Promotions Are Usually Based On…

If we’re going to have any real shot of avoiding the cost of a poor promotion, recognizing the right candidate to promote isn’t just a nice idea, it’s something we have to do effectively time after time. Not only will that help capture so much of the profitability that’s far too often lost in the process, it serves as a foundation building the kind of succession plan our organizations need to thrive moving forward!

As we talk with business owners and executives in every industry we serve, Cindy and I are sure to ask what about the biggest issues they’re facing with the people they have in leadership roles. And to a person, we hear almost the exact same words every single time! It goes like this:

“Our industry is really different. We have amazing people who were really great at what they did so we promoted them. Once they were in supervisor (or manager) roles, they struggled to get the same results from their teams as they were able to get when they were doing the job themselves. And we haven’t been able to do anything to change that.”

OK, so the words do vary slightly - but not much! Regardless of the industry, promotions at work are usually based on mastering the skill set required, a strong work ethic, and a history of being someone the organization has been able to count on. To be completely honest, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that! Each of those things most certainly deserve being recognized and rewarded. But they don’t necessarily translate directly to determining whether or not someone can jump in and lead…

Each of those things individually - dependability, work ethic, and technical skills - offer value to our teams. When all three are strong in the same person, coupled with a positive attitude and commitment to the organization, that’s definitely someone we need to do all we can to ensure they’re part of the team over the long haul! Traditionally though, the most common (and sometimes only) opportunity for these folks to grow internally has been to move into a supervisory or management role whether that was something they were genuinely interested in or not. And all too often, that’s led to comments like I just referenced from owners and executives.

If we’re going to build a succession plan that utilizes all the strengths our team members have to offer, an effective internal promotion process does indeed play a critical role. However, we need to be sure every (traditional) promotion is based on the right measurements. While those three things are definitely important, we’ll need to focus just as much on those skills that have historically been deemed as soft and intangible to realize the most value from that promotion. But that’s not the only way our best team members should be able to advance internally so the other thing we need to consider is how we can provide opportunities for everyone - even if there’s no desire whatsoever to lead a team…

A Profitable Succession Plan

As the foundation was being laid for what I believe is still the greatest nation on Earth, Thomas Jefferson penned these words:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

In a recent Strategic Leadership Coaching session with a client who owns and operates a very reputable business, we discussed a few of his options for transitioning that business 15 to 20 years down the road when he may not want to be as involved as he is today. One critical point we covered in that discussion was that it may not be as simple as passing the business on to his best and most effective team members. The reality is that some folks have ZERO interest in taking on all the extras that go along with running a business, or even a small team... They may be extremely happy in doing the day to day work involved but there’s so much more to leading a group of any size…

 In our Emerging Leader Development course, Cindy and I share that one of the best ways to build stronger connections with the teams we lead is to create experiences that everyone enjoys. Then we immediately remind participants that everyone doesn’t enjoy the same experiences!

Before you start thinking I’m off my meds (just kidding, I don’t take any!), let’s tie those points back to Jefferson’s statement and look at how all of it matters if we’re going to have any hope of creating a succession plan that yields profitability.

It’s not uncommon for someone in a leadership role to assume that anyone who’s great at what they do naturally wants to climb the company ladder. While I believe that all men are indeed created equal, I’ve learned that everyone’s pursuit of happiness doesn’t necessarily follow the same path. Once we’ve learned to recognize the right candidates to promote, and we’re sure they’re pursuing those promotions for the right reason, we’re off to a solid start. Even then though, there will be times where we’ll have to fight the urge to pressure some of our best team members into moving into a role we believe they would be great in but they have absolutely no interest in doing. (Remember the story I shared about my friend Phil…)

With that in mind, the question really becomes “How can we effectively utilize our best team members who have no interest in supervising or managing?” Let’s face it, getting results through a team of people is a completely different beast than getting results on our own - even if the exact same processes and procedures are involved! Don’t take my word for it though, just try taking a family of eight through an airport the same way you’re used to navigating from gate to gate by yourself… 

In those cases, our best option may well be this thing referred to as a parallel path; providing a different option for those great team members to advance without forcing them to accept responsibilities they’re not equipped for or interested in. This is a way we can provide opportunities for everyone, just not the same opportunities that we’d personally chase… Not only can this play a big part in building some of those key folks into our succession plan, it can help ensure their expertise can be passed on to the ones who follow them. And we haven’t forced them into a role they weren’t interested in!

Regardless of the path any great team member follows, we cannot assume they’ll automatically be as successful as they had been in their previous role. We have to provide them with the right support. Let’s look at that briefly before mapping out specific ways we can intentionally develop every individual role in our organization and capture the profitability that’s killed otherwise.

Providing the Right Support

If we’re going to build profitable succession plans, creating advancement opportunities that are a bit outside the traditional approach of promoting (read: pushing) our best team members into supervisory or management roles primarily based on their technical expertise and work ethic will play a significant part in avoiding so many of the unintended consequences we’ve looked at to this point. The cost of a poor promotion can be huge, often impacting the entire business. But even when we can recognize the best role for each strong team member, we need to be just as intentional about providing them with the tools they’ll need, wherever they are, to excel and to continue as a key piece in that succession plan over the long haul!

In some cases, keeping a team member with a strong technical skill set in a role where they remain hands-on will be the best choice for them and the team they’re a part of. But to ensure they’re playing their best role in the overall succession plan, we need to develop a deliberate approach to help them pass their knowledge on. In so many situations, these are the folks who are considered to be “individual contributors” but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen someone - in any industry - who really does perform without any outside interaction! And when those “individual contributors” are the ones who hold that tribal knowledge of our processes, which is rarely totally captured in our operating instructions or job descriptions, it’s even more important for them to be able to pass it along! Just having great workers who stick with us is not a succession plan!

Just like the folks we promote into roles with formal leadership responsibility, even our most skilled do’ers need to be equipped with the tools to effectively communicate their expertise to anyone they’re working with or training. And while they may not have (or even want) the additional duties that come with being a supervisor or manager, underestimating how much profitability is killed when we only focus on their technical skills not only impacts our bottom line on a daily basis, it will prevent anyone we hope to pass those skills onto in the future from ever having a legitimate shot.

Creating and developing alternative career paths that are parallel to our supervisory and management roles not only helps build strong succession plans, it also rewards our best and most loyal team members for their effort. Whether we’re promoting someone into a role where they have direct responsibility for a team or one where they’re passing their technical expertise to the next generation, they need and deserve specific tools to help them be the best they can be. And just like they needed training and support to hone those technical skills, they’ll need the same for whatever new role they fill for us so the last profitability killer we’ll work through will be the cost of not providing the right tools for the job…