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The Art of Internal Promotion

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How Leadership Differs from Management

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Growing a company usually means growing the team. Hiring external candidates is a great way to address missing skill sets or introduce new perspectives. Internal promotion is a symbol of our growth, and an expression of trust in our team. Why hire internally? I like the way Lisa Sterling frames it in her HBR article, “Internal Hires Need Orientation Too,” career development is one of the most motivating things we can offer our team – it’s important for both individual career satisfaction and retention of top talent. 

There are many reasons beyond those two to value internal promotion. Is there anyone who knows your customers and understands your business better than someone already there?  Of course not. The pitfalls lie not within the concept of internal promotion, but too often, with the execution. How can we ensure we’re setting new managers up for success and how can we build our internally-promoted managers into real leaders?

We often use the words, “manager” and “leader” interchangeably, but there are key differences between the two. What makes someone a good manager does not correlate completely to effective leadership. Managers are identified by a title; leaders are distinguished by their energy.

People in an office looking over a tablet

Managing people is not easy, and few do it consistently well. In practice, when we promote someone to a management position, there is an expectation they’ll ‘take charge’ and motivate those around them to aspire to be better, more productive contributors. This should represent a win-win: a motivating reward for outstanding individual achievement, and a message to the entire team that excellence is recognized and rewarded.

Unfortunately, it’s usually not that idyllic (or that simple). Setting aside the potential for internal politics, the first issue for a newly promoted team member is that too often they are expected by others to “know what they’re doing”. If they were successful in their prior position, it seems logical they should be able to mold those around them to do the same. In reality, they have assumed a completely new set of responsibilities and are often left unprepared to do them well.

Define Success.

I’ve learned that handing someone a new title doesn’t change much in the long run – and with good reason. The things that have made that person successful to this point will not continue to do so. Without taking the time to explain to every new manager what is expected from them moving forward – their new tasks and metrics for success – it’s logical that they will continue to do what has worked for them.

Build a Culture of Learning.

Your team will be “career mobile” (promotions or lateral movements) if they’ve had access to learning before they transition. By creating a culture of learning through encouragement, cross-training, and access to useful materials, you’ll build a team that is three dimensional. You’ll also allow those eager for growth to self-identify and to self-educate.

Limiting training to a job description ensures every transition is suboptimal. Every gap in the corporate ladder is one that no one can easily fill. It creates an on-the-spot learning curve for internal candidates stepping in to fill that gap. Encourage early exposure across the organization, use lunch & learns, peer development, mentorships, executive AMA sessions, or codified training programs to build a culture of collaboration. Continually reiterate the company’s overall vision to reduce the risks and exposure movement may create.

Orientation for Everyone.

If this position were filled by an external hire, they would be trained, supported, and granted a trial and error/grace period in the beginning. While there may be less for an internal hire to learn, it’s important to realize that a knowledge gap still exists. It is also a unique opportunity to reinvigorate the passion your top performers have for the company and its mission. By offering a similar period of learning, growth, and a permission to ask questions, you’ll install competent managers and foster leaders with more purpose.

When in Doubt, Ask.

The best way to find out what your new managers need to feel comfortable and set upon a glide path for success is to talk frankly with them. Tell them how this role differs from the one at which they recently excelled. Instill in them a determination to acquire new skills or embrace new responsibilities. Ask questions like, “what do you need to feel comfortable in this new role?” or “what would most help you today?” to understand how they’re feeling throughout the transition. Point out places where you think they’re doing well and don’t shy away from discussing areas for improvement.

Not all managers, even excellent ones, will become great leaders. Many of the soft skills and EQ required for true leadership are difficult to coach. Identifying those who have the right tendencies, putting them in place and properly supporting them is the best way to build reliable management ranks and stronger teams.

Three Focus Areas for Leaders

Internal promotion is a wonderful opportunity for your team. It leverages your best and brightest as fuel for continued growth. It recognizes excellent performance and gives motivation to others.  It obviates recruiting costs, creates a tighter team and keeps your domain expertise and operational IP right where you want it.

By creating a supportive environment for internal transitions, new managers will be better prepared to make a bigger, more immediate impact in their new role and accelerate your company’s velocity.

How do you orient your not-so-new hires?

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