Rethinking the Promotion Ladder

You do a great job in your role, and what is the expectation?

“Promotion” to a new, (seemingly) higher-up role. Bigger title, more base pay. The reward for great performance is moving up the ladder.

There are are only two problems with this. The nature of the reward. And the nature of the ladder.

I do a lot of my work with pharmaceutical companies. Specifically, I often work with people in sales training and brand marketing. Where do these people come from, and how do they get into those positions?

Generally, they are promoted from the sales force. Part of the ladder-climbing process, the reward mentality, is doing a headquarters rotation in one or two in these roles, as part of your “professional development”. Field sales to HQ role to field sales management to….The details may be different, but the general approach exists in lots of other industries.

Take the best performers and move them on up into more prestigious roles.

I get the concept, but here’s what I see over and over again – people who are great performers in one role may very well be unsuited for the next role up the ladder, where quite different skill sets and even personality makeups are required. Does a great salesperson make an effective trainer, or regional manager, or marketer, or project manager, or cubicle dweller? Sometimes, yes. Often, no. And spending one or two or three years in a role only to move up to the next rung often means that just as someone begins to develop new skills, they’re pushed on to the next thing as a reward.

So, I have the following questions for the mindset that fuels this practice:

1. Is it healthy to view the promotion process with a scarcity mentality – there are a smaller and smaller number of positions for advancement as you climb the ladder, so you must do whatever you can to advance (and compete with co-workers)?

2. Is it right to seek to develop people through a pathway that focuses on broadening a bunch of skills and experiences rather than focusing on the key, core skills that led to initial success?

3. Is the best reward system an upward pathway into new and (very) different roles? Are there not alternate ways to reward and promote people, especially those with relatively narrow skill sets?

4. What is the true cost-benefit ratio of instability – moving people around geographically, swapping managers, temporary relationships with co-workers and clients – when the promotion ladder is the holy grail?

I’m not saying there’s an easy answer to any of this. I just think we need to start asking some questions about what we assume is the proper pathway to professional advancement. What do you see as the pros and cons of the type of system I’ve described – and have you seen other approaches that work better? Discuss in the comments, or better yet, join us at 8 pm ET tonight (Tuesday, August 23) for #LeadershipChat on Twitter as we discuss the topic of promotions. Be sure to read Lisa Petrilli‘s (my co-host) blog post on the topic, When an Underperformer Gets Promoted.

It’s sure to be a lively discussion – we usually have 100+ smart people participating from all over the globe. Join us and let’s learn from one another!

————-

Subscribe to the Connection Agent blog via Reader (RSS) | via e-mail

Twitter: @ConnectionAgent | @swoodruff

Connect with Steve Woodruff

About these ads

About Steve Woodruff
Steve Woodruff is a blogger, a Connection Agent, and a consultant in the pharma/healthcare industry. He specializes in helping people and companies make mutually beneficial connections.

4 Responses to Rethinking the Promotion Ladder

  1. Pingback: August Topics « Leadership Chat

  2. Steve, I enjoyed reading your blog post. Thanks for the link to Lisa Petrilli’s blog post on the topic, “When an Underperformer Gets Promoted.” I had read that last night. You both bring up very good points around promoting employees.

    If “people who are great performers in one role” turn out to be “unsuited for the next role up the ladder, where quite different skill sets and even personality makeups are required,” that is not the fault of the people who are promoted. That is the fault of the organization’s promotion system and the managers and/or executives who approve those promotions. We’ve all seen people who are excellent performers in one role fail when promoted to a position where they are responsible for much more.

    Promotions should not be based on performance in a person’s current position. Promotions should be based on the individual’s demonstrated potential for assignment to a position of increased responsibility. The phrase “increased responsibility” is the key delineator; it means looking for demonstrated actions and achievements beyond what the individual is currently responsible for.

