Home > Leadership, The Monday Musings Column > on the pros and cons of protégés

on the pros and cons of protégés

I mused here last week on succession planning and one part of that is the possibility of having a protégé. It is a complex relationship, almost a partnership, and can be very beneficial when it works well. Certainly I have had the delight of seeing a number of people that I have taken under my wing go on to do well in their careers.

One of the key issues is the expectation that the parties concerned have of each other, and in particular those of the senior member and I was reminded of this the other day when I walked past the home of someone who had made me his protégé many years ago. That was an example of how wrong things can go.

In this case I was a junior manager who had been taken on as a member of a new group. The boss was a former RAF officer and had the problem of pulling together a disparate group in a working environment that was not too familiar to any of us. I was keen, had my own ideas and was happy to put these forward when most of my colleagues took a more cautious approach. We were under a lot of pressure and there was a feeling that if you did nothing more than you were asked to do then you couldn’t get it wrong, but I was a risk taker and, despite being three levels of management below the boss, got taken under his wing.

We got our project moving and were making good progress. In around three years I had been promoted one level and then got moved up again to become one of the boss’s two deputies when the opportunity came up for me to take a job in another division of the organisation. Initially my boss was supportive for he saw a need for significant change there and he helped me prepare for my interview. When I got the job he released me immediately despite that causing him problems rather than make me wait to get into my new role.

I went into my new job heavily influenced by what my old boss had told be needed to be done there and he was, in many ways, absolutely right, but our relationship quickly began to deteriorate when I set my own agenda for change. The problem was that whilst he was right about what was wrong in my new empire, he was wrong about why and whenever we spoke about it he would not accept that I needed to do things differently. We both wanted the same result and our only difference was in the tactics, but it was enough to sour our relationship despite the fact that I was actually getting the results that were needed. A couple of years later he left the organisation and although we were still on speaking terms, it was clear that the close working relationship that we had once enjoyed was over.

Walking past his old home reminded me of the times when he would invite me there for dinner and we would talk until late about what we were trying to do together. I was sad that I had lost that, but it was perhaps inevitable that it would go because he wanted me to become another version of him. That is not what you should be doing if you take on someone as a protégé; you should be developing them to go their own way and achieve what they can on their own merits. Push them, guide them, challenge them and do all you can to make them get the best from their own talent, but they will never be you and you should not want them to be.

I am grateful for the opportunities my old boss gave me and for the advice and guidance along the way not just for what I got out of it, but because amongst the many lessons he taught me he also taught me how not to bring on someone. Perhaps that resulted in one of my greatest pleasures in that several people that I have helped along the way went on to have better careers that I managed for myself.

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