Hindsight that Gives 2020 Insight

About the authors:
Rick Cotton is Associate Professor of Talent Management and Sustainable Innovation at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. You can contact him at: rcotton@uvic.ca
Mila Lazarova is an Associate Professor of International Business and the Canada Research Chair of Global Workforce Management at the Beedie School of Business, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. You can contact her at mbl@sfu.ca

As we begin a New Year and a new decade, 2020 beckons us to use some hindsight to gain some foresight not just on our resumes or competencies but also on the networks that foster success.

We’ve heard networking adages before, “Networking is everything”, “Your network is your net worth” (author Porter Gale) and the one that may ring the truest, “Networking is a lot like nutrition and fitness: we know what to do, the hard part is making it a top priority” (professor and author Hermenia Ibarra).

Networks (with purpose) are essential to career success but networking is still a scary prospect for many, as we tend not to prioritize those things we find (or at least perceive as), well, slimy, uncomfortable and demeaning.  So, we are here to tell you that resolving to enhance a particular kind of network (i.e., a developmental network) doesn’t have to be slimy, uncomfortable or demeaning especially if you offer differentiated support and advice to others in return for the tailored advice and support they offer you.

In terms of the academic literature, much evidence exists that even the most motivated and successful individuals do not accomplish career success alone.  They need social capital (Seibert, Kraimer, & Liden, 2001).  Indeed, their careers are not forged in solitude but have been helped by a variety of others along the way. Starting from our parents to trusted friends and advisors, at one point or another, we all seek information, advice, role modeling or the right developmental opportunity. Occasionally, everyone also needs a friendly word of encouragement, a pat on the back and assurance that ‘it will all work out fine’.

Those who study careers have demonstrated that we benefit substantially from the help of other people in our lives. Most of us are familiar with the concept of having a mentor, typically someone more senior, with relevant professional and life experiences, and the right contacts, who can help us realize our personal and professional goals (Kram, 1983, 1985). Having a mentor has been shown to be related to receiving more promotions, getting a higher salary, being more satisfied with one’s job and career, and having higher career expectations (Bozionelos, 2020).

Expanding beyond the concept of a mentor, more recent thinking about supportive relationships at work has pointed out that we should consider the “constellation” or network of people that help our careers (Yip & Kram, 2017) as research has shown that a person’s support network can account for more variability in career success beyond that of a primary mentor (e.g., Higgins & Thomas, 2001). The idea is to think more holistically and cultivate a ‘developmental network’ (Higgins & Kram, 2001) or personal board of advisors (Shen, Cotton & Kram, 2015), comprised of all those providing us with career, psychosocial and role modeling assistance that enhances personal growth and achievement of our career goals, including the kind of extraordinary career achievement that only 1 or 2% of us will ever achieve in our given field (Cotton, Shen & Livne-Tarandach, 2011).

The reality is that careers today exist in a fast-changing environment. Organizations are flatter and leaner which limits the number of available organizational mentors. Diversity initiatives sometimes struggle to provide access to colleagues who can act as viable role models. The employment relationship is less secure which necessitates that we keep in touch with a wider network of developers that can help us in the event that we change jobs, organizations or industries. In short, today’s world of work has made it both risky and unrealistic to receive all of our support from select and exclusive mentorship relationships, as no single mentor can cover all of our varied developmental needs especially across all career stages. As such, developmental networks can be far more agile and provide more flexible bases of support (Bozionelos, 2020). Unlike mentorships that tend to be strictly professional relationships, our developers can come from all areas of our lives: our boss but also our life partner, our friend or former colleague and people from all walks of life who provide sage advice and/or helpful career support.

There are many important ways in which we can describe our developmental networks, including size, strength of ties, density, diversity, reachability, and what is referred to as multiplexity. Size of one’s network matters as larger networks tend to be associated with more positive career outcomes — with the important caveat that there is a tipping point beyond which adding more people to your network may detract from your ability to maintain relationships with your existing developers. Similarly, dense networks (consisting mainly of developers who are well connected to each other) can enhance one’s career but diminishing returns can kick in quickly if our network is too dense and the support efforts of our developers become redundant. Related to this, our networks consist of strong and weak ties. Strong ties are people with whom we communicate frequently and who know us quite well, whereas weak ties consist of acquaintances with whom we are more loosely related. Both strong and weak ties are beneficial to our careers, in different ways. For example, strong ties are the sources of trusted advice and continued support, while weak ties can provide invaluable information about unique opportunities. Diverse networks consist of developers that are different from us (in terms or gender, age, education, occupation, industry, race/ethnicity, and country of origin, among others). The more diverse one’s network is, the better the access to new, thought-provoking ideas and perspectives though deeper sharing still tends to come from relationships with people with whom we have several similarities. Reachability of ties refers to the hierarchical position and/or status of our developers, and having high reachability ties is important for senior executive advancement. Finally, multiplexity refers to developer relationships where multiple developmental functions are provided (e.g., coaching and organizational sponsorship; career strategizing and friendship, etc.) (Cotton et al., 2011; Yip & Kram, 2017).

As we think to 2020, our career goals and the developmental network and advisors that can help us reach these goals, it is important to point out that these particular networks are not ‘one size fits all’ (Higgins, 2007). There is no ‘optimal’ size, density, or reachability. The importance of each of these and other network characteristics depends on the individual, their career goals and their personality (Yip & Kram, 2017). This suggests that instead of trying to build an ‘ideal’ developmental network, you have to build one that works for you based on fit (Shen et al., 2015).

