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Lisa Benton Case Study


Executive Summary
Lisa Benton is a Harvard MBA who had completed a very successful internship with RightAway stores, a convenience store chain in Chicago. Although she was offered an attractive position at
Right-Away, Benton chose to accept a lower-paying, more junior position at Houseworld because of the
companys greater prestige and reputation for offering excellent classical marketing training in a
structured environment. Benton had met several members of the Houseworld product management team
during the recruiting process and been impressed with how knowledgeable and friendly they were.
However, Bentons first day of work as an assistant product manager in the Home Care division did not
match her expectations.
Bentons new boss, Deborah Linton, offered a cool reception. Linton made clear during their
first meeting with Benton that she didnt like Harvard MBAs and gave the impression that she had no
time to help train and orient her new employee. Instead, Benton was shown around by Lintons other
report, associate product manager Ron Scoville, who struck her as condescending and also derisive of
MBAs.
During her first weeks at Houseworld, Benton developed a good relationship with others in the
company. However, she continued to be frustrated by her team. She was consistently relegated to
analysis and excluded from strategy and, as such, felt that her talents and training were not being fully
utilized. Benton was also troubled by her bosss lack of interest in her development and noted that
Linton seemed preoccupied with other matters.
When Benton pressed her boss for her three month performance review, Linton notes included
feedback that she was not assertive enough and did not take initiative. Benton felt frustrated that her
strengths were not identified and that she received negative feedback as a result of conflicting messages

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shed received from Scoville, who had repeatedly emphasized her role as learner. Concerned that
conflicts with her team might jeopardize her future career, Benton questioned whether she should
request a transfer to another department or admit that the job at Houseworld was a mistake and try to
return to Right-Away.i

Analysis
Although its clear that Linton and Scovilles management styles leave much to be desired,
Benton exacerbated their deficiencies by failing take full responsibility for managing her boss. Although
she felt that performance review feedback was unfair, there is evidence that Benton had not been
assertive in her approach to her new job. On her second day at Houseworld, Benton wanted to approach
Linton with questions but demurred when she saw her boss in an intimate meeting with Scoville. By
approaching Scoville with her questions later that day, Benton added to the barriers between her and her
boss and unintentionally gave Scoville the role of intermediary despite the fact that Linton had made it
clear that Benton reported to her. During her first two weeks, even when she did have an opinion
Benton usually deferred to Scoville and Linton as she thought it best to be quiet and act like a
learner.ii While its true that Scoville had encouraged her to act like a learner, Benton never questioned
this advice.
This leads to the second mistake Benton made during her first weeks at Houseworld:
overestimating Lintons knowledge of the situation and making assumptions about her expectations. In
Managing Your Boss Gabarro and Kotter assert that the subordinate who passively assumes that he or
she knows what the boss expects is in for trouble.iii Benton passively and incorrectly assumed that
Linton had the same expectations as Scoville and wanted her to act like a learner. Similarly, when
Benton was assigned to handling the menial task of securing artwork approval, she assumed this boring

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task was just another part of being an assistantiv rather than clarifying the expectations associated with
her position.
In addition to making assumptions about her bosss expectations, Benton frequently failed to
adequately express her expectations of Linton. As Gabarro and Kotter note, Developing a workable set
of mutual expectations also requires that you communicate your own expectations to the boss, find out if
they are realistic, and influence the boss to accept the ones that are important to you.v Benton felt that
Linton should have acted as a buffer between her and Scoville but, rather than expressing this, she felt
there was no point in arguingvi about how best to address the conflict between the coworkers.
On the few occasions where Benton did express her expectations she saw positive results. For
example, on the two occasions that Benton made clear to Scoville how she felt about his behavior after
the typing incident and yelling incident Scoville apologized and admitted he didnt that he didnt know
how bad his behavior was. Also, following her performance review, she asked Linton to define
responsibilities that were separate from Scovilles and Linton agreed.
These successes are all characterized by open communication and this is the area where Benton
had the most opportunity to improve her situation. Too often Benton received competing messages
such as Scovilles casting her in the role of learner while Linton wanted her to be more aggressive or
Vernon insisting she avoid clerical tasks while Linton considered such work an occasional necessity
but did not work to involve all parties in a resolution. For example, after speaking to both Vernon and
Linton in the wake of the typing incident, Benton was still not sure what she should do in future
situations.vii Rather than deciding to simply follow Vernons advice, I would have encouraged Benton
to discuss best practices with both parties to prevent a future conflict. I definitely believe that Benton
was correct in emphasizing loyalty to her boss but in many ways the job of a product manager is to
facilitate this type of open discussion and clarification of objectives. Honesty and open communication

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benefit the organization as a whole. Similarly, when Vernon noticed she was unhappy and encouraged
Benton to air any concerns, she should have been more forthcoming about her frustration rather than
withholding information from Vernon. As a top manager, Vernon cannot understand every detail in
organization but the conflict within the Pure & Fresh team had the potential to affect overall business
productivity. Vernon could benefit from access to the information. If Lisa could have candidly reflected
on her situation, she could have helped Vernon deal with the morale issue while solving her own
problems.
Overall, Bentons interpersonal skills are excellent as evidenced by her successful relationships
with other staff at Houseworld. However, a transition to a new environment and especially challenging
managers such as Linton and Scoville helped reveal areas for improvement.

