Network Ecologies

Mentorship Networks

Mentoring has been in existence since time immemorial. Notwithstanding, it was only with the writing of The Odyssey, that Homer provided a language that is still utilized to describe such meaningful relationships and momentous experiences. Prior to leaving for battle, Odysseus requested that Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, assume the form of Mentor to look after his son. In that capacity, Mentor served as the wise and trusted guide for Telemachus. Mentor and Telemachus’ twenty-year relationship of discovery and development enabled Telemachus to grow into himself. The guidance provided by Mentor not only encouraged, but enabled Telemachus’ self-authorship (Kegan, 1982). It was through Mentor’s loving guidance, nurturing support, and insightful teaching that Telemachus smoothly journeyed his thousand miles into adulthood (Barrett-Hayes, 1999). Daloz (1999) speaks powerfully—and metaphysically—about the mentor:

…It is more than passing interest that the original Mentor was inhabited by Athena. Clearly, the mentor is concerned with transmission of wisdom. How, then, do mentors transmit wisdom? Most often, it seems, they take us on a journey. In this aspect of their work, mentors are guides. They lead us along the journey of our lives. We trust them because they have been there before. They embody our hopes, cast light on the way ahead, interpret arcane signs, warn us of lurking dangers, and point out unexpected delights along the way. There is a certain luminosity about them, and they often pose as magicians in tales of transformation” (p. 18)

Like millennia ago, today we understand mentorship to be a developmentally rich and educationally profound relational learning experience. However, only since the late 1970s has it evolved into an academic research interest. Much of the research and scholarship focuses on traditional one-to-one mentoring. In this sense, a typically older, wiser individual serves as a mentor to a typically younger, less wise mentee. Notwithstanding, alternative forms of mentoring have provided beneficial learning and growth opportunities for the mentoring collaborators. These alternative methods include group mentoring and the developmental network approach. The following portions of this paper include two sections. The first provides a background as to the concept of mentorship. The second discusses the developmental network approach to mentoring.

Mentorship Background

Supervising, coaching, assisting, guiding, advising, modeling, leading, and teaching (Hansman, 2002; Mullen, 2005) are used casually and interchangeably with mentorship. Although these associations are vital to the theory and practice of mentorship, they fail to address the wider and deeper dimensions of the mentoring experience (Mullen, 2009). Role models, for example, display skills and worthy attributes. However, role modeling does not require a personal relationship. In contrast, advising does require a relationship, although it is not necessarily an emotionally connected relationship. The focus of advising, rather, is on technical guidance (Johnson, Rose, & Schlosser, 2010).  

Mentorship is a distinctive experience. It is a developmentally rich, educationally powerful, and relational learning experience. This pyramid is adapted from Mertz (2004) as a way to visualize mentoring in connection to other supportive relationships.  

The pyramid structure is utilized to differentiate the level of intent as well as level of involvement needed in each of these developmental relationships. Intent is concerned with the rationale (the why) behind the relationship. For what purposes (the ends) are those individuals engaging in the experience? As well as the level of value attributed to the whys and ends. Involvement is concerned with requisites associated with the relationship. Physical and emotional costs, intensity of interaction, as well as the nature and level of investment for the participants are factors contributing to the involvement scale. Role modeling necessitates a low level of intent and a low level of involvement. Advising demands a reasonable amount of intention and involvement. And evidenced below, mentorship is predicated upon a high level of intent and a high level of involvement.  

Challenge and Support. Within the literature, there are two threads that, in part, characterize mentoring from other growth-oriented relationships—challenge and support. “Mentors dance an intricate two-step, because they practice the art of supporting and challenging more or less simultaneously” (Daloz Parks, 2000, p. 130). Support is manifested through recognition and validation. “Mentors are advocates and supporters of people” (Southern, 2007). In practice, mentors provide support when they serve as a guide to resources and a source of comfort and healing (Daloz Parks, 2000). Support is provided in tandem with challenge. Without challenge, support is simply affirmation. 

Challenge has been identified as an appropriate mentor strategy and a key ingredient to mentee growth (Butcher, 1999; McNally & Martin, 1998). Daloz’s (1986) model of mentoring relationships highlighted the connection between challenge and support. Low levels of both challenge and support result in stasis. High levels of challenge with low levels of support lead to retreat. High levels of support and low levels of challenge produce confirmation. Moreover, high levels of both challenge and support generate growth.  

When pursuing journeys of a thousand miles, mentoring experiences provide sustenance as the first steps are taken, when hiking up mountains and into valleys, as well as the journey comes to a close. It is through mentorship—fueled by the challenge and support—that goals are accomplished, learning is acquired, and development is attained. Rather than rely on a singular mentor, the developmental network approach capitalizes on the wisdom and experiences of multiple mentors.  

A Developmental Network Approach to Mentorship

With the writing of Mentoring At Work: Developmental Relationships in Organizational Life, (1985) Kathy Kram proposed the ‘relationship constellation’ concept of mentoring. The relationship constellation described a networked approach in which individuals rely on not just one person, but engage multiple people for support and guidance. Later, Kram, working with Monica Higgins (2001), integrated research on mentoring with social network theory to establish the concept we in the pedagogical leadership field know as a developmental network.

An individual’s developmental network is comprised of those mentoring collaborators who take an active interest in, and intentional actions toward the growth and development of the individual. A developmental network does not consist of all of the individual’s interpersonal relationships. Furthermore this mentorship network is not comprised of everyone with whom the mentee communicates about developmental issues. Rather, members of the network are those whose mentoring relationship is explicit and involves the developmental experience involving challenge and support described above.

Furthermore, as compared to traditional one-to-one mentoring relationships, a developmental network perspective includes multiple and concurrent dyadic-networked relationships. The philosophy behind a developmental network is simple—it is unlikely that any single mentor can provide all that a mentee deserves or desires in order to realize and reach her/his full potential. In other words, the diversity of mentors provide varied critical insight to the mentee along the thousand-mile journey.  

Here is an illustration of the relationship of mentor and mentee in a traditional one-to-one relationship.

The relationship of mentees to their development network (mentors), a multiple dyadic relationship, can be seen here.


Journeying a thousand miles, literally or figuratively, is sustained through the strategic challenging and skilled use of support techniques of mentors. As an integral part of the developmental fabric of human, organizational, and communal life, mentorship is critical as individuals strive to accomplish goals, and develop skills. A developmental network approach to mentoring capitalizes on engaging multiple mentors rather than relying on the wisdom of just one.

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