Companies & Industries

What Breaking Bad Can Teach Us About Business Relationships


From left, Breaking Bad’s Walter White (Bryan Cranston) with “protégé” Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul)

Photograph by Ursula Coyote/AMC via Everett Collection

From left, Breaking Bad’s Walter White (Bryan Cranston) with “protégé” Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul)

Fans of Breaking Bad will be riveted to their televisions this Sunday as the wildly popular crime drama comes to the end of its five-year story. Yet there’s another story that will endure long after the credits roll. It’s the story that epitomizes the most fundamental of business relationships: that of a sponsor and his protégé.

First, a brief recap for anyone who somehow missed a series as addictive as the high-quality methamphetamine that high school chemistry teacher Walter White makes and his slacker former student Jesse Pinkman sells: Diagnosed with inoperable, advanced lung cancer, Walter is desperate to find a way to provide for his family before he dies. When he learns that Jesse is a small-time drug dealer, he proposes they become business partners in an industry for which they possess perfectly complementary skills: manufacturing and distributing methamphetamine.

When things are good, they are very, very good—the very model of a mutually beneficial business partnership. Things have since taken a turn for the worse, to put it mildly. (I promise not to give away any plot secrets.) But in the beginning, the success of Walter and Jesse’s sponsor/protégé matchup offered lessons—albeit extreme—that could be applied to any career in any business enterprise.

Although sponsors and mentors are often conflated, in fact they’re quite different. Mentors offer advice, feedback, and sympathy because their protégés remind them of themselves. Sponsors offer advice and feedback, but for an entirely different reason: Furthering their protégé’s career furthers their own career, organization, or vision.

Consequently, sponsors offer their protégés more: They open doors, connect them to important players, advocate for high-visibility assignments, and provide crucial backing, all with the intent of enhancing their own power and preserving their legacy. When Jesse’s drug deal with Tico goes bad, Walter protects his protégé by settling the issue himself.

What’s less recognized is that Jesse is as important to Walter’s future as Walter is to Jesse’s. The sponsor/protégé relationship is a two-way street that benefits both parties. But to accrue those advantages, protégés have to deliver on a number of key fronts.

At a minimum, a protégé contributes 110 percent and is intensely loyal to his sponsor and the organization. While die-hard loyalty and stellar performance are mission-critical, that’s just the beginning. Protégés really distinguish themselves by contributing something the leader prizes but intrinsically lacks. In the corporate world, this could be gender smarts or cultural fluency; it could be social media skills on a team unaccustomed to connecting via the Internet, or language skills on an international assignment. Jesse contributed a specific set of skills when it came to introducing Walter to how the “game” is played. Demonstrating his fluency in a particular “culture,” Jesse taught Walter the appropriate lingo and introduced him to their first set of clients.

In addition to enhancing the sponsor’s brand and extending his influence, a protégé also protects him. As leaders move up the ladder, they’re increasingly removed from the action on the front lines of the organization. They need loyal lieutenants to bridge the distance, deliver a clear, unbiased, and timely report of what’s going on, and cover their back. Jesse’s discovery that rival methamphetamine sellers were taking over their territory resulted in a classic example of a protégé covering his sponsor’s back. Jesse alerted Walter to the boundary dispute, and they worked through the appropriate steps to “resolve” the situation.

Lastly, there’s an implicit understanding that as the protégé prospers, he or she will reciprocate. This is more than mutual back-scratching. It’s the responsibility of the successful protégé to pay back his sponsor’s investment of time and reputation. When Walter uncovers a plot to replace him, he asks Jesse for help; in return, Jesse steps in to “handle” the problem. (I’m not advocating Jesse’s solution as generally accepted business behavior, but it’s a perfect, if extreme, example of expressing gratitude to one’s sponsor.)

No matter what happens on Sunday night, sponsors and protégés everywhere should take note of the win-win dynamic for both parties in this reciprocal relationship. The series may be over, but that lesson will last forever.

Sylvia-hewlett2
Sylvia Ann Hewlett is the author of Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor: The New Way to Fast-Track Your Career. She is an economist and founder of the Center for Talent Innovation, a think tank. She is also Co-Director of the Women's Leadership Program at the Columbia Business School.

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