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The mark of a promotable employee

In the April 5, 2016 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a manager wants to know how to assess an employee for a promotion.

Question

promotionI manage a small team, but I’m pretty new to management. Now that it’s time to promote someone, I’m not happy with the criteria my HR department has given me to justify the promotion. It’s frankly nonsense. I don’t want to promote someone just because they’ve been on the job for two years. I want to use the opportunity to really assess whether they are ready for more responsibility and some new authority, and to help the employee realize what this means for them, for my department and for our company. Do you have any suggestions for how I should handle this so it will mean something?

Nick’s Reply

Well, you’re not managing by rote, I’ll give you that! I’m glad. A promotion should be the result of dialogue between you and the employee, and it should be handled something like a job interview. Of course, you know a lot more about an existing employee than you do someone applying for a job. But I agree that you should not waste the opportunity to help your employee step up to the challenge that a promotion really is. This should be a bit of a test where the employee demonstrates what they can do.

In part, you have to follow your gut, by considering how this person has performed over the past two years. In part, you should base the promotion on your estimate of how they will perform going forward, on the specific tasks and objectives they will soon face. This is actually all about what you already know. The rest is up to the employee: You should absolutely test them in some reasonable way.

Here’s how I’d approach it — but, please, leaven my suggestions with your own good judgment.

2 challenges to a promotion

It’s no easy task for a manager to decide who is worth promoting. It’s always risky to assign additional responsibilities or authority to an employee: Will she lighten the manager’s load or just add to it?

I think there’s a simple initial test for promotability, though you should consider other factors and criteria that make sense to you. My goal with this method is to stimulate a dialogue between you and the employee that will help you decide — and that will also help the employee grasp the importance of new responsibilities and authority.

This is based on the idea that the farther up the ladder a person goes, the more impact (positive or negative) they can have on the bottom line. Before you promote someone, find out how well she understands this idea. This test has two parts.

First, ask the employee to explain (a) how her current job contributes to the company’s profits, and (b) how she thinks the job she may be promoted to impacts profits.

Second, ask (c) what three things she has done in her current job to optimize profits and (d) what three things she would do in the “next job up the ladder” to optimize profits.

(If you’re a job applicant, this approach can work with a prospective boss, too. End your talk with How to Say It: How’d I do?)

The key to these 2 challenges

Remember that as someone’s boss, your goal is to get the best work out of them that you can. That makes you a mentor and a guide. If the employee fails, you fail. So, you must do everything you can (within reason) to help the employee succeed at getting promoted, just as you normally do as her boss to help her get her work done effectively every day.

That means the two challenges listed above must be an open-book test, and you must give the employee adequate time to respond. You must be ready and able to answer any questions she has as she prepares her responses. For example, she will probably need to discuss the definition of profit in the context of her job and your department. (Remember, a big part of your job as a manager is to develop your people, to advise them, and to teach them.)

Encourage the employee to prepare a brief, written report for (a), (b), and (c), and a brief, written plan for (d). Written might mean she prepares a presentation and outline on your whiteboard, or it might mean a short PowerPoint presentation or a narrative. Please: Don’t make it too formal! Casual and conversational is best.

Point out that you are available to help in any way (short of producing the reports, of course). You’re her manager, after all, and managers and employees collaborate all the time in a healthy work environment. You want her to succeed. This will trigger a thoughtful dialogue that will reveal what you need to know about the employee’s acumen and potential. No matter how the employee responds to this, you as the manager will learn a lot. I think you’ll see the mark of a promotable employee pretty readily.

As you might guess, not all employees will be able to deal with this effectively. Promotable employees will get it!

(If you’re the employee, and the promotion you’re getting doesn’t include a raise, learn How to Say It: Mo’ money is the problem!)

If you’re a manager, how do you handle promotions? When you’ve pursued promotions yourself, how did you make your case? What approach other than the one above would you recommend to the manager in this week’s Q&A?

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13 Comments
  1. It’s important to realize there are two very different types of promotion. The first is recognition that an employee has attained a higher level of performance … promotion from, for example, analyst to senior analyst.

    This should be an easy decision, except that many HR departments raise stupidity to a higher level of nonsense: They ask you to prove that you no longer need an analyst and now, for the first time, need a senior analyst.

    Fight the good fight with this one. Tell them you want to “broadband” the position (look it up).

    The second type of promotion puts an employee in a different type of position than the one she or he currently holds. You make this decision the same way you decide who to delegate an assignment to: Given who the employee is and what (s)he does well, is it enough of a stretch to be a challenge, but not so much that failure is a likely outcome.

    Hope this helps.

  2. For a promotion, I would expect the employee to already be doing many of the tasks and assuming responsibilities of the higher position. That shows a real commitment and understanding of the business requirements. It’s very much “don’t tell me but show me” what you can and would do.

    That makes a much easier sell to HR.

  3. Keep in mind you have to know your workers well. If you have 5 people and promote 1, you may have 4 positions to fill later if you pick the wrong one.

