Promotion Principles to Protect Your Organization

Some leaders excel at picking others for promotion and development while others lead their organizations into chaos or ruin with poor choices in this regard. Following are principles from two men who were, arguably, two of the best people-pickers of the last century—General George C. Marshall, and Alfred Sloan of General Motors—as related by one of my favorite minds on the matter, Peter Drucker.

Step 1: Think through the process.

Look first at the nature of the assignment for the next eighteen months to two years: is it to rebuild a department; pioneer a new position or division; take an already successful department to a higher level; and so forth? Each of these roles may require very different strengths from a candidate in order to succeed.

Step 2: Look at the right strengths when evaluating the candidate, and don’t overemphasize “like” or tenure.

The assignment and the position need to fit each other. Thus, the central question is not, “What can this or that candidate do or not do?” It is rather, “What are the strengths each possesses and are these the right strengths for the assignment?”

Step 3: Look at a number of potentially qualified candidates.

You should look at three to five qualified candidates for each position. If you don’t have this number of qualified candidates under your roof, you must look to the outside.

Step 4: Make sure the candidate understands the job.

Clearly spell out desired behaviors and outcomes up front. Then after the candidate has been in a new job for a month or two, he or she should have transitioned to a point of focusing completely on the demands of the job, rather than on the requirements of their preceding job.

A strong exercise is for the appointee’s manager to have a meeting with that person and say:

“You’ve been the sales manager for six weeks. What do you have to do to be successful in reaching the behavioral and outcome requirements I’ve established in your new job? Think it through, come back in a week and show me in writing.”

Be aware that the things the person did to get the promotion are almost certainly the wrong things to do now. Based on this, be prepared to refocus the employee on what it will take to be successful in their position. Undoubtedly you did this prior to putting them in the new job, but oftentimes when a person is actually in the position, they lose sight of the big picture and start to get bogged down into low-return activities or spend more time where they’re most comfortable: doing the work of his or her former peers for them, rather than equipping them to do better work on their own. If you don’t follow this step, don’t blame the person for poor performance. Blame yourself for failing to properly prepare and guide them in your duty as a leader. While your job is not to micromanage, it is to keep clarity of expectations at the forefront of each person’s mind and to help make sure that they are exercising the handful of high-leverage activities necessary to be successful in that particular job.


Step 5: Watch the candidate’s fitness for temperament in their new job very carefully.


While it is difficult to predict whether a person’s temperament will be suited to a new environment—you normally only find this out by actual experience—if the move from one kind of work to another does not work out, the manager who made the decision has to redirect, retrain, reassign, or remove the misfit—and fast. To keep misfits in a job they cannot perform is not kind; it is cruel to the person floundering in a job for which they are ill-suited temperament-wise, as well as the team members suffering under his or her poor leadership.


Step 6: Beware of abandoning or skipping these steps and promoting politicians.


If “Joe” gets promoted because he is a politician, everybody will know it. They will say to themselves, “Okay, that is the way to get ahead in this company. They will despise their management for forcing them to become politicians but will either quit or become politicians themselves in the end.

Or, if they discern that those who get promoted are tenured people management feels they “owe” a shot, rather than those most qualified to succeed in the position, they will leave for companies that value performance more than sentiment. Remember: people in organizations tend to be influenced by how they see others being rewarded. And when the rewards go to non-performance, to flattery, to tenure, to the cause of “diversity for the sake of diversity and bereft of merit,” or to mere cleverness, the organization will soon decline into nonperformance, flattery, and cleverness.


Making a poor decision when promoting others sentences your organization to a term of misery on the installment plan. Day-in and day-out morale, momentum, the culture, brand, customer experience, production, and your own credibility suffer incalculable damage. On the other hand, getting the job done right from the outset makes life at, and away from work, better for all involved. Take your time. Keep your emotions out and execute these steps without fail. The rest of the organization will love you for it, and you’ll love seeing that monthly financial statement even more as well.

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