The Perks—and Limits—of Having a Superstar Mentor

Knowing the right people certainly has benefits, but how long do they last?

Noah Berger / Reuters

It would seem a safe bet that when faced with two offers from similarly prestigious companies, a job candidate would, most of the time, end up taking the one with higher pay. But when New York University’s Jason Greenberg and MIT’s Roberto M. Fernandez analyzed over 700 job offers from a cohort of students graduating from elite MBA programs, they found that something other than pay was driving students’ decisions.

In a paper that will soon be published in the journal Sociological Science, Greenberg and Fernandez write that the students were significantly more likely to accept jobs found through networking—done either through alums of their program or their own social connections—even if those jobs came with lower pay than offers arriving through more formal channels, like on-campus recruiting. The choice, the researchers suggest, may be driven by students’ interest in their own career development, and a belief that taking a job with more networking opportunities would give them a professional edge, even if it came at the cost of compensation.

The importance  of social networks in one’s career trajectory helps to explain why, in so many industries, young professionals clamor to work for people who are considered the best in their trade. Aside from the benefits of learning under a superstar mentor, proximity to greatness can provide the sort of reflected glow that can launch a career.

How useful is that strategy? A recent paper set out to study how the protégés of industry leaders go on to perform in their own careers. The paper’s authors, Martin Kilduff, Craig Crossland, Wenpin Tsai, and Matthew Bowers, use case studies of coaches and managers in  the National Football League, but the usefulness of their findings aren’t limited to the trajectories of football coaches.

The authors examined the careers of almost 1,300 coaches between the years 1980 and 2010, first analyzing records of head coaches to find high performers. They measured head coaches on a number of professional benchmarks, such as Super Bowl wins, playoff appearances, and whether or not they achieved the feat of 100 career wins. The researchers took a look at the coaches’ subordinates and whether or not they matched up with the coaches’ areas of expertise to determine who might be considered a close protégé, and, finally, they compared the career trajectories of those deemed to be mentees of the head coaches with those of coaches who were categorized as simply subordinate staffers.

The authors find that there’s evidence to back up the notion that a close relationship with a successful head coach proves useful when it comes to getting ahead professionally. “Among those actors with work connections to industry leaders, acolytes (i.e., those connected to high-reputation industry leaders) are more likely to gain promotions compared to non-acolytes (i.e., those connected to industry leaders who lack high reputations),” they write.

But the halo effect that comes from working closely with an industry titan has its limitations. A famous mentor is most helpful for candidates who are otherwise difficult to evaluate because they have minimal experience outside of their current position; in these cases, there’s the hope that some high-level skills have rubbed off on a protege. The tacit endorsement of a well-known boss can make a difference, and indeed, “acolytes” were much more likely to be promoted to positions at historically successful teams rather than historically unsuccessful teams.

But, perhaps more interestingly, the researchers found this halo effect to be fleeting. While proteges were more likely to be promoted to impressive jobs, the authors find that the impact of the their relationship to an industry leader wears off after about a year. An acolyte’s career trajectory after that often involves lateral, not vertical, moves. They also don’t find much evidence to support the idea that proximity to an industry leader means that a protégé does, in fact, possess a superior skills set to their peers.

That’s not to say that the mentees of famous, high-powered, successful executives always flop. But still, the fading power of having an accomplished mentor is probably more a nod to the possibility that close proximity to an industry titan is often more about the connections and privileges that an individual already had—such as an elite education, successful parents, or a well-placed friend—than their abilities.

The perceived power of working under a superstar mentor can lead people to take jobs that are lacking in more easily calculated benefits, like pay. It can also result in employers making decisions that are backed up by anecdotal rather than analytical information. On both sides of the employment equation, it seems that using social connections as a means of assessing job candidates isn’t quite as reliable as some might hope.