by Julian Goldsmith

The power and pitfalls of patronage

Oct 04, 20124 mins
IT Leadership

The news of a prominent CIO’s promotion to the group headquarters in the US has got me thinking about the power of patronage.

My sources tell me this CIO is in the process of selecting which of his entourage will follow him across the water.

Already at this CIO’s previous workplace, senior staff who joined shortly after his arrival there, are handing in their resignations.

It’s not uncommon for the people closest to the boss to jump ship, once the big cheese has left and a new leader comes in.

There is often an unavoidable clash of ideas whenever a regime changes and a change at the top naturally causes underlings to consider their own futures more seriously.

More overt patronage practices still go on in the corporate environment, although this is something rarely admitted officially.

The power of patronage was a strong force in all walks of officialdom a couple of centuries ago and was recognised as a quite legitimate way of moving through the ranks.

Now that we live in a more egalitarian age, giving your mates the top jobs at the expense of others is viewed with distaste.

Anyone who has spent any time in a corporate environment now will find evidence of the practice still happening to a greater or lesser extent though.

The drivers for preferring people you know and respect when dealing out choice jobs is very tempting and many corporate leaders have a track record of taking a corps of lieutenants with them wherever they go.

Patronage works both ways, with the patron gaining credibility through the talents and capabilities of their entourage, just as their followers benefit from the top-flight opportunities and experiences the patron can provide.

In a way, this describes the practice of patronage as a meritocracy, with the most able people attracting the most powerful patrons, because of their leadership talents.

There are some clear benefits for doing this when a new business leader comes in to a new company or department:

– The executive team already knows each other and works well together, resulting in swift decision-making and acting with one mind straight away. – A new executive team is unfettered by any ties to practices of the past, making it easier to implement change, without any internal conflict at the top. – A new executive team should be able to bring radical new ideas, from outside the organisation, refreshing the thinking within the department or enterprise.

So far so good, but what about the bad? There are good reasons why the practice is not openly applauded, most obviously because the dangers of abuse and corruption are very clear. In my experience, there are some others:

– Morale for staff seeing the new blood suddenly come in will take a nose-dive as they conclude that all the hard work they put in at their organisation over the years will not help them to progress. It sends out the message that knowing the right people means more than hard work. – The domain knowledge of the new team may not be as deep as the incumbent staff, eroding their credibility as managers. – The patron’s favoured executive group is likely to depart as swiftly as they arrive, once the leader moves on, leaving a gap in management continuity.

To presume the power of patronage is a relic of the 18th century would be to ignore the realities of the modern-day workplace.

To avoid the pitfalls I would say the key is to balance the practice with promotions from within, to demonstrate to the incumbent workforce that it is possible to succeed in your administration and to ensure that there is some clear succession if you leave for a better position elsewhere.