Evaluation of Alternatives
Benton has three options for dealing with her situation at Houseworld: she can ask Vernon for to
be transferred to another brand, leave Houseworld and accept the offer from Right-Away, or continue
working with Linton and Scoville at Pure & Fresh.
Benton is concerned that her slow start at Houseworld may negatively affect her prospects for
promotion. If this is the case, her career would benefit from asking Vernon for a transfer to another
brand with more compatible managers. However, as far as Benton knows, no assistant product manager
has ever asked to be reassigned and the unusual request may alienate her superiors, peer and especially
Linton and Scoville. This alternative will likely cast Benton as someone who isnt able to address
conflict and instead seeks to avoid it. Such a reputation may further hinder her success at Houseworld.
Another option is to contact Right-Away stores, admit that she made a mistake by accepting the
job at Houseworld, and try to take the position they had originally offered her. Based on her relationship

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with the President and the feedback from a former colleague, she would still be welcome at Right-Away.
The advantage of this alternative is that Benton knows she is a good fit for the culture and gets along
well with the staff at Right-Away. The salary is higher and, in past conversations, the president indicated
that Benton could expect to be promoted to Vice President within a few years. However, Bentons initial
reasons for not accepting the position still apply: less glamorous, small company, no women managers,
uncertainty about her relationship with the Vice President of Operations to whom she would be
reporting, etc.
Finally, Benton could persevere in her current position. The primary disadvantage of this
alternative is that she will likely need to continue working with Linton and Scoville for at least 9 more
months and risks continuing to feel frustrated and underused during that time. A colleague who had been
trained by Linton the previous year admitted that he was doing doubletime to make up for the poor
training and Benton could find herself similarly disadvantaged. However, because product managers at
Houseworld generally moved assignments every 12-18 months, her situation was temporary.

Recommendation
I would recommend that Benton remain in her current position at Houseworld and use the time
as an opportunity to hone her abilities to manage her boss. While Linton hasnt showed much interest in
helping Benton succeed at the company, there have been some improvements in their relationship as a
result of the time Benton openly communicated her needs and expectations. Similarly, her relationship
with Scoville has at least superficially improved since his apology over drinks following the yelling
incident. While Scoville is unlikely to be an ally in the future, the entire office is aware of his
management deficiencies and he has little ability to hold Benton back if she is willing and able to reduce
her dependence on him. Most importantly, Houseworld still offers the benefits that encouraged her to

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accept the position in the first place. Although she may be set back a year by her inauspicious
beginnings, the company still offers a faster track to product manager (2-3 years versus the 4-5 industry
standard) and training opportunities.

Case Update
In November, Benton learned that Linton had been job hunting during her entire tenure at
Houseworld which helped explain why she showed so little commitment to Bentons training. Shortly
after Lintons departure, Scoville also left the company. Scoville was told that the yelling incident was
the end of his career at Houseworld and Vernon noted that he had not worked out at the company. The
new Pure & Fresh product manager knew little about the brand and had to rely on Bentons experience.
This encouraged Benton to take control during meetings.viii
A year after joining Houseworld, Benton was promoted to associate product manager. A year
later, she was made product manager despite the fact that the average time to become product manager
in her division was three years. This outcome supports Bentons belief that Scoville and Linton were
largely responsible for her problems at the company. ix Nevertheless, the challenges that she encountered
her first year undoubtedly provided a valuable learning opportunity that helped Benton understand the
importance of managing her boss in the future.

Hill, Linda A. and Weber, Katherine S. Lisa Benton (A). Boston: Harvard Business Publishing, 18 March 1994.

ii

Ibid. p. 6.

Gabarro, John J. and Kotter, John P. Managing Your Boss. Best of HBR. Boston: Harvard Business Publishing, January
2005.
iii

iv

Ibid. p.6.

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Gabarro.

vi

Hill. Lisa Benton (A). p. 9.

vii

Ibid.

viii

Hill, Linda A. and Weber, Katherine S. Lisa Benton (B). Boston: Harvard Business Publishing, 18 March 1994.

ix

Ibid.