Culture of Experts

Module # 5

Mentor/Protege Structure

In the last module we looked at the concept of taking a complex individual work-process and using process-replication to turn it into a unified operational company-process. We also looked at an example where a unified company-process, within a sales department, coordinated with marketing strategies. In this module we will look at process-replication from a different angle. We will split up an expert-level position so that some parts can be assigned to a potential Unconventional Expert, within a mentor/protege structure.

When an organization employs an expert-level employee to do expert-level work, they often assign additional people to provide support. An obvious example is an administrative assistant, who can remove administrative burdens. Some companies provide a direct assistant, to work closely with the expert and assist with more complex work. Within these relationships, lines are drawn, as a division of labor.

Within Traditional Establishment Expert positions, division of labor is sometimes determined by the establishment. The relationship between a paralegal and a lawyer is an example. Within this structure, state and federal laws draw rigid lines that determine the boundaries. Within the skilled trades, apprenticeship programs have been around since the invention of the wheel. They provide the most proven examples of functioning mentor/protege relationships.

With unconventional positions, the lines drawn for division of labor and the lines drawn between
 individual work-process and organizational company-process can be manipulated.
 This is an excellent opportunity for any organization to move beyond status quo and be different.

Expert/assistant -versus- mentor/protege

In the recruiting industry, it is typical to have an expert-level recruiter and a researcher work together on a search assignment. The researcher assists the recruiter in finding potential candidates. The researcher covers the beginning of the process; reviewing hundreds, if not thousands of resumes. The recruiter covers the heart of the process, and keeps active candidates in motion until there is a placement. The division of labor between the recruiter and researcher are drawn somewhere within the process. Within this division, the researcher may or may-not perform the outreach to potential candidates. The researcher may or may-not conduct initial phone screenings. Regardless of the details, lines are drawn between complex expert-level work and less complex repetitive work, which separates the expert/recruiter and the assistant/researcher.

The leadership at one recruitment firm was trying to allocate resources for an extremely complex aerospace engineer role, which they were trying to fill. Rather than using a typical recruiter/researcher division of labor, the search assignment was worked within a mentor/protege structure. The expert-level mentor’s individual work-process was divided in an unconventional fashion. Activities that could NOT be replicated were owned by the mentor-recruiter, but still performed in tandem with the protege-researcher. Activities that could be replicated, regardless of how simple or how complex, were standardized into a company-process and performed solely by the protege-researcher.

What differentiated this mentor/protege structure from a typical recruiter/researcher relationship?
• A potential Unconventional Expert was identified and assigned to the protege-researcher role.
• The mentor-recruiter was agreeable to mentorship, with full understanding of the time requirements.
• A more complex division of labor was created, within a new recruiting process. Candidates would no longer be abruptly handed-off, from researcher to recruiter. Candidates would now move through a new process that leveraged the talents of both team members.
• The recruitment/candidate information exchange became standardized within a company-process, which allowed the protege-researcher to handle more complex interactions.
• Tools were used, including a browser plug-in that highlighted all desirable keywords within online profiles and resumes. Once set up by the mentor-recruiter, the protege-researcher was able to search on extremely complex requirements, simply by focusing on highlighted keywords. The protege-researcher was able to perform tasks that previously required an expert-level recruiter.
• Mentor-recruiter and protege-researcher would strategize together, sharing ideas.

Over time, more and more of the process was handed off to the protege-researcher. Eventually, the researcher was able to fully function as a recruiter.

Strategy mentoring
Strategy is an important part of the Unconventional Expert individual work-process. Sometimes, Unconventional Experts have to commit to a strategy and move to activity without knowing what is possible and what is impossible. Mentorship is not put in place to predict outcome, however, a good mentor can help identify dead-ends and suggest other perspectives. Because the work-process of an Unconventional Expert is so complex, the mentor will need to have a great deal of situational understanding before they can be of any help.

Some of us learn from other people’s mistakes and the rest of us have to be the other people.

Zig Ziglar

Advice on advice
There is a big difference between a mentor/protege relationship and one person giving another person advice. Too often, people exchange a limited amount of situational information, prior to advice. The less thorough the situational information exchange, the lower the quality of advice. Also, if the person giving the advice does not have experience and expertise specific to the situation, the context of the advice needs to be taken into consideration.

The problem with low quality advice is that it can be destructive. It might be less calculated than a coin toss. It might push a person to move in a direction that contradicts they individual work-process. It might limit the gleaning of information from others, who might offer better advice. In some situations, the best advice will be:

√ A referral to someone who can offer better advice.
√ Resources for information.
√ Questions rather than answers.
√ Assistance with parts of the individual work-process, to help one find their own way:
     1) Intellectual curiosity
     2) Initiate activity
     3) Gain relevant information
     4) Strategize
     5) Commit to a project
     6) Create ideas
     7) Test ideas
     8) Fail
     9) Use failure as a platform for new and better ideas
     10) Repeat (eventually … find mastery)

Often, people are reluctant to pay for advice. The high cost of lawyers and consultants put a dollar value on advice. When there is an expensive difference between a right direction and a wrong direction, paying for advice becomes practical. It should be noted, however, that paying for advice doesn’t always result in good advice. It is not uncommon for a lawyer to take on a client, when they should be referring the client to a more qualified lawyer. Sometimes, money can be an obstacle.

Socially, we do not put a lot of thought into advice. Most of the time, asking for advice is merely a dip stick, to check the oil; to make sure one’s thoughts and directions are above the line of reason. A mentor/protege relationship can be a powerful source of reason. It is, however, a long-term plan rather than a quick answer.

To push the boundaries of what is possible, one must see possibilities.
The best place to see possibilities is on the shoulders of others who have pushed boundaries.

Can a mentor create an Unconventional Expert?

The most important characteristic of an Unconventional Expert is intellectual curiosity. This is the fuel that starts the engine and keeps it throttled throughout the individual work-process. If a worker does not have the chemistry of intellectual curiosity, they will be challenged with the burden of pedaling their way through their work.

Within a Culture of Experts, it is possible to spark intellectual curiosity through certain types of exposure. Within a mentor/protege structure, the protege can see the complexities of their mentor’s individual work-process. More importantly, they can see the work-journey and understand how great accomplishments are realized, as a result. Once intellectual curiosity is sparked, anything can happen.

Corporate Culture Assessment Questions
Module #5 – Mentor/Protege Structure

10) Does your company leverage the power of mentor/protege structures?

See all of the module assessment questions in module #11 

Culture of Experts Interview Questions
Module #5 – Mentor/Protege Structure

10) Give a specific example within your career when you acted as a protege and learned from a mentor?
11) Give a specific example within your career when you acted as a mentor, providing guidance to a protege?

See all of the module interview questions in module #12

Culture of Experts is a free talent program by Human Castle Executive Search. For expert recruitment visit us at or call (716)222-3535.

Please proceed to module #6: Unconventional Projects

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