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!


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