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A Review of Mentor-Protégé Relationship

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One of George Bush's earliest presidential appointments was that of United States Army General Colin L Powell to be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Jumping over more than thirty senior officers, he became the youngest (and the first African-American) chairman ever. The newspaper article describing his background asserts that his meteoric career started when he survived stiff competition as a City College of New York graduate and young Army Lieutenant to be selected in 1972 as one of sixteen White House Fellows where he met his future mentors. In the White House he worked for the Office of Management and Budget, the director of which was Caspar W. Weinberger and his deputy Frank C. Carlucci. Years later in the Reagan administration, Weinberger became Secretary of Defense and chose by then Colonel Powell as his executive assistant. Then when Carlucci replaced Admiral Poindexter as National Security Adviser in the wake of the Iran-Contra scandal, he brought Powell in as his deputy. And when Carlucci replaced Weinberger as Defense Secretary, Powell became National Security Adviser.

Most of us will not have quite as golden an opportunity to impress potential powerful mentors as Colin Powell, but we will confront some promising possibilities. How well you perform and relate to potential sponsors will affect your career success. We examine mentor-protégé relations, particularly what protégés can do to meet their mentors' needs. We begin with a particularly impressive woman who is moving up the ladder in a large regional bank.

Judith Greene and Marshall Wilde

Judith Greene is the newly appointed vice president of administration of the International Division of the bank. She joined the division as a junior analyst years ago right after she graduated from Eastern College with a Bachelor of Science in Economics. She was subsequently promoted to senior analyst and area supervisor.

Judith has mixed feelings about her early years as an analyst. A lot of the work was boring because the tasks were routine and feedback inadequate. At times she felt like a nameless, faceless automaton, but she enjoyed the bank as an institution and sought opportunities both inside and outside the division to talk about investments. She was very active in several professional banking and investment societies. She got along well with most of the staff including support personnel, apparently because she did much of her own typing. She saw this not as a status issue but as a pragmatic opportunity: Her reports would already have been submitted while her peers were still awaiting theirs from the typing pool.

Judith feels that she did a better job than most analysts, but she frankly states that her break occurred rather fortuitously. Judith's husband, a manager for a local industrial firm, had graduated from a prestigious Old Ivy University. At an alumni dance he introduced her to fellow alumnus Marshall Wilde, then senior vice president in the Corporate Loan Division of Trustworthy Trust with which Tom Greene had done business. Shortly thereafter, Wilde had been named executive vice president and head of the International Division. Wilde was a dynamic and committed man interested in improving minority and female opportunities. Since Judith clearly had the requisite skills and performance record, she was subsequently promoted to area supervisor where she did a fine job (while benefitting from a number of informal conversations with Wilde).

Trustworthy Trust Company is a large, multiservice regional bank headquartered in a metropolitan downtown. Its assets rank it in the top fifty banks in the United States. Its main office is an imposing granite edifice at the center of the financial district. It fairly reeks of stability and conservatism.

The International Division is the smallest of the bank's five major units, but like the others is headed by an executive vice president. The division is charged with maintaining correspondent relations with foreign banks, exchanging currencies, and assisting its corporate customers in raising funds and conducting business in foreign countries. The division annually hires four or five MBAs with special skills and experience (usually a foreign language and knowledge of a particular country). Because of their turnover, however, Marshall Wilde is considering whether to hire more people right out of college rather than after graduate school.

New professional employees are assigned to the analyst pool where they gather data and write reports requested by various officers. Much of their information is gathered from the bank's extensive library, and some from a local university. Frequently they write or call foreign embassies and governments. The analysts are located in a common work area not affectionately termed the "bullpen." It is crowded, warm, and a bit shabby.

After eighteen to twenty-four months, a junior analyst normally is promoted to senior analyst. Theoretically, this means that he or she handles more difficult assignments, but work location and process are unchanged. The first substantial promotion comes after three to four years when a senior analyst could become an area supervisor (and is considered a junior officer). An area supervisor directs four or five analysts specializing in a specific country (such as France) or a region (such as Central America). The area supervisor makes decisions on small transactions and consults with appropriate senior officers on major matters. Once or twice a year, supervisors make three- to five-day business trips to their regions of specialization. These trips are keenly anticipated. The area supervisors' offices are located around the outside walls of the bullpen.

The division's senior vice presidents and vice presidents are the critical decision makers. Their offices are located in another area of the floor opening to the elevators. The reception space and offices are impressive and luxurious, all in colonial decor and Williamsburg green, with wall-to-wall carpeting in the hall and oriental rugs in each office. Each officer has a spacious private office with a secretary just outside the door.

