Set in the 1960s, Mad Men is a popular AMC dramatic television series that revolves around a cast of characters working at a New York advertising agency. Mad Men episodes are packed full of colorful characters flaunting vices, embracing and rejecting gender roles and stereotypes, and navigating the evolving field of advertising.
As the popular television show's characters have developed over the years, they've also provided practical lessons for managers and their employees. If you can get past Mad Men's smoker-friendly offices, mid-day cocktails, and blatant sexism, you'll find a few mentoring gems that stand the test of time.
Here (note: spoilers!) are six examples of effective knowledge transfer that – with, perhaps, some adjustment for time and culture – managers and supervisors can use today.
Outline the corporate culture
From the first episode of Mad Men, we learn that mentors explain how to navigate a corporate culture. In the very first episode, Joan Holloway, the experienced office manager, introduces a newly hired secretary, Peggy Olson, to what Joan calls the “nerve center” of the office.
Before opening the door to introduce Peggy to the office phone operators, Joan explains the important role these often-overlooked women play in the success of the Sterling Cooper advertising agency. “You and your boss rely on the willing and cheerful cooperation of a few skilled employees,” Joan explains. “Never snap, yell, or be sarcastic with them. And above all, always be a supplicant.” Peggy then meets the operators and presents them with gifts of candy and flowers.
In your office, you probably don't need to be a supplicant to the receptionist or office manager (the role often doesn’t exist anymore), but you also can't underestimate the vital roles each employee has at your company. A mentor could help a new hire understand the contributions each employee plays in the success of a company. Not only can more thorough introductions help a new hire understand the culture of a company, they also give employees a jumpstart on networking and building solid working relationships with colleagues. (Bringing chocolate never hurts.)
And, over time, mentors teach the people who look up to them how to deal with office politics, troublesome coworkers, and uncertain relationships.
Recommend supplies and tools
On Peggy's first day of work, Joan suggests supplies that will help her. “Don't overdo it with the perfume,” Joan explains. “Keep a fifth of something in your desk — Mr. Draper drinks rye. Also, invest in some aspirin, Band-aids, and a needle and thread.”
Sure, you won't tell a new hire to keep a bottle of booze for the boss on hand, but preemptively reminding him that near-by colleagues might be bothered by strong aftershave isn't a bad idea, and recommending your favorite arch supports for when he works long hours standing at a conference booth is practical advice.
“Now try not to be overwhelmed by all this technology,” Joan says as she unveils Peggy's electric typewriter in the first episode. “It looks complicated, but the men who designed it made it simple enough for a woman to use.”
When the electric typewriter dominated the office place, knowing how to use one typewriter prepared you to use almost any of them. (The IBM Selectric with the half-backspace and built-in correcting tape could throw anyone off, though.) Computers, however, are a different beast. If your new hire comes from a Windows background, she might need a few pointers to get her up and running on her new Linux laptop and LibreOffice spreadsheets. Or if your employee needs to share files on a remote server, show him an overview of the file structure and which files and programs are relevant for his duties. Don’t underestimate technical training, no matter how long the employee has been on staff.
Define the reporting structure
While Joan is busy mentoring Peggy, Don Draper, junior partner and creative director of Sterling Cooper, has a harder time guiding the cocky young ad executive, Pete Campbell, who feels entitled to a promotion. In Season 1, Episode 12, Pete approaches Don and attempts to blackmail him. When Don tells Bert Cooper, the ad agency’s senior partner, that a different candidate is better for the job, Pete follows through with his threat: He tells Bert about Don's checkered past and questions Don’s job qualifications. In essence, Pete attempts to go over his manager's head to land the promotion.
Rather than allowing Pete to usurp Don's authority, Bert responds, “Even if this is true, who cares? This country was built and run by men with worse stories than anything you've imagined here.” Bert goes on to remind Pete that Don is his supervisor and, instead of worrying about Don's background, Pete should focus on performing his own job. “The Japanese have a saying that a man is whatever room he is in,” Bert says, “I assure you, there's more profit in forgetting this. I'd put your energy into bringing in accounts.”
After Bert has reinforced the corporate hierarchy and Don's leadership role in it, Pete leaves the room. Behind closed doors, Bert offers management advice to Don, saying, “Don, fire him if you want. But I'd keep an eye on him. One never knows how loyalty is born.”