  4. Don’t forget the potential change to the current dynamic. If you have an expanding department and now need a manager, and you promote “one of the guys” from worker to manager, you may get more problems than if you just hire someone new from outside.

    Many workers will not accept “one of their own” now becoming their boss, and may not respect the role or the authority. Many times the selected employee, despite all their statements that they are ready for management, simply do not have the skills to delegate and manage, although this could potentially be learned. They may not appreciate that they have become one of “them” now and are no longer one of the boys. Finally, as stated, the other non-promoted workers might feel slighted and look for new work elsewhere. Assess all of this before you just kneejerk promote someone.

  5. Eddie is spot on IMO.

    I would hope the “new manager” would already know who his/her “superstars” are and who are simply “middle-stars” or ‘falling stars”. Which employee seeks out work and eagerly contributes in any way they can and which ones wait to be given a task?

    If you promote a non-Superstar, your “Superstars” will notice this and their job satisfaction could drop and they will begin to look elsewhere for promotional opportunities and recognition for their contributions to the team and company.

    If you promote someone ONLY based on an employees seniority, then you are only rewarding time-served and not based on the aptitude or ability of the employee. You could then be at risk of loosing the respect of your other staff IMO. Every member of a team knows who contributes what and you should be able to clearly communicate why you promoted one individual over another IMO.

    Best wishes.

  6. @Bob Lewis: Good distinction on two types of promotion. The first is a “reward” promotion, recognizing higher performance. The second, a change of role, usually higher up the food chain.

    @Julie Baker: I like your “test”: Is the employee already taking on more tasks and doing better work that fits the new position? This of course implies the person is grooming themselves (and their boss!) for the new role.

    @Hank: You make a good distinction between promoting an individual contributor to another individual role, and management. I’ve seen many cases where promotion to management from within causes the kinds of friction you describe. But does that mean an employee should never become a manager without changing employers? I’d love to hear more about how this CAN be done effectively.

  7. I just want to share a classic failure I see over and over, especially in Sales teams.

    The most successful sales person in a group is offered the role of manager as a promotion. Fail, for one of three reasons, and sometimes all three reasons.

  8. You’re right, promotions have much common ground with recruiting, but with much advantage. Both entail risks. And managing unknowns, is a way to minimize risk.
    When addressing promotion, a manager can consider demonstrated performance, results/value adds that align directly to the organizations (team & company) business.
    Emergency/fast paced, high risk situations aside, (e.g. extremely rapid growth, startup scenarios, merger/acquisitions, massive reorgs where management life is abnormal) Promotions work best when planned and laying the applicable groundwork. To Julie’s point, when you see potential you develop it. And for your own & the Corporate good, it’s your job as a manager to do so.
    Much like that old saw dress for the job you want, people can take the initiative and produce more. But in hi-tech project team environments they really can’t self-assign and intrude. So it works much better when their boss sets the scene. You do so by giving them the opportunity to stretch, to give them higher level projects, assignments, roles and responsibilities above their nominal “pay grade”. So you have the evidence that they are ready to move up simply because their ability to produce productive results is no longer an unknown. They’ve done it.

    This also works best if you line the ducks up with HR up front, with what is in their world a career development plan, inclusive of explaining why that person & not others. If they lack that kind of brain, you do it anyway but be prepared to argue why that junior person can do what HR’s org chart says it’s impossible for them to do.

    This works well in technical environments because everyone knows who the fast track brainy people are. Peer respect governs & there’s little surprise in the teams when these people are promoted. If there are several, it’s a nice problem to have as a manager.

    If you don’t do this, don’t grow the talented, they’ll promote themselves by moving on & up in some other company.

    Moving non managers into management has much more risk for the reasons mentioned. To VP Sales point, it’s not just sales, the hi tech world habitually has moved the best techies into management often with legendary disasterous results. Where you lose your best techie and gain a poor manager.

    Here’s some steps to take when considering doing this.
    1. First do something very elementary. Ask them if they want to be a manager & if so why. A # 1 answer should be they love managing people, and building organizations. If it’s because of money, or influence, better to look for..or create..a technical path that offers that. Don’t be surprised if the person wants no part of management. I had one case where it was for the exact reason someone mentioned. He did not want to manage their current peers.
    2. Ideally, move them into, or again create an interim management role. In my technical world that wold be a “team lead” role. Administratively they aren’t managers, because for example they don’t hire, fire, do appraisals etc. But they do lead a small team of 5-10 people. This gives them a taste of management so you & he/she can see for yoursleves if it’s their thing. It’s also a win on their technical side because they give technical direction which positions them for a promo on a technical basis. If they decide they like management you can move forward if they’ve done a good job as a leader. If not, you just developed a better technical contributor.
    These “leads” can be formal, or temporary e.g. a one time only project that needs a point person.
    3. To Eddie’s point. Know your people. For various reasons, other people may believe they should have a shot at it, are a better choice, can’t abide taking direction from your choice etc. Don’t blindside them. Give them a heads up. Before you make a final decision & an announcement, sit down with a one-on-one, get their insights, seek their cooperation. In short let them know they weren’t ignored. In a strong team moving someone in to management won’t be easy, because you’ll have good choices. Some won’t be ready yet, and some simply aren’t cut out for management. Talk to them all.
    4. Smooth the path. Go outside your organization and sell your choice…to HR, to your peer managers, definitely to your boss. If they have reservations, deal with them ahead of time. Don’t set your new manager up for a fall.
    5. If you have an organizational emergency and are for some reason desperate for that manager..and you can’t take it on in an acting capacity, don’t knee-jerk a promo. In this situation you usually can’t wait for an outside hire. So do a variation on an interim role. Ask someone in your team as an Acting Manager. Ideally this would be someone who you think might be a good choice. Failing that, you have more options. You can ask people who don’t want to manage, to take on the acting role & help you find the next manager. Or you can rotate potentials through the role. In so doing you can buy the time you need. This is what I did in the aforementioned situation where my choice didn’t want the job. He was more than willing to help me out in an acting capacity and did a great job.

