Take an Entrepreneurial Approach to Relationships

By Wendy Murphy and Kathy Kram

When you ask a room full of executives (and we do this, regularly), “What makes a good protégé?” you get a list of admirable traits: a protégé should be open-minded, motivated, thoughtful, passionate, willing to learn, and, most importantly, respectful of their time and efforts. Leaders want their protégés to be trustworthy, loyal, diligent, and grateful. And, the list goes on, as you can imagine.

This opposes the narrow conception of protégés as receivers of wisdom to expose their active role in the relationship. To build mentoring connections, protégés need what our colleague Professor Dawn Chandler calls relational savvy, those attitudes and skills that enable you to build relationships that foster your personal and career growth.

We see over and over again that people can make significant career progress—left turns and employment hops, even—through skillfully employing such a wider awareness.

Take Nina for example. She had been quickly promoted up the ranks of the menswear division of a national retailer. Her real passion, however, was cosmetics. No existing relationship would help make that switch, though. Encouraged by her fiancé, who worked there, and a colleague, she set out to meet potential mentors in the cosmetics area. At the company’s holiday event, Nina took the initiative and introduced herself to Bob, a vice president of the cosmetics division.

She chatted with him about some new lines that she liked as well as trends she had noticed in boutique stores. She knew what she was talking about and Bob was impressed. Clearly, Nina had a sense for the product. More than that, he learned something, himself, about the market. They continued to talk at company events and informally (remember that word?) over an occasional coffee. He taught her more about cosmetics and the marketplace; she gave him intelligent and thoughtful replies.

Not surprisingly, when Bob had an appropriate opening, Nina was promoted into the cosmetics division.

You can break down Nina’s pathway into four various routes:


When you take an entrepreneurial approach to mentoring, you determine your personal goals and seek mentors who will propel you toward what’s personally and professionally meaningful.

Unlike Nina, you might need some help figuring out your goals. In fact, it’s mandatory. Even she did, at some point earlier in the story. Further, when you identify appropriate career-learning building blocks, you also identify the people from whom you need to learn.

In other words, you’re beginning to construct your informal network of mentors. Obviously, you’ll need to tinker, engaging in vicarious learning and seeing how different roles might fit. In doing so, an entrepreneurial protégé (you) becomes authentic and eager to learn from their mentor’s experiences—which is both engaging and genuine.


Alex is another good example. While he held a job as a successful marketing executive for a large corporation, he felt stifled in his career. He admired his friend Sanjay, who had started his own company and seemed to have a lot of fun doing it. They had lunch on occasion. This was mutually beneficial because Alex would offer Sanjay advice on marketing strategy. After a year of talking with his wife and close friends, including Sanjay, Alex determined exactly why he wanted to leave, and, more importantly, his goals.

Alex yearned for the energy and excitement of working for a startup and building something new. Emboldened by his self-knowledge and supportive network, Alex left his secure job and comfortable salary to become the sixth employee of a software company. Now, a few years later, he’s the chief marketing officer of a highly respected and successful company that’s growing at a rapid pace. And, thanks to entrepreneurial mentoring, he loves it.


An entrepreneurial protégé will use feedback and ideas from multiple sources to aid in career decision making. Good protégés also realize that their mentoring relationships, like all relationships, require give and take. Meaning: they must ensure that they assist their mentors whenever possible. When protégés do this well, mentors (also called developers) learn in the process of helping their protégés.

What’s the response when you ask executives, “How do you feel when your protégé succeeds?” They tell us they’re delighted for him, proud of her, I knew she/he was capable. It feels good.

This is all true, but deep down they’re expressing a very human need to matter in another person’s life. People like to help others who are genuinely interested in them, and who are thankful for the assistance. They are particularly enthusiastic when they feel like they also learned a lot while helping their protégé. In fact, some of the best mentors tell us they actually feel guilty about taking any credit. Indeed, they insist that they get more out of the experience than their protégé does.


Charlotte demonstrates another mentoring pathway. Her relationship with one of her past college professors is a good example of the mutual learning and satisfaction that comes from a high-quality mentoring relationship, and how this can lead to a stronger developmental network overall.

After five years in the financial services industry, Charlotte began to feel restless. She found herself more interested in managing the process of change. She’d observed how the two firms she worked with had tackled macro-environmental changes and the leadership challenges that came with them. She was fascinated.

She decided she wanted to do some systematic career exploration. She reconnected with a trusted teacher, Professor Kaye, who listened and counseled. The professor also provided names of persons working in positions that might be of interest to her. Good student that she was, Charlotte made contact.

Because of her already highly developed relational savvy, Charlotte learned about a new field, and enlisted several people working in change management in to her developmental network. Two years after talking with her professor, Charlotte is now enrolled in a master’s degree program to prepare her for this new career. Who took the most satisfaction in this outcome?

Charlotte expresses sincere gratitude to Professor Kaye, who delights in having enabled her to make this significant change in her career. The two continue to be in touch. Charlotte often recommends her professor as a resource in the field of change management, and Professor Kaye sends Charlotte people struggling to manage effective career exploration.

The upshot? Mentor and protégé thrive and endure as a result of their relationship.

This article is adapted from the authors’ forthcoming book,
 Strategic Relationships at Work: Creating Your Circle of Mentors, Sponsors, and Peers for Success in Business and Life.

Wendy Murphy

Wendy Marcinkus Murphy is an Associate Professor of Management with teaching responsibilities in organizational behavior for both undergraduates and graduate programs. She also serves as the Faculty Advisor for the Mentoring Programs through the Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership (CWEL). Prior to joining the faculty at Babson College, she taught at Boston College and Northern Illinois University. She earned her A.B., M.S., and Ph.D. from Boston College.

Murphy has published her research in several academic journals. Her forthcoming book with Kathy Kram, Strategic Relationships at Work: Creating Your Circle of Mentors, Sponsors, and Peers for Success in Business and Life, applies the scholarship of mentoring to a help everyone become an entrepreneurial protégé.

Kathy Kram

Kathy E. Kram is the Shipley Professor in Management at Boston University. Her primary interests are in the areas of adult development, relational learning, mentoring and developmental networks, leadership development, and change processes in organizations. In addition to her book, Mentoring at Work, she has published in a wide range of journals including Organizational DynamicsAcademy of Management JournalAcademy of Management Review, and Harvard Business Review.