Earlier in the season, Roger Sterling, one of the senior partners at Sterling Cooper, also reinforced Don's role. After Don fires Pete in the fourth episode, Bert tells Roger and Don that the company needs Pete for his networking connections that could lead to new clients. Instead of making Don rehire Pete, Roger tells Pete that Don decided to give him another chance, even though the senior partners wanted him fired.
Much of the lesson here is in managers establishing a pecking order — and the manager wresting control of it. Note the twist in the way Roger uses the incident to re-assert the executive authority over Peter (another example of junior worker as supplicant to the powerful perhaps), by saying Don stood up for Peter and insisted Peter not be fired. Note, too, that this happens with Don looking on, and presumably improving his own management skills.
The strong corporate structure in the 1960s may not be appropriate for your office today (though it may be very familiar). However, note that the Mad Men characters do make the relationships extremely clear and unambiguous.
Explain recognition and compensation policies
In Season 4, Episode 7, Peggy, the former secretary who has worked her way into a copywriting role at the agency, is upset about working after hours on her birthday, and she vents to her manager and mentor, Don. Peggy accuses Don of stealing employee ideas and passing them off as his own, so he reminds her that she is paid to come up with these ideas, which then belong to the company.
“Everything that comes in here belongs to the agency,” Don explains. Peggy is upset that Don won an advertising award for a TV commercial that was inspired by one of her ideas. “It's your job,” he reminds her, “I give you money; you give me ideas.”
Peggy, now in tears, responds, “But you never say 'thank you!'” Don angrily replies, “That's what the money is for.”
Don knows that Peggy is motivated by public and personal praise, as well as money. As Peggy's mentor, Don should remember this about her going forward. Still, Don does what many mentors and managers must do in the modern business world — he reinforces the notion of “work for hire,” that what an employee creates belongs to the company. Imagine an employee who develops award-winning software, which is branded under her employer's name. The employee should have known from the beginning that — unless she has a different formal agreement with the company — her regular paycheck is compensation for the software, regardless of how popular or profitable the program is for the company that signs her paycheck.
Roger Sterling is notoriously brash, sexist, and inappropriate around the agency office, but he occasionally offers bits of mentoring wisdom, albeit cloaked in colorful language. In Season 2, Episode 2, Peggy nervously approaches Roger to request her own office. Roger only gives her a moment of his time as Peggy quickly tells her employer about a new account she'd landed for the company, and why an office will help her work more effectively as a copywriter.
Peggy points out the empty office, and Roger responds, “It's yours.” Peggy is surprised that Roger agreed so quickly. “You young women are very aggressive,” Roger explains. Peggy then apologizes for being impolite, and Roger says, “No, it's cute. There are 30 men out there who didn't have the balls to ask me.”
By rewarding Peggy for asserting herself, Roger is helping her build confidence and grooming her to take on a leadership role within the company. Although Roger says, “You young women are very aggressive,” (a no-no for a modern mentor), he grants her request and shows that he appreciates Peggy's assertiveness outside her expected gender role. Note, too, that Peggy’s argument for being granted the office is based on her quantifiable achievements and the benefit the change will bring to the company – negotiation tactics that most of us might want to keep in mind when we ask for a promotion.
Challenge employees to do better
A large part of effective mentoring, in any context, is an experienced person giving feedback to help the mentee improve skills and attitude. Sometimes the lessons are deliberate (“Just think about it, deeply, and then forget it. An idea will… jump up in your face,” Don tells Peggy in one episode) and other times by example (such as changing the wording one of the Creatives suggests for a bank advertisement).
Most of the time a manager explains why he makes the change, so employees can improve their own skills. When Peggy accuses Don of stealing her Glo Coat floor wax commercial idea, which led to Don's CLIO creative advertising award, for example, Don tells her that the idea was only a “kernel.” In Peggy's idea, a child was locked in a closet because his mother was making him wait for the floor to dry, and Peggy says Don changed the idea just enough to make it “his” idea.
“I changed it into a commercial,” he says. “What? Are we going to shoot him in the dark, in the closet?” Don asks. He goes on to explain, “That's the way it works. There are no credits in commercials.”
With five seasons of Mad Men episodes and a sixth one in the works, modern mentors can extract many other mentoring tips from the retro show – several of which echo the more generic advice in Tips for Successful Employee Coaching and Mentoring.
Which scenes would you add to this list of lessons? Let us know in the comments.