Promotion – who is ready?

When I was 23 I was promoted from running a moderately large branch of a well-known US corporation – I was working in the UK – to managing the UK’s 2nd busiest. I had been through my in-house training – the “workbook” as they called it then – paper! – well it was the ‘80s – but never formal leadership, in the MBA sense, programmes.

My promotion was an interesting combination. I was pushed up the ladder by my having evidenced to that point that I could deliver; but also, part of the company was being franchised. That included my unit so they had to find somewhere to put me (= rapid deflation of self-aggrandisement!). But what I quickly came to realise was that my promotion was flawed: I have no shame in admitting that I wasn’t up to the move and I didn’t do well – future promotion within that company was never going to be an option.

Some years later I went to work for a very large US-based food retailer though again I was in the UK. I went for promotion – it wasn’t suggested, I pushed. It was a relatively formal 3-step process. I passed stages 1 and 2, and fell at 3.

What is similar is that both of those scenarios worked on internal mechanisms and required no MBA or other piece of paper. So, was the process flawed and I would have been better with an MBA; or did I simply not meet the required standard? I’m convinced it was the latter – the environments were the type where not only was an MBA almost unheard of but would probably have been deemed as (sic) “too management” – i.e. all books and lectures, and no hands-on. Personally, I don’t feel all that much has changed with the contribution many people with an MBA are able – or not – to make but that’s a different story.

What happened in both instances was that I knew the people who were promoted. I was jealous but also felt they weren’t suited; circumstances soon proved me right. I concluded – then in a very rudimentary, not-thought-through way; later more thoughtfully – that too many people, and the wrong people, become leaders for doing what they were told to do inside the box they were given: they followed the prescribed steps and they found success; they played the game (jaded? bitter? moi? non); they made sure their face fitted in the run-up and they didn’t rock the boat. Which is why most employees when assigned a task, given a special project, or asked to execute a plan, do what they are best at: executing to deliver immediate, short-term results.

But while I understood this, I struggled with it. Now, 30 years later and with the benefit of my own successes and failures (I think numerically the former wins – just!), I look back at the people who secured these promotions – and what I know happened to them afterwards – and what I think I see (I say I think because I know many would disagree) is a lot of people in leadership roles who should not be. I am not saying these people should not have been rewarded for their success. But if leadership is all about delivery, short and long term – sales, ROI, people development – then how many fail? Evidentially lots – look at the number of public and private sector leaders who “leave to pursue other interests” Of course failure has many faces – some fail internally but it’s covered up (allegedly, of course); some fail at only parts but succeed at others – awful people skills but the profit is huge; some fail because they don’t believe they’re up to the task even though colleagues and the City believe they are; et al.

The Peter principle is a (Wikipedia) concept in management theory formulated by Laurence J. Peter and published in 1969. It states that the selection of a candidate for a position is based on the candidate’s performance in their current role, rather than on abilities relevant to the intended role. Thus, employees only stop being promoted once they can no longer perform effectively, and “managers rise to the level of their incompetence.” A good example of this is hospitality environments I worked in. There was a naïve assumption – not just mine but across both company and sector – that if you were a good unit manager (I was) you would be a good area manager. It took me a while to realise this wasn’t correct. I was promoted to area manager only to realise that I was unable to step back enough to allow others to lead. I couldn’t let go and that was made worse by the fact I hadn’t seen it coming – nor had my boss nor his – and by that stage it was too late: I was in the position and nobody above me was going to lose face by demoting me. Result? I failed. Again!!

So, is right or wrong, good or bad, promotion applicable regardless of seniority? Does the same principle always apply? I think so. I also think it’s a combination of both being savvy enough to look and see the road ahead, as opposed to simply being excited; and being honest: can I do this? The natural add on to the latter is: is money all it’s about? Of course, in part, yes. But how many of us see beyond that and question: short term reward for long-term success………. or short-term reward and I might later fail (and then have no reward)? Probably not enough.

I wrote recently for a very senior HR executive of a FTSE 100. She had been made redundant following a restructure. We were discussing her circumstances and she was – reasonably – deflated. She asked what I thought; I asked if I could be honest; yes, she said. I advised, you have been used to mergers and acquisitions at a senior level for years; you have, bluntly, fired people and dressed it up in warm profit-driven language. Now you’ve been fired and you can’t deal with it. She expressed incredulity but almost immediately said yes, I was right and she needed to move on. The point? She had been promoted and promoted and…. over many years only to find that, in the final analysis – not far away, she was 58 – her promotion mattered no more than anyone else’s. She had been ready for promotion but not ready for when she was (in net terms) demoted.

So: is promotion “good”? Purely for itself – if you like, as a concept – no, I think not. Can it be beneficial (career, money, self-worth)? Absolutely. Can it go wrong and the fall be long and brutal? Yes. Does that mean none of us should try to be promoted? Not at all.

For me the crux is: if we all knew at 25 what we understand at 50, many of us wouldn’t have wished for promotion or wouldn’t have taken it and we might have had more companies which lasted longer and were better run (in the fullest sense); and – critically – more happy employees. We should stop thinking of promotion as the be all and end all, the natural progression, the next step; and think of it as something which could be a nice to have but doesn’t have to be our reason for trudging to work every day. Ultimately that may also make those who have been promoted be more understanding of those that haven’t. There may be less of a “the system’s against me” mentality, more of “I wanted it and you didn’t, which is great; now let’s see how we can collaborate”

Nigel Benson (10 Posts)

Nigel Benson is a professional career sector specialist with over 12 years' experience writing executive level CVs and expertise in recruitment, job interviews and training.

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