Mentoring is in the news. Businesswomen say nothing will change in top levels of management without it. Women need mentoring to gain board appointments, to become government department heads and CEOs, to succeed at any higher post. Now, with mentoring such a byword, even businesses are told that their boards are obsolete, that they require mentors instead. In that scenario, boards are out. Mentors are in.
Similarly with networking. In the 1980s, networking was the password to high posts in the corporate sphere. It was proclaimed to be the way women would succeed in business. It was the message women received when concerned about obstacles in their careerpaths. Networking was answer to overcoming all barriers.
Yet this phase passed. Networking became passé, or at least was relegated to a place of lesser priority. Mentoring replaced it as the prize method for easing women’s entry into the holy grail of the top job. Yet does mentoring match all its claims?
Mary Cunningham graduated at the top of her Harvard MBA class. Destined for immediate advancement in the corporate world, planning a career in investment banking, describing herself as ‘in the right place at the right time’. She was inundated with job proposals, even before graduation. Then came the offer from Bendex, a Fortune 500 company. Would she become executive assistant to its highflying head, who was touted as on the way to even greater heights? She accepted. Bill Agee became her mentor.
Convention would have it that as executive assistant and mentoree, Mary Cunningham, too, was positioned for her predicted passage to the heights of corporate stardom, the corner office with six-inch carpet on the floor, expansive, waxed desk, and behind it the supple-leather chair, with her firmly seated on it.
Too soon, reality bit.
Rumours began. Allegations that Bill Agee was ‘too close’ to his executive assistant. Whispers that she had gained the job through looks, physical configuration, and sex: in both its meanings. Complaints that she was overbearing to others, prevented them from seeing ‘the boss’, and had far too much say in his affairs. Indeed, she was his major affair, and more. Knives were out, and it hadn’t taken long. The scenario played as to be expected in the world of corporate cut and thrust. Mary Cunningham was ‘let go’. Bill Agee had stood up for her, denied the rumours, affirmed to the board her contribution, making her financial and associated abilities transparent. It wasn’t enough. Indeed, his loyalty was taken as another indicator of the rumours’ purported truth.
Nor, in the end, was it enough to save Bill Agee himself. And here lies the rub, the realities of mentoring in a macho world.
Bill Agee began as mentoree of W. Michael Blumenthal, who built Bendex. Blumenthal was Bendex head of board when Mary Cunningham joined. When Blumenthal was sworn in by the U.S. President as Secretary of Treasury Agee succeeded him in the chair. Blumenthal’s parting message was that Agee should run the company without backward interference from him. ‘Don’t keep the seat warm for me,’ he said, as he departed for Washington.
Nonetheless, the traditional scheme of mentoring applied, anyway. With the end of the U.S. President’s reign, Blumenthal lost his post as a leading government administrator. No longer at the financial hub, he suffered loss of power. He sought a return to Bendex. Agee resisted, declining to revert to ‘seat-warmer’. Having had the power, Agee wanted to retain the power he had. Unsurprisingly, Blumenthal fought.
Through lobbying colleagues and gaining re-election to the Bendex board, it was Blumenthal who brought the Agee-Cunningham combination to an end. And it was Blumenthal who, in a struggle between his former acolyte and himself as former mentor, ultimately disposed of Agee. Resiling from his wish that the seat ‘not be kept warm’ for him, this is precisely what Blumenthal executed in his return to Bendex. In the clash of the antlers – the young, upcoming mentoree who has become powerful and, in turn, mentor to others (or at least, one other – Mary Cunningham) and the older, successful mentor who sees the younger, now, as his rival – it was Blumenthal who won.
Mary Cunningham’s forced resignation was a side-wind to the real power-play in the corporate boardroom. At heart was Blumenthal’s desire to regain and retain power. He had to eliminate his rival, the very man he had mentored into the post Blumenthal now sought to recover for himself. Mary Cunningham was forced out first. Agee was next in line to go.
She is also Visiting Fellow, Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge.