“He’s earned it” and other poor reasons for promotion

Why promotions should be more like hiring

Conferring promotions is a, perhaps the, major component of career advancement for a manager. And yet, until recently, I’ve really given very little thought to the philosophy behind them. In the last six months inherited a department whose promotions had been frozen for a year and a lot of pent-up demand. That coincided with some other thinking we’d been doing about the fairness and equality of our promotion process for our most senior positions. Those two pressures resulted in some changes in my thinking.

Answer two questions: is the candidate ready? and Is there a business need?

Our approach has boiled down to two key questions: Is the candidate ready for a promotion and do we really need that position in the business?

You’d think that when the answer to both questions is “No” that everything would be simple. Except that you’re dealing with people and so nothing is straightforward. I hear of people that have been promoted despite their lack of readiness and no obvious business challenge that they’re going to solve. Usually, the cause is loyalty to some long-term employee. Perhaps we’ve advanced together through the ranks – he (it’s usually a he) has had to put up with me during my career, he’s due a little reward. Perhaps everyone else in that person’s starting cohort has moved along and it’s beginning to look a bit embarrassing that he/she/they hasn’t kept pace. It happens more often than you’d think.

Let’s take the next box: employee ready but no position available. This is a frustrating place for both employee and manager. But it’s the nature of organisational hierarchies. Inevitably there are fewer positions available at the top and more competition for them. It can be especially frustrating if the expectations of what you need to do to fulfil one of those roles changes over time – organisations change focus; in our case, our need for technical expertise in our senior management has left many who would have qualified in the past at a disadvantage.

Sometimes I’ve felt pressure to promote someone just to retain him/her/them. What often happens in this situation is that we’ll create a role to solve the frustrated employee problem. “Danny is sharp and could contribute so much more,” we’ll say. “Let’s create a role that will allow him to have more impact.” We take Danny’s role and enlarge it. Unfortunately, enlargements get fuzzier the bigger they get. This is one example of the Peter’s principle at play: eventually the role is just blur and no one could do it successfully.

Let’s go to my favourite box, not the one with two Yeses but the one where there’s a clearly defined need and an employee who isn’t quite ready. Now, if you’re promoting someone just for the sake of getting that position filled, you’re making a mistake. But if you’re taking a gamble on someone and expecting them to grow into that role, all sorts of magic can happen. When I took on my current role, this job was literally ten times bigger than any previous job I’d had. Someone took a gamble on me. That was magical for me perhaps less so for the people who had to endure my learning pains. I repeated the favour for my team – I appointed an entirely new team, all of whom would have been technically unready for the roles into which I moved them. It could have been a disaster, but I was new, I had little to lose, and I believe my gamble has paid off. We did make some mistakes, we had some missteps, but it’s been a tremendous period of growth and learning for all of us.

Of course, there’s a balance and judgment here. You can’t fill every position with someone who’s clearly unqualified and hope that they’ll grow into it (although most jobs are not as difficult to do as their incumbents would have you believe).

The top box is where my thinking has focused over the past year. When I look at employees in this category, I see a distinction between those who are at the start of their career and those who are competing for more senior roles. 

Let’s take those starting their careers first. This is where I think it’s valid to promote for recognition – in this case the acquisition of skills and experience that justifies a higher position. Ideally, I’d have experienced, relatively senior engineers on all of my teams. But I can’t find that in the marketplace. I have to grow those people. The people who grow fastest get promoted and recognised and that’s a good thing for my department.

But when it comes to senior roles, sticking with who you know or who you have is very insidious.

Take a look around your organisation. If it’s a few years old, it’s very likely the people at the top have been promoted from within to their current position. If you work in tech, they’re probably mostly white men. When you promote from within, you get a distillation of your organisation as employees progress up the hierarchy. Even if 5% of your entry intake is black (about the industry average for technical hires), by the time you come to select the top ten roles from within the organisation, the rules of rounding pretty much guarantee that the candidates won’t be black.

And let’s talk about the definition of those top roles. It’s quite likely that you’re going to define them in terms of the people you have to fill them: is this a Danny-shaped hole that we have or a Sally-shaped one? “Sally would be perfect for …” is likely circular reasoning: of course, Sally would be great for a role if you imagined that role with Sally in mind. Knowing the person who could fill a role cramps your thinking about the role itself.

This is where I believe that we have to define our promotion slots in terms of the business outcome that we expect the person filling that role to drive. We’ve changed our promotion process now so that it looks much more like a hiring process: the sponsoring manager has to define the role and its expected outcomes. The candidate employee has to demonstrate how he/she/they will meet that challenge – their experience, obviously, is a good indicator of future success. And we have a promotion board, like Google, that doesn’t include the sponsoring manager. This is for our most senior positions. When we introduced this change, not everyone was thrilled. After all, being able to give or withhold promotions is one of the key powers of a manager in typically organisations. But it is very similar to our hiring process (large parts of which we also copied from Google).

As we’ve watched the boards play out and the candidates that are coming through them, I’ve become even more convinced that we need to treat filling our most senior slots as a hiring process. Yes, you can fill them through promotion but that’s really saying that you have a slate of one candidate to put into that position. No one would take that seriously for a hiring process, especially one where you cared about diversity or equality of opportunity. 

When we define the business need of the position first, clearly articulate what that role is and what outcomes it will deliver, we set up the candidates for success; he/she/they know what they have to do on day one. It allows us to cast a wider net for potential candidates – the “perfect” candidates from within the organisation and from outside. It allows us to build a slate of candidates that won’t be a concentration of the people we already have. 

It allows us to bring a different set of experiences into the organisation and to change the way that it looks at the top. You can’t do that with a traditional promotion process.

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