    Another way of looking at promotion, is in terms of what influence a person has. You can have influence via technical and/or managerial expertise. Junior/entries usually have minimal, only influencing their own assignment. The next step up is where you have influence within your department, the next step is where you have influence within the company, and the peak is influence within your industry.
    A manager’s job is to spot the potential, selflessly cultivate it and see that it is rewarded. Selfless means in so doing, you many lose the person as the move up growing to a point where you no longer can have impact. Never reward someone for their valued contribution by chaining them to your desk.

  9. Expanding on VP’s point, I don’t think this behavior is limited to sales. I have seen too many promotions based on technical job knowledge, without having the skills to lead, supervise, or manage. Hijinks ensue, and disaster follows.

  10. It sounds as if someone in HR was in the military, where “time in grade” and “time in service” actually meant something. Other things figured in as well (proficiency, conduct, promotion boards), but those two were a good starting point.

    I know most “modern” companies have long forgotten those attributes, and one could write for hours about what this has done to the workplace. But we shouldn’t forget about these indications of loyalty when promotion time rolls around.

  11. One way of telling if you have followed Julie and Don’s excellent advice – when the promotion is announced, no one should be surprised. Just like good performance management means no surprises at review time, good promotion management should mean no surprises at promotion time. If you get a bunch of people saying “why the hell did you promote him or her?” you’ve probably screwed up. (One can be explained by jealousy, not lots.)
    Another good reason to give people practice is that they may find they don’t like what management really is versus what they have thought it was.

  12. First let’s clear up the weak weak argument between management and leadership. Your superior who may have the ultimate authority for many functions will delegate both managerial and leadership reponsibilities down to you so the argument pretending that there is a difference between management and leadership most likely will come from individuals who have never worked in corporate America.

    Definition: Manager/Supervisor
    A Manager/Supervisor generally hires and
    fires individuals in a group or department.
    A Manager/Supervisor generally will have Direct Reports (some will be exempt(professional) and some will be non exempt(clerical)) Of course the Manager/Supervisor will have to perform performance reviews.
    A Manager/Supervisor will be feared by his/her subordinates.
    A Manager/Supervisor will always ask his/her
    subordinates for their input into the decision making process.

    The very first thing a new manager/supervisor
    of a group or department should do is ask for an internal audit of the group or department.
    Job descriptions will most likely be out of date so all of the job descriptions have to be rewritten including the manager/supervisor’s
    job description.

    Then all of your subordinates may not want to be promoted. You will know this immediately as you work with your subordinates.

    So how do you decide which subordinate is the most promotable. A Manager/Supervisor will have to delegate some of his/her responsibilities down to his subordinates as the Managerial/Supervisor workload increases.
    In this instance, the subordinate who most likely understands that the Manager/Supervisor is delegating his/her authority down and there may not be any immediate compensation for the delegated function. This will be the subordinate who the Manager/Supervisor wants to look after overall departmental or group responsibilities when the Manager/Supervisor goes on vacation or is away for business meetings. This will always be an emotional intuitive decision. Right or wrong, it must be made because Manager/Supervisors are always bombarded with situations where department or group decisions have to be made. Of course, these are just my opinions which I learned from a group of Senior Financial and Accounting Professionals.

  13. These are all excellent points. As I was reading this week’s Q&A, I wondered whether there had been any grooming, any mentoring, etc. by the manager of his underlings, and if not, then why not. In an ideal work world, the manager should be the person who knows his underlings best, and to me, a good manager should take an interest in them, try to challenge them (so they learn new things, can grow) and this would give the manager opportunities to assess who is promotable, so if/when there is an opportunity to promote an underling to a new position, he has been groomed for it and he’s ready for it.

    I agree that not everyone wants to be in management, nor should everyone aspire to be in management. But there are still ways to encourage and mentor employees who have no interest in management learn and grow.

    Why wait until there is a vacancy, then wonder why no one can step right in or who to promote (if anyone)?

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