Want to Be a Better Manager? Get a Protégé

By Sylvia Ann Hewlett
December 19, 2019

Who benefits when a manager sponsors someone more junior and offers the person guidance, advocacy and support? If you answered the “protégé,” you’d be only getting it half right.

“Sponsorship” — a relationship in which an established or rising leader picks a talented junior employee and develops that person’s career — certainly does boost the protégé, who is given access to the sponsor’s experience and connections. But data shows that the sponsor also gains enormous value from this relationship. According to a national survey conducted for my new book, “The Sponsor Effect: How to Be a Better Leader by Investing in Others,” senior-level managers who have a protégé are 53% more likely to report having received a promotion in the previous two years. Entry-level managers who have a protégé are 60% more likely to have received a stretch assignment.

Among survey respondents, who ranged from entry-level managers to CEOs, 39% of those with a protégé deemed themselves “satisfied with their professional legacies” at this moment in their careers. Only 25% of those who didn’t have protégés said the same.

The benefits of sponsorship don’t accrue to managers and executives who merely mentor someone more junior. A mentor offers advice and perhaps an introduction or two for the mentee; the mentee listens politely and says thank you. Sponsors and protégés, on the other hand, are both working for each other’s success. It’s that active investment from both sides that makes the relationship so mutually beneficial.

Consider Lou Aversano, the chief client officer for the Ogilvy Group in New York. Aversano is already high up in the advertising world — but it’s a world with increasingly shaky foundations. As consumers spend more time online, and as traditional clients request new alternatives to keeping firms on long-term retainers, ad agencies have had to reinvent themselves.

“You have to be willing to burn your lifeboats before someone burns them for you,” Aversano said about the industry in a conversation with me. Yet he admits that it’s often hard for veterans, who built their success the old-fashioned way, to come up with ideas to change it all up. “We see things from a certain height, and we have biases based on our legacy,” he said.

For Aversano, the answer was a protégé: a younger worker whose career he would personally invest in, and who he could count on for strong performance, loyalty and a new view of the ad world. To find that protégé, he tapped Ogilvy’s young professionals network. He and other senior leaders worked with its 100 members (who have an average age of 27) on ideas to transform the agency — and they observed and guided these young employees closely. It took time, but Aversano found the person he was looking for: a young man named Ben Levine. Levine has since helped Aversano create a new staffing structure, a new path to growth and (for both Aversano personally and the firm) a conduit to a younger generation’s ways of thinking and working.

Protégés don’t have to be younger than you or a fresh face in the industry. What defines a good protégé is that the person works effectively and loyally for you, and has the ability to expand your worldview or skill set. That last part usually means someone who differs from you in gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, professional background, management style or life experience. I’ve seen, for example, sponsors gain access to new markets through a protégé who understands women’s health care priorities, Latin American cultural sensibilities or the LGBTQ community’s financial planning needs. I’ve also seen men and women rise to become CEOs of giant enterprises with the help of protégés who extend their reach and fill their knowledge and skill gaps.

Of course, sponsorship does involve risk. Miscommunication can occur, especially when your protégés are (as they often should be) different from you. It can also be tricky not to let the relationship take up too much time — your protégé should do most of the work. Then there’s the risk of a protégé, in whom you’ve invested time, responsibilities and reputational capital, letting you down by failing to increase the bottom line, impress important stakeholders or reduce your workload. Some protégés even betray their sponsor’s trust.

But done right, the benefits of having a junior talent who works on your behalf, performing tasks for which you lack the time, skills or inclination, are simply too great to ignore. Savvy sponsors can mitigate the risks of investing in a protégé by following seven steps:

— IDENTIFY: Know what to look for in potential protégés, starting with performance and trustworthiness.

— INCLUDE: Look for protégés who are different from you, whether in mindset (often from having a different domain of knowledge or belonging to a different generation) or in gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation.

— INSPIRE: Ensure that the values of your protégés align with your own, and use their ambitions to help them advance in their careers.

— INSTRUCT: Help your protégés fill their knowledge or skill gaps.

— INSPECT: Continuously evaluate the performances of your protégés.

— INSTIGATE A DEAL: When you are confident that the protégés are delivering value, ask them how you can add value to their careers in return.

— INVEST IN THREE WAYS: Invest your capital, clout and cover. Endorse and advocate vigorously for your protégés and speak up for them when they need it.

Whether you’re a midlevel manager looking to make your name or a senior executive looking to expand your productivity and the reach of your influence, a protégé can be the answer.

Copyright 2019 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

Topics: Management

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