Robert Davis


The blessing and curse of mentor-protégé relationships

Having been on both sides of formal mentor-protégé agreements, more than once, I have witnessed broken expectations more often than not.

Small businesses have high expectations of their “big brother” and large businesses have specific expectations of their usually yet-to-be-proven junior partner.  Rarely are both parties satisfied with the outcomes of the relationship.

Formal mentor-protégé relationships can be based upon simple or complex written agreements that contain vague objectives or detailed commitments including identifying specific amounts of shared revenue. Often these agreements are driven by advocates from two companies, one large and one small business, that often focus on a procurement opportunity, agency, technology or a combination thereof.

These ostensible partners drive the completion of the mentor-protégé paperwork through their respective companies.  Normally, once the agreement is signed, the advocates begin to work the opportunity at hand.

This is when the business relationship enters the ’twilight zone’.

There are industry and market forces at work that affect the actual outcomes of the mentor-protégé agreement.  Examples of these forces include the government’s socio-economic policies, agency’s specific mentor-protégé and small business procedures and goals, the legalistic nature of prime and subcontractor teaming and subcontract agreements , the protracted nature of federal procurement, knowledge sharing dynamics between the partners, role of market alliances, the level of each company’s marketing and business development sophistication, differing business cultures and more. 

The most insidious factor that is rarely perceived by many companies is that a mentor-protégé agreement is a corporate-to-corporate commitment and not a commitment between a well-meaning capture manager and a hungry executive in a small business.

This is where most agreements fail.  Someone has said that our industry experiences 20-plus percent turnover each year. Regardless of the actual percentage, the odds that the same actors will be working together three to five years after the mentor-protégé agreement is executed are virtually zero. 

Does the mentor company understand its long-term obligations to meet the terms of the agreement?

When the people who signed the M-P agreement are long gone, who is responsible, by name, for ensuring the terms of the agreement are met for the life of the agreement?

Does the agreement identify quid pro quo?

A strong relationship lasts because both parties give and take over time. When the small business does not meet its obligations under the agreement, does the mentor have an escape option? How will appropriate business development information be shared between the parties?

Our industry, coupled with government procurement processes, continues to drive interaction between large and small businesses to be ad hoc in nature – “I will call you when I need you for the proposal I am bidding. Otherwise, I do not have time to meet with you.”

While mentor-protégé relationships are meant to avoid or minimize this all-too-frequent scenario, many of these underlying agreements are not achieving their purpose.

About the Author

Robert Davis is a 35-year veteran of the government IT marketing and has held positions large and small firms in areas such as marketing and sales, program management, business development and market development. He is an expert in business development, marketing, and management.

Reader Comments

Sun, Feb 9, 2014

I'm a SB and had a terrible experience with a protege. He was just a sleeze. My advice on this is to make sure you really know the person who controls the SB. At that level it is very personal.

Thu, Feb 6, 2014

This a a well delivered article. I too am a mentor and have to fight the "commitment between a well-meaning capture manager and a hungry executive in a small business" syndrome. Even with well established internal policies and requirements I see this all too often or the promise to "make you a protege" just to sign a teaming agreement. On the protege side I find that SB does not always understand what a M-P agreement is all about and they are not ready for the rigors of an agreement (developmental assistance, training, BD, etc.). Entering into a MP agreement based on one opportunity or because you feel this is a fast track to growing your company leads to broken expectations.

Thu, Feb 6, 2014

Well said, sir. I have always been on the Mentor side of the agreement. Thanks for sharing.

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