These senior officers specialize by geography and travel frequently. Either the senior vice president or the vice president for each area is expected to be at headquarters, but actually both are often away on trips. About half of their time is spent traveling. They frequently complain about the onerous burden of these trips but their gripes appear to be more joking than real.

Trustworthy Trust Company is a successful institution and the International Division enjoys a good reputation. Nonetheless, Marshall Wilde has been concerned about the younger staff. Over half of them leave the bank after eighteen to thirty months. Most join smaller banks; some get married and have children; and some just drop out, throw away their watches and go skiing. Exit interviews elicit complaints about being bored, the poor working conditions, the crisis atmosphere, and not knowing what's going on or what happens to their reports. Analysts (particularly the women) are bitter about lack of cooperation and respect from clerical personnel. No one seems to be in charge of them. When a consultant was called in, he administered a questionnaire to all divisional professionals and managers. Analysts' Responses to a Question: What Is The Most Dissatisfying Aspect Of Your Job?

  1. The detail work involved and the constant phone calls from branches for foreign exchange rates. These jobs could be done by a clerk.

  2. Being involved with clerical work, such as typing and being taken for granted.

  3. Lack of knowledge as to where my job will lead.

  4. 4. The closed-minded narrowness of most of senior management that leads to Pettiness, lack of communication, and the lack of a more democratic environment.

  5. Lack of contact with people outside the bank and lack of physical activity.

  6. Lack of experience causes me to waste too much time.

  7. Lack of sufficient time for free thinking.

  8. The physical working conditions are intolerable in that there is too little space, no privacy, and a very high noise level.

  9. The remuneration- the salary structure is such that it presents an unoptimistic future. If one would desire to stay, one would be passing up a great deal of financial reward. In order to financially succeed in banking, one must transfer to another bank to receive financial remuneration.

In addition, the consultant conducted management training sessions for the senior officers that covered topics such as human needs, the meaning of work, motivation, and change. Unfortunately, several of the senior vice presidents and vice presidents did not attend all the meetings. Some of them expressed exception with the consultant's views on people's needs for autonomy, competence, and power. And a couple of senior officers seemed to sleep through the sessions.

Wilde has now promoted Judith to the newly created position of vice president of administration. He has not given her an explicit job description, but he sees it as dealing with the low morale among analysts and the poor administration of bullpen activities. Judith is very enthusiastic and optimistic about her opportunities in the new post.

What does Judith do?

When Judith Greene visited my class of MBA students, she was asked if she felt guilty that she came to the executive vice president's attention only because Marshall Wilde and her husband had been college classmates. Judith replied absolutely not because she had always been an outstanding performer and chance contacts play a role in everyone's career. The key is to take advantage of them.

In taking advantage of her opportunity, however, Judith faces a paradox in that her greatest asset, Marshall Wilde's support, is also her main vulnerability. Most people interpret her new position as vice president of administration as inherently weak. The post has no history of success, with only two direct subordinates (a secretary and an assistant), and no significant budget. And her office location just off the bullpen appears to signal her distance from the "real" senior officers arrayed in their Williamsburg luxury.

Indeed, location looms particularly large to professional women sensitive to symbolic power slights. In discussing this case with a group of female human resource managers, I found them sharply divided on whether Judith should even accept the position. Half felt she should decline if Marshall were unwilling to locate her office in the line of vice presidential offices,

The other half, however, argued that there was an advantage to being contiguous to the bullpen because this is where she must have an impact if she is to meet Marshall's somewhat vague objective of improving morale among the analysts and thus reducing turnover. Minimum status symbols and physical proximity could facilitate her uncovering fundamental problems and establishing herself as a resource for solving them.

Location symbolism, whether it is more important to be closer to the ultimate power figure (especially if that person is also your primary mentor) or closer to the people you must ultimately influence, is tricky for anyone, but perhaps especially so for a woman. On the one hand, she can worry that her high sounding title without substantial human or financial resources with an office distant from the power center will be seen as tokenism. On the other hand, if she is seen as "too close" organizationally and physically to a senior male mentor, she may fear other's suspicion about her competence and "real" relation to the boss.

Regardless of location, Judith Greene is heavily dependent on support from the executive vice president, Marshall Wilde. Since she controls no significant resources, she must either get his preaction approval or post-action ratification for her initiatives. Therefore, keeping him pleased with her progress is critical. And ultimately, her future at the bank depends on Wilde's success with top management.
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