So whether you refer to them as developmental networks, personal boards of advisors or success networks, each portrays the same thing: that collection of individuals who have somehow helped you in achieving a particular career goal, typically over the last year.  As a social network, they reflect nodes and pipes of developers and support, respectively, that can be mapped out and assessed in terms of how well our network helps us to meet our goals (Cotton & Murphy, 2019; Higgins & Kram, 2001).

Rick’s research with Yan Shen (another 5Cer) and Kathy Kram (Shen et al., 2015) where they studied the networks of Major League Baseball Hall of Famers, expatriates and a validating study of 315 working professionals found some key insights to help you to identify high potential developers for you depending on the type of support that you need most.

The first step is to start with a clear career goal for your developmental network.  Along these lines, the 5C Group has found that career success is many-splendored and tends to fall into a consistent set of categories (see diagram below) regardless of your age, gender, occupation or country of residence though an individual’s focus on particular form(s) of career success will typically vary based on career stage and circumstances over time (Mayrhofer, Briscoe, Hall, Dickmann, Dries, Dysvik, … Unite , 2016;  Shen, Demel, Unite, Briscoe, Hall, Chudzikowski, …Zikic, 2015).

Figure 1 Rick and MIla

So whether you are seeking the financial success that comes from a promotion or raise, the growth that comes from learning or advanced education or the positive impact and positive relationships tied to job and career satisfaction, you need to have a goal.  And that goal should be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-bound) and as we reflect on the network of advisors where a picture is definitely worth a thousand words, we need to ask ourselves three key questions:

1) What stands out to you most about your developmental network diagram? For example, is it sparser than you thought? Is it as diverse as you hoped?

2) How well has your developmental network been at helping you meet your SMART career success goal? Do you have clear role models who have ‘been there, done that’ in terms of your particular career goal? Are there key kinds of support that you’re lacking which is clearly holding you back?

3) What actions can you take to enhance your success network? Can you be more entrepreneurial in seeking out high potential advisors? What can you offer these advisors that’s easy for you and highly valuable to them? Are there existing relationships you can strengthen or make more multiplex rather than pursuing new, ‘cold’ leads?

Shen, Cotton and Kram (2015) showed that there are high potential developers based on the type of advisor needed:

Figure 2 Rick and MIla

Key Takeaways: The bottom line is that we encourage you to take the time to periodically assess your career goals and to make them SMARTer while supporting their achievement with a developmental network that fits YOU.  And if you’re an organizational or HR leader, we encourage you to foster a developmental culture and practices that help your employees to have developmental networks containing advisors both within and outside your work organization who provide them the right kinds of support to help them (and ultimately the larger organization), to be more successful.

Happy 2020 and happy (developmental) networking!


Bozionelos, N. 2020. Mentorship and developmental networks. In Gunz, H., M. Lazarova & Mayrhofer, W. (Eds). The Routledge Companion to Career Studies (pp. 201-218).

Cotton, R. & Murphy, W. 2019.  Your Success Network: Building key relationships that support your goals.  In T. Skertich (Ed.), Career and Life Planning Guidebook for Medical Residents: The Best Part of Your Journey Is about to Begin, 10th Ed.

Cotton, R. D., Shen, Y. & Livne-Tarandach, R. 2011. On becoming extraordinary: The content and structure of the developmental networks of Major League Baseball hall of famers. Academy of Management Journal, 54, 15–46.

Higgins, M. C. 2007. A contingency perspective on developmental networks. In Dutton & Ragins (Eds.). Exploring positive relationships at work: Building a theoretical and research foundation, (pp. 207-224).

Higgins, M. C., & Kram, K. E. 2001. Reconceptualizing mentoring at work: A developmental network perspective. Academy of Management Review, 26(2), 264-288.

Higgins, M. C., & Thomas, D. A. 2001. Constellations and careers: Toward understanding the effects of multiple developmental relationships. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 22, 223-247.

Kram, K. E. 1983. Phases of the mentor relationship. Academy of Management Journal, 26, 608–625.

Kram, K. E. 1985. Mentoring in the Workplace: Development Relationships in Organizational Life. Glenview, IL.

Mayrhofer, W., Briscoe, J. P., Hall, D. T., Dickmann, M., Dries, N., Dysvik, A., … Unite, J. 2016. Career success across the globe: Insights from the 5C project. Organizational Dynamics, 45(3), 155–270.

Seibert, S. E., Kraimer, M. L. & Liden, R. C. 2001. A social capital theory of career success. Academy of Management Journal, 44, 219–237.

Shen, Y., Cotton, R., & Kram, K. E. 2015. Assembling your personal board of advisors. MIT Sloan Management Review, 56(3), 81–90.

Shen, Y., Demel, B., Unite, J., Briscoe, J. P., Hall, D. T., Chudzikowski, K., …Zikic, J. 2015. Career success across 11 countries: Implications for international human resource management. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 26(13), 1753–1778.

Yip, J. & Kram, K. 2017. Developmental Networks: Enhancing the Science and Practice of Mentoring. In Clutterbuck, D. A., F. K. Kochan, L. Lunsford, N. Dominguez, & J. Haddock-Millar (Eds). SAGE Handbook of Mentoring (pp. 88-104).

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