How can leaders foster a developmental culture?

In today’s rapidly changing and networked world, a strong culture helps to further develop an organisation’s workforce. This does require a shift in mindset though, as guest contributors Wendy Murphy and Kathy Kram advise. They say mentoring needs to become a part of everyday interactions.

Developmental (or mentoring) relationships are those where the primary purpose is learning. A developmental culture combines challenging, meaningful work with support and caring for employees. In our book, Strategic Relationships at Work, we provide a framework for thinking about and cultivating developmental relationships in the 21st century. Not only do employees need skills - training on how to build relationships, but organisations also need to maintain practices that foster a relational culture.

Why is a developmental culture, one in which employees have multiple developmental relationships, so important?

We live in a fast-paced world that constantly requires new skills , and the ability to learn from new people and experiences. Relentlessly advancing technology keeps us connected at all hours and reduces the barriers between work and home. All of us need evolving strategies for how to engage in our work and personal lives.

In addition, employees are more mobile than ever, and globalisation means that different advisors will be needed in different contexts.  Thus, a robust developmental network comprised of sets of relationships both inside and outside the workplace is critical for navigating today’s careers. Our research has shown that individuals with multiple mentoring relationships are promoted more quickly; are more satisfied with both their work and non-work lives; and are more committed to their organisations.

For leaders and HR professionals, supporting a developmental culture is one way to create opportunities for employees to learn and grow through their relationships.

A developmental culture encourages learning on-the-job. Employees solidify and enhance their skills through stretch assignments and collaborations. Challenging assignments, such as transitions to unfamiliar responsibilities, tasks that drive change, or high-responsibility projects with decision-making power, all become less inherently risky in a developmental culture. That is because developmental relationships provide critical information, support, and feedback for learning.

It is also important that when actively-developing employees becomes a valued part of an organisation’s culture, the reward system must acknowledge, recognise, and reward individuals who take the time to actively mentor, coach, and sponsor others.

What can leaders do to support a developmental culture?

Senior management and HR professionals need to create a supportive culture in which individuals are encouraged to seek and offer help to their colleagues of all levels. However, all leaders are in a position to enact change, at least within their own areas of practice. So, if you find yourself thinking, “I wish we did a better job of mentoring employees in this organisation”, then consider these three strategies that you can begin right away: 

Serve as a role model

You can serve as a role model by actively mentoring those with less experience who could benefit from your guidance. Being approachable, asking good questions, and demonstrating genuine interest in junior colleagues goes a long way toward building connections as well as a reputation of being someone who develops others.

Support your direct reports

If you are managing and supervising others, you can make yourself available to support each individual’s aspirations through listening, creating opportunities for skill development, and offering coaching and feedback.  If you do this for your subordinates, they will learn to do the same with theirs. 

Sponsor new initiatives and formal programmes

Finally, you can sponsor new initiatives, including education and training on emotional competence and formal mentoring programmes. You should also modify the reward system to demonstrate that participating in these development programmes and actively developing others are valuable and valued.

How can organisations help?

Organisations can help employees form more developmental relationships informally through their cultures, and also formally through their training and programmes. Training initiatives that raise individual’s self-awareness through personality or behavioural assessments, 360-degree reviews, or interpersonal skills workshops provide opportunities for learning through feedback, reflection, and practice.

Many companies offer traditional mentoring programmes, which pair more experienced senior managers in the role of mentor with less experienced junior employees in the role of protégés. Most recently, sponsorship programmes have emerged which focus on a specific type of career support – advocating for the protégé in order to increase their visibility in the organisation and get them promoted.

However, these programmes sometimes signal to employees that mentoring is provided and that only one relationship is necessary.

In order to signal that multiple developmental relationships are critical for career growth, companies need to offer programmes beyond traditional mentoring. We showcase several examples in Strategic Relationships at Work. Some involve establishing another formal one-on-one matching programmes with mentors outside the company.  Others illustrate how peer coaching and mentoring circles can foster developmental relationships among peers who share common challenges.

Peer mentoring or coaching relationships are relationships between equals in terms of age or status in the organisation. Peers are more available and accessible than senior executives and still present rich learning opportunities. Offering both traditional and peer mentoring simultaneously has been shown to increase new employees’ onboarding processes and improve retention over the first five years. 

Mentoring circles are a creative way to integrate senior executives and peers. In this format, one to three mentors are brought together with four to eight protégés for the purposes of accelerating their development.

People are more willing to take a collaborative approach to learning and work if the company recognises and rewards developing others. Integrating this ideal into the formal reward systems and making it a criterion for promotion are the two fastest ways to introduce metrics that reinforce a developmental culture.


Fostering developmental relationships and supporting a developmental culture are critical and cost-effective approaches to employee growth and retention. Mentoring should be viewed as a holistic practice and embraced by leaders at every level.

About the Authors

Kathy E. Kram is the Richard C.Shipley Professor in Management at Boston University. Her primary interests are in the areas of adult development, relational learning, mentoring and developmental networks, leadership development, and change processes in organisations.

Wendy Marcinkus Murphy is Associate Professor of Management at Babson College. Her research covers careers, particularly developmental networks, learning, and work-life balance.


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