengths and weaknesses will they be able to figure out whom to turn to for support -- and know how to ask for and apply advice effectively.

You should start by reviewing appraisals and developmental feedback that you have received. And ask yourself tough questions. What do you really enjoy doing at work? How can you best contribute, given your talents and interests? Where would you like to be in two years? In five years? Are there skill and knowledge gaps that you want to fill? Do you have a healthy balance between your work and outside commitments? Who knows you well enough to give useful feedback?

You should also assess your interpersonal skills. Are you comfortable reaching out for help, sharing your experiences and soliciting feedback? Or even just starting conversations with strangers? If you have shortcomings here, it's vital that you address them, or you may have trouble creating an effective developmental network.

2. Know Your Context

If you're looking to advance at your job, you must understand what skills are valued in senior leaders and how the promotion process works. If you want to change careers, you would want to be sure you understood the ins and outs of your desired field, everything from its hiring practices to what's expected in the job. A good way to proceed is to build up contacts in the industry, perhaps by attending professional conferences.

It's key to focus on a handful of relationships with individuals who seem to genuinely care about you and have wisdom or resources to offer. And be mindful of what you can offer to each of these individuals to create mutual learning.

3. Enlist Developers

Next, it's time to actually build your developmental network, enlisting people who can help you advance your goals. So, whom should you choose?

You'll want to develop alliances with people at more senior levels who can sponsor and promote you, coach you and serve as a role model.

Peers can help you learn to navigate the company's politics and can share information about those at more senior levels. Contacts at professional organizations could give you insights into new technology, while people in your family could act as a sounding board.

It is critical to remember that high-quality mentoring is a process of give and take, where both parties learn from each other. So, you should approach potential developers with a sense of how they might benefit from an association with you.

What can they learn from you -- new skills? Maybe they'll be able to develop insight into how people in your job see the world and prioritize what's important. Could helping you be an opportunity for a senior manager to hone coaching skills or to develop confidence in mentoring others?

Having a clear sense of these possibilities will make it easier for you to empathize with your allies, ask relevant questions and disclose relevant information about yourself as you ask for guidance.

4. Regularly Reassess

As your career and life unfold, you'll need to keep reassessing your developmental network; the setup that served you well a few years ago may not work as your situation changes. You must ask yourself which developers can still help you meet your goals, and which need to be eased aside for new ones.

This may sound calculating and borderline manipulative, but remember that you're not actually discarding old allies. As you bring new people into your network, don't discard the old ones, just look on them in a different way -- perhaps as valued friends whom you consult occasionally instead of colleagues that you frequently rely on for advice.

5. Develop Others

As you enlist people in your network, consider how you can benefit them, as well. Remember, high-quality mentoring is about mutual learning; consider how your high-quality relationships serve to develop others and your organization.

As you enlist more senior colleagues, for instance, you'll be providing them with opportunities to gain new knowledge from you, to hone their coaching skills and possibly boost their enthusiasm at work. Similarly, as you enlist junior colleagues in your developmental network to hone your coaching skills, you are creating an opportunity for them to bring you into their developmental networks. Exploring these complementary personal goals can solidify the relationship and ultimately help both of you and your organization.

If you're a senior leader, meanwhile, you should also work to foster developmental networks in your organization. Just by forming your own network, and joining other people's networks, you will serve as a role model. But you can also actively encourage coaching and mentoring among those that you manage, by designing jobs to encourage peer coaching, for example. And you can launch leadership-development programs that help individuals to develop the skills and self-awareness they'll need to build strong developmental networks.

For Further Reading

Related articles from MIT Sloan Management Review.

Getting New Hires Up to Speed Quickly

By Keith Rollag, Salvatore Parise and Rob Cross (Winter 2005)
How do managers and companies quickly transform new hires into productive employees?

Preserving Knowledge in an Uncertain World

By Eric Lesser and Laurence Prusak (Fall 2001)
When employees walk out the door, they take valuable organizational knowledge with them. But managers who think creatively can keep it in-house.

Why Leadership-Development Efforts Fail

By Douglas A. Ready and Jay A. Conger (Spring 2003)
The authors have identified three pathologies at the root of many leadership-development failures.

Developing Versatile Leadership

By Robert E. Kaplan and Robert B. Kaiser (Summer 2003)
Versatile leaders are able to continually adjust their behavior, deftly applying the right approach or blend of approaches to the right degree for the circumstances at hand.

Are You a 'Vigilant Leader'?

By George S. Day and Paul J. H. Schoemaker (Spring 2008)
Vigilant leaders are those who make a practice of being abundantly alert and deeply curious so that they can detect, and act on, the earliest signs of threat or opportunity.

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