Bulls n' Bears


What is Patronage?

Patronage is defined in the dictionary as offering approval and support to a person or cause. That is, apart from its other meaning of condescension or customer base. Patronage is rooted in human nature - don't we all like to help our friends, and feel obligated to help our relatives? Applied to relatives, the relationship is known as nepotism.

In Ancient Rome the Patron-Client was an accepted and formal relationship, with certain accepted obligations and duties. This emphasizes that this is often a reciprocal relationship, with a quis pro quo being expected for the benefits conferred by the patron, although it can be purely disinterested. In Renaissance Italy there were many artists who benefited from having a wealthy patron. In this respect it can be a very healthy phenomenon, and many artists and inventors or other people who have made significant contributions could not have done so without a patron.

As can be expected, both patronage and nepotism are common in business or government today. Family-owned businesses usually draw heavily on nepotism, and as long as the client is relative is competent this can be successful. However the presence of nepotism and patronage does deter individuals who are brilliant at their jobs and prefer to work for a company where such favoritism is not encouraged and advancement and reward depends on ability...

Generally it can be said that the presence of patronage is detrimental to a business both because the best people may not be selected for a task and because it discourages good people who do stay. Unfortunately, many businesses do not recognize the dangers and introduce a form of institutionalized patronage called a “Fast-Track Program” or something similar. The intent of these programs is often praiseworthy, but unless they are monitored very carefully can degenerate into a form of institutionalized corruption.  The writer experienced this personally, having met a so-called “whiz-kid” who was actually incompetent, but was succeeding due to patronage. The problem is that such people will never leave, but actual excellent performers will be driven away.

Patronage can be beneficial – what would General Motors have been without Sloan’s encouragement of Kettering, or General Electric without similar treatment of Steinmetz? But these were both men of genius and it was widely recognized within the companies that any idiosyncrasies should be accommodated.

This is therefore a role where patronage can be essential, to support a brilliant but erratic individual whose value to the company is obvious to all. But such cases are rare. So while it is a good thing to encourage superior performance, it should not be allowed to be an excuse for favoritism.