How to Be a Smart Protégé

In an August 17, 2009 Wall Street Journal/MIT Sloan School article by Dawn E. Chandler, Douglas T. Hall and Kathy E. Kram, the authors found people who have demonstrated a knack for building networks to figure out what makes them tick—the abilities they bring to the table and the approaches they use to keep people on their side and provide eight tips for setting up a network of mentors.

  • The Dilemma: The old mentoring model doesn’t work anymore, since senior workers change jobs too often and are too focused on their own careers to help out protégés. But the new model—building up a network of helpers—takes a lot more work.

  • The Search: To figure out a solution, the authors surveyed people who had shown savvy in building up their networks and learned what approaches and attitudes worked for them.

  • The Solutions: Among other things, these “Savvys” were proactive in starting relationships and staying in touch with mentors, and made sure to offer assistance in return whenever they could.

1. Talk First—and Often. Initiate and maintain contact with people who can support your development, asking for information, help, feedback and advice.

2. Read Between the Lines. Become adept at recognizing when colleagues are interested in becoming mentors—even when the colleagues aren’t being direct about it.

3. Go the Extra Mile. Put in lots of work at the start of a relationship with a mentor, to make sure that it gets off the ground. That might mean being assertive about getting together outside of work so they can talk privately and informally.

4. Do Your Homework. Come prepared for meetings with a current or potential mentor. This shows the mentor that you are competent and eager to meet challenges, and value your time with your mentor. Follow up with people who have counseled you, to let them know how their support helped and otherwise keep them up-to-date.

5. Share Information. Deep relationships are based on openness, sharing and trust. When you share problems with people, they realize that you hold them in esteem and appreciate your confidence. Be willing to disclose things like career failures that taught you a lesson, challenges that stood in the way of your success, disabilities that you have struggled with and conflicts with another person in the organization.

6. Make It Mutual. Mentoring networks involve shared learning between two people. Too many people enter the relationships thinking of themselves as plebeian protégés who get support. Realize you have something to offer your mentors, too, and help them out whenever they can—which gives the other person a deeper vested interest in them.

7. Be Personable… You need to be easy to get along with, possessing empathy, the ability to listen, strong conflict management and other social skills, which help you build rapport with others and manage disagreements.

8. …And Have a Positive Attitude. Try adopting a positive attitude. For instance, simply assume that people around you want to lend a hand. Humility is all well and good, but you’re going to hamper your ability to network if you keep thinking, “If I ask for help, I’m bothering people,” or “I just don’t want to be presumptuous and assume that somebody wants to help me.”

Get the Knack

“Relationally savvy” people who succeed at building and sustaining networks of mentors are more likely than others to:

  • Take the initiative to strike up and maintain relationships with mentors.

  • Recognize and respond to even subtle expressions of interest from would-be mentors.

  • Reach beyond immediate peers and bosses to others in the company, as well as in the community.

  • Make sure they have frequent contact with each of their mentors.

  • Prepare for meetings with their mentors and let them know how their advice has helped them.

  • Lend their mentors a hand when they can on projects at work.

  • Be open with their mentors about challenges they’re facing at work.

  • Do their best to be positive and personable.


For further reading

"A New Approach to Mentoring," KathyE. Kram and Monica C. Higgins


22 Email Pet Peeves that Are as Annoying as Spam

Critical Thinking Exercise: What it Takes to Win in Afghanistan