Promotions (1/2)

Promotion decisions often receive far too little consideration given how critical they are to the culture of an organization. I strongly believe promotions are the single biggest culturally re-enforcing action you can take. Much more so than anything you say, the action of promoting someone tells the organization, “this person exemplifies the behaviors that we as an organization respect and celebrate.” Promotions send a message to the organization that says: this person is a role model of our culture (even if it’s not the culture you want!). The more senior the promotion, the truer this is; promoting someone to VP sends a much stronger cultural message than promoting someone to Team Lead, and accordingly, the consequences are higher (i.e., if you make a mistake promoting someone as a first-time manager, it will be far less culturally damaging than mistakenly promoting someone to VP).

Despite their importance, promotions regularly happen for the wrong reasons. Here is a list of bad reasons to promote someone, which can be all too tempting:

  • Retention. There’s someone on the team who’s great. But you don’t think they are bought in. You’ve heard they are looking for roles elsewhere. To try and retain them, you give them a promotion. By itself, a promotion alone is unlikely to solve a lack of engagement, nor should it be the driving factor for why you promote someone.
  • Compensation. You promote someone to push them into a higher salary band so that you can pay them more. Mission accomplished in getting them additional pay; however, if they aren’t a good fit for the new role they’ve been promoted into, that is all the organization will see and experience.
  • Tenure. They’ve been doing the job for a long time, and they want demonstrated career growth. So you promote them. If they aren’t capable and deserving of that promotion, it will be obvious to the organization.
  • Because you promised it to them. This is probably the most damaging of all. If you commit a promotion to someone based on a timeline, to satisfy that individual’s desire, you are putting yourself in a very difficult situation. Promotions need to be earned, not given. When given, the team will know.
  • Because you have no one else. I have a lot of empathy for this one. Sometimes you have a missing role you desperately need filled, which can make it tempting to prematurely promote someone into a position. Unfortunately, this can have the unintended consequence of setting them up for failure.

Promotions should exclusively be awarded to individuals who are high or top performers in their current role, are eager to progress their career and take on an additional or new scope of responsibilities, and are a role model for your company’s core values. When done well, promotions can be hugely rewarding to your team and positively enhance overall culture.

A major watch out for more junior leaders is making poor promotion decisions. It can be really hard to deny a promotion to someone who isn’t deserving of one but believes strongly they are. That’s why, for the sake of the broader culture, it’s important at an organizational level to ensure these are treated as critical decisions.

*This doesn’t quite account for firms that operate on an “up or out” promotion framework (e.g., certain investment/consulting/banking firms) but the principles generally still apply.