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Promoting from Within

(May 2004) posted on Mon May 03, 2004

When trying to fill a management position in your company, shouldyou promote an existing employee or hire someone from outside? Combs identifies when internal promotions work, and when they don't.


By Terry Combs

Every company faces the possibility of some sort of shakeup in their management team. And your company is no exception. Maybe you'll lose a manager through natural attrition or even to a competitor. Perhaps you'll promote a deserving supervisor to another position within your company. Or, when business is booming, you may simply need to expand the management team.

You have a choice to make: Find the right candidate within your own ranks, or hire from an outside pool of potential managers and supervisors. But first, you must evaluate your reasons for going either route and determine whether those reasons are well founded.

The easy way out

It's very easy to take the comfortable route and reward a current employee with a new position, even if you sense the employee's skills may be weak in some areas. This method of hiring requires little effort on your part--the assumption here is that you know what you're getting. However, sometimes owners and senior managers are not as knowledgeable about the actual physical work their employees perform and the skills those employees possess as they are about procuring, promoting, and selling the company's products.

The chance of losing employees who have even a basic knowledge of the company's processes can ignite fear that production will come to a halt if those employees should decide to move on. As a result, managers offer employee promotions as rewards to keep the staff happy. But these managers find themselves settling for a particular employee just to ensure that products continue to move through production, rather than confidently and gladly promoting one because he or she truly deserves it.

Promoting someone you are familiar with instead of facing your fear of the unknown and hiring from outside is like accepting defeat before the battle. Let me assure you, if the right person currently is not on your staff, there are qualified, hard-working people in the marketplace who would love to take on the job and could perform it well. You just need to make the effort and look for them.

I've walked onto many production floors only to discover a supervisor or manager totally unqualified to manage a staff, teach the craft of screen printing, or supervise an efficient production flow. These managers found their way into their positions because they had slightly more knowledge about screen printing than the rest of the staff or the owners or senior managers. They use their limited knowledge to their advantage and get the promotion, but turn out unqualified to manage any part of the business.

Suppose you have one employee who believes he or she has all the skills, experience, and seniority not only to deserve a promotion, but also to demand it. Most likely, this employee will let everyone know through the company grapevine that he or she will resign if passed over for the upcoming promotion. No one likes to lose an employee, but giving in to intimidation is no way to manage a business. Never give in to people with job-related ultimatums. When you succumb to these demands, you give up control. Chances are fairly good that this employee is only bluffing and won't actually walk out the door. My response to an ultimatum--and I've heard quite a few over the years--is "I'd hate to see you make this choice to give up your job, but you have to do what's best for you."

If promoting the right person to a leadership post costs you another employee in the process, so be it. Remember, your decisions are for the greater good of the company and all of its employees. This is no place to make a negotiated settlement.

Who's actually qualified?

Inbreeding of mediocre skills is another area to consider when deciding whether or not to promote from within the company. If your employees' skills are limited, and you lack the particular skills needed to train a promoted employee, this employee will only perpetuate your bad habits. You end up with a vicious cycle of mediocrity that results in unreliable production and questionable output quality.

Be aware that your employees probably do not realize they have bad habits. I've hired more than one printer from large competitors over the years, and each of these new hires had to be totally retrained--sometimes against their will--in printing techniques because of the poor quality of the finished pieces they produced. It's your responsibility to attend trade shows, read industry publications, and network with consultants and other professionals to determine whether or not your staff has the skills necessary to maximize production and produce a first-rate product.

A common mistake is thinking that you owe a position to a long-time, loyal employee. A person's tenure alone is not a basis for advancement. Your first obligation is to your company's future. The wrong person in a position of authority can be disastrous. Why settle for the mediocre when you can find someone else who would be a real help to you and your company? Chances are that an underqualified employee promoted into a position above his level of ability won't last long. The added responsibility will highlight the employee's inadequacies and most likely will result in his or her demise.

For the right reasons

All good managers and supervisors don't necessarily come from outside a company. In fact, many successful managers have moved up the ranks from the most entry-level of positions. So, there must be a few good reasons to promote from within a company.

The key to promoting from within your own ranks is to know who's next in line and what that person is capable of bringing to the position. If one of your employees excels in his position, possesses good communication skills, and performs his daily duties in a way that serves as a good example to other employees, you may have a candidate. If you see potential in an employee to be a good educator with proven skills or demonstrated ability to obtain skills, he or she just may be the one. If a certain employee is dedicated to you and your company and can grasp a problem and deal with it logically, your search may be over.

Problem-solving skills outweigh lack of technical expertise in my book any day. You can teach an employee to set up a press, but you may not be able to teach that person how to identify a problem and envision a solution.

Before the need for promotion arises, give your most likely prospects small, short-term assignments to test their promoting potential and carefully assess the results. Give one of the candidates the full responsibility for completing a project. The assignment may involve one of your current tasks or a project you would like to pursue but can't seem to find the time to address yourself, such as logging current production rates for a variety of jobs or investigating a new range of emulsions. Judge the results of the candidate's efforts and observe how your potential manager's peers react to his or her leadership.

Take into account that many new supervisors don't have the well-honed experience you've won the hard way over the years. It's up to you to share your knowledge, not by providing step-by-step instructions for completing a project, but by giving general directions and advice with a well-defined explanation of what result you expect to see in the end. Laying out exact directions will only show that an employee can follow directions. Look for someone who can take the information you've provided and then take the lead.

Once you find the best candidate and offer a promotion, be willing to invest your time in the new manager or supervisor. Hold regular, brief meetings to discuss progress--things that have gone wrong or right and solutions for the future. Be willing to let your new manager make some choices, and be willing to accept the results. You can't make all the decisions yourself as your operation grows, so give your employees the opportunity to make small decisions in order to build their confidence and a stockpile of experience. They'll be prepared to make the right choices when big decisions arise. In the long run, delegating carefully will make you much more productive with your own duties.

Who's really in charge?

When you promote from within, other employees tend to test the bounds of the promoted individual's new authority. When I was promoted early in my career, one of my peers said, "Hey, I think that's great, as long as you don't try to tell me what to do!" In most companies, promotions often are made unofficially when a new manager is told he is "sort of" in charge of certain people, departments, or company functions. Owners and managers tend to fear shakeups, imagining they'll arrive at work the next day and find only one staff member on the production floor--a bewildered, new supervisor.

An unclear job description usually is an upper manager's ineffectual attempt to not make waves with other employees. What actually happens is that the promoted employee gets a new title and raise only to have his hands tied behind his back. As a result, your new manager either will fail or provoke a confrontation with other workers, after which you'll finally have to clarify his authority and position once and for all. Waiting for this confrontation only makes the inevitable announcement more difficult and costly in terms of company morale. It may also unnecessarily cost you employees, or worse, the new supervisor.

At some point, you'll need to publicly announce the new position and accompanying authority. Do it promptly, correctly, and enthusiastically. Make the new manager's responsibilities clear to every employee. An official announcement will make it easier for the new manager to work with his or her former peers. Also tell your employees how perseverance, hard work, dedication, and initiative can pay off. Promotion from within your company should be an indication of potential growth for all of your employees. Take the opportunity to say so.

Searching for a promotion-worthy employee is an ongoing process. Prepare now for the moment when filling an open position becomes necessary by observing your staff with future positions in mind and offering ongoing training to enable your staff to take on new positions. And once you have promoted an employee, do everything in your power to make that person successful in the new position.


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