    Demonstrating the potential for a position of increased responsibility can be exemplified by an individual taking on additional responsibilities in their current role that exceed that role’s responsibilities and achieving objectives associated with those responsibilities. This professional development responsibilitiy is an imperative for managers and leaders. “The key measure of..success as a leader is in seeing what the people you led ‘become.’” http://ht.ly/67feg

    1. “Is it healthy to view the promotion process with a scarcity mentality – there are a smaller and smaller number of positions for advancement as you climb the ladder, so you must do whatever you can to advance (and compete with co-workers)?” For starters, promotions are not available to everyone so there is a certain scarcity to them; that’s a fact. What’s not healthy is viewing “the promotion ladder [as] the holy grail.” How many accomplished leaders in their respective fields have stated, “I did what I did because getting promoted was the holy grail that guided my work?” There may be a few who might candidly – albeit silently – admit that but not many.

    Daniel Pink made an excellent point in his book, “Drive,” when he wrote that employee motivation is driven by “three essential elements: 1) Autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives. 2) Mastery — the urge to get better and better at something that matters, and 3) Purpose — the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.” http://ht.ly/6aV37 Organizations should consider how their professional development and employee recognition programs (the two are very much linked) address these three elements.

    2. “Is it right to seek to develop people through a pathway that focuses on broadening a bunch of skills and experiences rather than focusing on the key, core skills that led to initial success?” The answer is “Yes” – to both questions. The “Why” and “How” should be driven by the employee’s actions and desires and the needs of the organization. However, this is actually a secondary question.

    The first and primary question that needs to be answered is “Does your organization possess the creativity and the risk tolerance for stretching talent in new and different ways?” This question was posed in an excellent two-page white paper by RHR International titled “A Matter of Experience” at http://ht.ly/64R6d. “Risk tolerance” is important because “failure should always be an acceptable outcome of a developmental experience.” The answer to that question helps drive the answer to your “Is it right to seek” question.

    3. “Is the best reward system an upward pathway into new and (very) different roles? Are there not alternate ways to reward and promote people, especially those with relatively narrow skill sets?” There are alternate ways to reward people but it’s important to know what types of recognition will resonate with which employees. As an example, employees with “narrow skill sets” but skill sets that are valuable to the organization might be receptive to and benefit from the organization paying for their attendance at conferences focused on their competencies. A condition of their attendance at such conferences should be for them to share with the organization what they learn at these conference, relationships that were established, and how those insights might benefit the organization and the organization’s customers. This not only helps the organization but also benefits these employees’ professional development. As stated earlier, the professional development of employees is a key responsibility of the organization’s managers and executives.

    4. “What is the true cost-benefit ratio of instability – moving people around geographically, swapping managers, temporary relationships with co-workers and clients – when the promotion ladder is the holy grail?” Change is intrinsic to businesses and organizations; it can be a benefit and a cost. The challenge is to mitigate instability associated with change and have the benefits outweigh the costs – not necessarily in the short-term but in the long-term with an established roadmap for the achievement of those long-term benefits.

    Such a roadmap may emphasize innovation and the introduction of new products and/or services to an organization’s portfolio. It may involve the establishment of new markets and customer segments that were not previously addressed. These opportunities can open doors for employees that are interested in professional and career advancement to take on additional responsibilities along with potential promotions. In fact, employees may have originated the ideas that drive innovation.

    Lastly, as the USA’s 1980 Olympics hockey coach, Herb Brooks (played by Kurt Russell), stated in the movie “Miracle:” “I’m not looking for the best..I’m looking for the right ones.” An institutionalized approach that takes the best performers and moves them up into more prestigious roles carries risks and should be re-evaluated. It may not be the best move for that organization and its employees.

    • Joe – thanks for a very well-considered reply! The Herb Brooks finale is a great sum-up – really drives home the main point you and I both discuss. Glad you stopped by!

  3. If only people had the insight, ego strength, and social permission to say, “I don’t want to be promoted. I’m well-suited for where I am and am committed to doing the best job possible.”

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 151 other followers

%d bloggers like this: