Promoting for Potential

As you consider promoting employees, forget the question “what have you done for me lately?” and instead ask “what will you do for me in the future?” If you avoid thinking of promotions as rewards, and instead think of them as ways to get your most talented employees into positions where they can do more, you can improve your organization’s effectiveness dramatically.

I recently saw photos on Facebook from a friend’s military promotion ceremony back in the US. It’s been a few years since I left the military, but one line in the promotion orders always stood out: “Lieutenant Colonel Smith, having demonstrated the potential to serve in the higher grade, is promoted to the rank of Colonel.” I like that: having demonstrated the potential. What this suggests is that he is not being promoted because he has done well in the past, he is instead being promoted because he will do more in the future.

I worked once with another officer who told me that he did not expect to get promoted again, because he had gotten out of the military to be an airline pilot, only to come back in when he got laid off. He said he had been doing well since coming back, and his commanders had told him he was doing great, but he never seemed to get the assignments that would help him get promoted, and he saw little chance of going farther. He was pretty bitter about this, and was sure he was being discriminated against because he had gotten out for a few years. I thought he was right, but I think he missed that line during the promotion ceremony: rather than demonstrating “the potential to serve in the higher grade,” he had instead demonstrated the potential to leave the military when he thinks he can make more money on the outside.

When you look to promote someone from within, consider more than just their skill at the job they have been doing. Look at their existing leadership ability…do they exercise leadership among their peers, even without a formal leadership position? Are they able to motivate others? Do they seek out opportunities to improve themselves or to contribute more? If they do not quite have the leadership skills you think they will need, do they seem willing and able to learn? Ask yourself if that person even wants more responsibility and authority; if not, then why put them in that position? Look at their job history too. If they are changing companies every couple of years you might not want to use them to fill a key position, only to have to fill it again in a short time.

Of course, this does not mean you ignore their past job performance…obviously, how they have done up until now gives you an indication of how they will do in the future. But you do not want to give them a promotion simply as a reward. In some jobs it may seem easy to objectively spot the most talented people, but remember that technical skill and leadership ability are different…being a great employee does not automatically mean they are ready to lead other great employees. Carefully consider the requirements of the position you are promoting someone into and ask yourself if they really have the potential to do it well.

One Response so far.

  1. […] will do well in the higher position, NOT simply because they have done well in their current one. We discussed this idea last year, but it’s worth bringing up again. Let’s say you own web development company and you […]

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