How to develop talent through relationships

Establishing developmental networks can assist in managing talent and improving relationships across any organisation, write Wendy Murphy & Kathy Kram

Growing and developing your workforce is a constant challenge. Not too long ago it was possible to put the right training in place to support your employees and target your efforts accordingly.

Today, it takes much more to achieve success, regardless of your industry. None of us can ignore the increasing pace of change, the globalisation of our economy, and the extent to which technology is central to our work. These trends make us all novices over and over again as we necessarily transition to a new job and/or new country. It is almost impossible to be an expert for very long.

Two high potential examples
Careers are more flexible and employees are more mobile. Consider two high potential employees. Andy is trying to figure out if it’s worth waiting for his next promotion or jumping to a new startup. Kim is navigating the transition back from an overseas assignment and is concerned that her career may stall. These current realities make relationships through which we can learn new skills, develop new opportunities, and build effective collaborations essential.

Finding “a mentor” is no longer sufficient. Instead, each of us has to build a network of developers that can help us to continuously learn, innovate, and work with others. These developers may be mentors, sponsors, peers, or family members and friends outside of work. What is most important is that as a group they enable us to tackle the challenges and seize the opportunities in front of us.

The traditional mentor-protégé relationships consists of a junior person – the protégé (or mentee), paired with a senior, more experienced colleague – the mentor, within the same company. “True mentors” provide many forms of support including role modeling, career support – coaching, sponsorship, visibility, challenging assignments – and emotional support – encouragement, counseling and friendship.

“Each of us has to build a network of developers that can help us to continuously learn, innovate, and work with other”


Few people have time today to provide every type of support for one person, and there is a big risk to relying on only one mentor for all of these things. It’s easy to see why diversifying efforts to develop a career across many relationships makes sense. Modern careers simply require more complex support systems.

Every CEO has a board of directors and in today’s rapidly changing knowledge economy every employee needs their own developmental network too. In Strategic Relationships at Work: Creating Your Circle of Mentors, Sponsors, and Peers for Success in Business and Life, we distill 30 years of scholarly 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 and to facilitate your organisations’ success.

A developmental network approach
Three key findings in the research highlight why a developmental network approach is essential. First, informal mentoring relationships are more effective than formal ones. While formal programs still benefit individuals – through increased learning, satisfaction, and performance to name a few – relaxed, informal relationships provide more of every benefit.

Second, findings show that having a healthy developmental network – a set of relationships crucial to your learning and growth in your career – is even better.

Finally, these relationships are mutually beneficial. Mentors’ experience positive outcomes similar to those of mentees, plus they gain a reputation for developing others and feel a positive sense of giving back. We use the terms mentor and mentee because these are most common, but in reality both people are developers or co-learners in thriving developmental relationships. And these relationships benefit the organisation as well by reducing turnover, increasing loyal followership, innovation, and employee wellbeing.

Keys to successful developmental networks
There are a few important features of developmental networks to keep in mind. These relationships are a subset of your overall social network; they do not include everyone you’ve ever talked with about your career or all your social media connections.

Your developmental network is the set of people who have taken an active interest and action to assist you in your personal and professional development, usually within the past year. And certainly these relationships and their importance to you will change over time.

“People learn from reflecting on experience, processing this experience with developers, and vicariously through observing their developers’ experience”

Both formal and informal relationships should be included as well as relationships inside and outside the workplace. Developers may be senior executives, board members, direct supervisors, peers, subordinates, family members, or anyone who helps you learn and grow. Given the scope of these relationships, different people provide you with various types and amounts of support.

If learning is everyone’s job in the modern economy, beyond education and training programs what are the main ways we learn? People learn from reflecting on experience, processing this experience with developers, and vicariously through observing their developers’ experience. Thus, each of us needs to hone our skills as entrepreneurial protégés to proactively create our own circle of mentors, sponsors, and peers to help navigate our careers.

Andy, who is concerned about his next promotion and considering new opportunities, needs relationships with people at his company with power and influence who can help him identify the best tactics for positioning himself to get promoted. He also needs to build relationships with people in the startup world – peers and senior managers – to really understand the opportunities and challenges there.

These outside relationships may persuade him to jump ship or affirm that he’s in a good place and get him thinking about how to be more innovative at work. Either way, the organisation benefits because Andy is taking action to improve his career by engaging in learning conversations.

Fostering a developmental culture
How can your company foster a developmental culture, so that talented people like Andy and Kim are more likely to stay? Initiating and sustaining developmental relationships means taking initiative and a degree of risk, though the culture of the organisation can make this easier.

Some companies provide training on mentoring and coaching, and while these are helpful, they are certainly not sufficient. When such training is combined with leadership development practices that encourage employees to develop self-knowledge and then to build a developmental network that exists to support their continued learning, high quality mentoring evolves.

In our book, we describe a number of organisations in business, healthcare and education that have leveraged peer coaching, mentoring circles, and learning partnerships within their talent development efforts.  Importantly, what sustains such efforts are rewards and recognition for those who become actively involved in helping other learn as well.

When she was overseas, Kim understood that she needed to maintain her mentoring relationships back home for her continued development and to ensure smooth repatriation. She had also built new relationships abroad and had successfully achieved the objectives of her assignment.

As she transitioned back, she reached out to her developers and made them aware of her recent successes and concerns. One of her mentors suggested that her skillset would complement a new project team that was working on a highly visible strategic initiative, and connected her to some key people who were involved.

The benefits of developmental networks
Companies that take a strategic approach to mentoring assess their current practices, take actions to improve how they develop people, identify how the work itself can be leveraged for relationship building that supports continuous learning, and encourage leaders to champion a range of related developmental efforts.

This holistic perspective is aimed at creating a developmental culture – one that combines meaningful, challenging work with support and caring for employees. If learning and development are valued by the company, employees feel empowered to reach out and initiate new developmental relationships.

One way to ensure these values are put into action is to include “developing others” as an important factor in performance reviews. Leading companies like IBM, Procter & Gamble, and KPMG take this approach along with hosting multiple initiatives that foster a culture of mentoring and development.

5 key questions to assess developmental network characteristics

  • Size. How many developers do you have? There are tradeoffs in terms of your time and effort for many versus few developers.
  • Diversity. How diverse your network? Consider experience, functional expertise, and background as well as demographics.
  • Density. How interconnected is your network? If everyone knows each other there may be a lot of redundancy, or if no one is connected you may be exposed to many different and/or competing perspectives.
  • Tie strength. How close are your connections? This is indicated by the quality of the relationship and often by frequency of interaction. It takes time to build relationships.
  • Multiplexity. How many types of support do your developers provide? Are your relationships one dimensional or multi-dimensional in terms of support?

4 ways leaders create a developmental culture

  1. Serve as a role model. Actively mentor junior colleagues and peers by participating as a mentor (or mentee) in formal programs. Informally, make time for developmental interactions to demonstrate that learning through relationships is valued.
  2. Share personal stories. Your examples demonstrate the critical role of relationships in career development and validate the importance of spending time building relationships. Sharing that you are human and that you pursue learning opportunities also shows the need for continuous development.
  3. Support your direct reports. Spend time with your people beyond the annual review process to discuss career growth opportunities. Work with employees to identify needs for skill development and potential learning beyond their given role.
  4. Sponsor new initiatives and formal programs. When you actively participate in and promote new initiatives, your words and actions give legitimacy to such programs.

Wendy Murphy & Kathy Kram are authors of Strategic Relationships at Work: Creating Your Circle of Mentors, Sponsors, and Peers for Success in Business and Life