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SHRM Foundation Research 

Beyond Mentoring: Shaping Expectations and Career Success Through the Relational Models of Developmental Network Dyads

Funded: June 2009  Completed: August 2011 

Judith R. Gordon, Ph.D., Carroll School of Management, Boston College
Richard Cotton, Walker College of Business, Appalachian State University

Please direct correspondence regarding this research to Dr. Rick Cotton.  

Improving Career Success by Using an Array of Developmental Relationships Rather than a Single Mentor

Executive Summary

Mentoring is a widely-used organizational intervention for developing leaders, enhancing career development, improving performance, and increasing employee satisfaction. Yet, mentoring programs have a mixed record of success. In today’s dynamic career environment, mentors and protégés frequently change organizations and roles, prompting individuals to cultivate a mentoring constellation or developmental network of individuals inside and outside the organization from whom they receive career, psychosocial, and role modeling support that contributes to their career success.

Rather than assuming reciprocity as the basis of network relationships, the investigators sought to understand the nature of these developer-protégé relationships using four models from relational models theory:

1) Communal Sharing, where the relationship is primarily based on what the parties have in common, such as friend and kin relationships;

2) Equality Matching, where relationships are primarily based on alleviating imbalances in the relationship, such as co-worker relationships;

3) Authority Ranking, where relationships are primarily based on differences in experience, age, status, or rank, such as manager-subordinate and formal mentor-protégé relationships, and

4) Market Pricing, where relationships are primarily based on ratios of inputs to outputs in terms of cost, effort, time or money, such as coach-trainee or supervisor-temporary contract worker relationships.

This study identified key developer roles, analyzed the relational model and support expectations associated with these roles, assessed the association between different amounts of relational models in an individual’s developmental network and career success, and explored how particular developmental relationships evolve over time.

Key Findings and Implications for Practice

• Extraordinary career achievement comes from development relationships other than mentors. The seven developer roles most commonly cited in the speeches of 77 inductees from business, consumer electronics, automotive, inventors, football and teachers halls of fame were with a spouse, parent, CEO/President/business owner of the protégé’s organization, work teammate, personal friend, unmet hero or idol, and manager. In contrast, mentors were the 14th most highly-cited developer role.

• No “one size fits all” for key developmental relationships. Respondents had different expectations of developers in various roles. For example, relationships with spouses were expected to predominantly reflect Communal Sharing and Market Pricing with high levels of career, psychosocial, and role-modeling support. In contrast, relationships with managers were expected to predominantly reflect Authority Ranking and Market Pricing with high levels of career support.

• True developers resemble friends more than mentors. When comparing actual developers in these roles to expectations about the roles a developer would play, respondents consistently identified their own developers as providing more psychosocial support, less Authority Ranking, and more Communal Sharing than expected from the developer role.

• Fostering different kinds of developer-protégé relationships differentially affects career success. Communal Sharing in a person’s developmental network was positively related to receiving psychosocial support as well as having higher levels of career satisfaction, life satisfaction, and self-efficacy. Equality Matching and Authority Ranking were negatively associated with self-efficacy. Market Pricing was positively related to career commitment. These relationships remained the same when career satisfaction, psychosocial support, and self-efficacy were measured 20 months later.

• Strong developmental relationships are often initiated based on compatibility and availability.  The 44 interviews demonstrated that protégés predominantly received support from developers with whom they naturally had regular personal or work contact (i.e., a manager, spouse, work teammate, best friend, etc.).  As opposed to formal matching of mentors and protégés or the proactive targeting of developers with whom they had minimal regular interaction, protégés instead identified potential friends, and then these relationships grew to include broader and deeper career, psychosocial, and role modeling support over time in line with the protégé’s developer role expectations.

Bottom Line for Human Resource Management

There is evidence that individuals draw mentoring support from a wide variety of developers inside and outside their employing organization. These relationships are found in the developmental networks of both extraordinary career achievers and the general population. The relationships with key developers vary in both their nature and support expectations.

Acknowledging these differences should enhance individuals’ development. Organizations should also recognize that the failure of past mentoring programs may be tied to the fundamental expectations associated with using an Authority Ranking relational model when a Communal Sharing model may be more desired and which seems to yield greater career success. Consideration of progressive work-family policies that acknowledge and enhance key intra- and extra-organizational developmental relationships should also serve to enhance both individual and organizational success.

Study Methods

The investigators first identified key developer roles for individuals who have achieved extraordinary career success by coding the induction speeches of 77 hall of famers from six halls of fame. Having identified the seven most highly-cited developer roles, they then collected data from a cross-industry sample of 425 largely U.S. respondents regarding support and relational model expectations for developers in these roles to ascertain linkages between relational models and career success. Approximately 20 months later, 206 of these respondents completed another developmental network survey to assess causality between relational models and career success. To understand how key developmental relationships evolve, the investigators also interviewed 44 respondents about one particular developmental relationship.

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