Promoting from within is a good thing, you're demonstrating room for advancement and that's attractive to candidates and employees - it's great reason to join your company and an effective retention strategy, right?

The answer is, it depends.

Today I'm thinking about the new team leader, supervisor, manager... The best employee ever, promoted as a reward for excellent performance.

Nothing to celebrate here.

The senior manager at an almost but not quite yet mid-sized company contacted me through LinkedIn last week. I'll call him Doug. He was blindsided and more than a bit shaken. The business was negatively impacted by a decision he made. Doug didn't see this coming and he wanted to make sense of it all. He asked if we could talk.

I listened intently as Doug talked about his top performer whom I'll call William. The guy was an all-star totally on top of his game when it came to producing. He was an employee for over two and a half years, had only taken one unscheduled day off, and always showed up with the right attitude. Total team player. Example to his peers. Pleasure to work with and manage. And so, when a recent management opportunity came up through company growth (luckily this company's industry is in über hypermode right now and not economic stagnation or decline) there was only one candidate for the job - You guessed it, William.

This was an amazing opportunity and reward for a well deserving talented, loyal, and hardworking individual. The company and William were excited and happy. There was an ice cream cake!

What could go wrong, right?

You may have guessed that William is no longer employed by Doug's company since I wrote about his promotion in the past tense.

Five months after William's promotion, at the end of day on a Wednesday he spoke with Doug and said he couldn't take it any longer and wouldn't be coming back. Doug was stunned.

William told Doug that his stress was so high his relationship with his significant other was suffering and he was having physical symptoms. He described himself as burned out, unhappy, and done. I asked Doug if there had been signs something was amiss. He thought about it and said two of the six team members William was assigned to supervise left in the first two months he was in charge, the new hire in William's old position was having difficulty adjusting to the role (maybe she just needs more ramp up time said Doug), and other managers were frequently having to "step in to save William".

After discussing these puzzle pieces, Doug agreed possibly William wasn't the right fit and at the very least wasn't prepared to assume the role. He wasn't set up for success and the ramifications cut deep.

The replacement for the job William was promoted from isn't performing to expectations. Because other team members quit, the company is at an operational deficiency after losing seasoned staff (company experts) and scrambling to replace them with fresh talent (it will take several months for them to get up to speed). The role William assumed, very important to the company, is now glaringly vacant. An admin assistant has been assigned to answer William's phone and route calls to whomever is available. The company is distracted. If there ever wasn't a good time to be distracted in business it's now.

Like dominoes.

They didn't have to fall.

As well intentioned as it may be, promoting an employee to a position managing others solely based on individual performance generally is not a bona fide qualification to be a supervisor, especially if the individual doesn't have developed soft and leadership skills. And those skills come from leadership experiences at other employment (paid or volunteer), leadership development programs, or your company's investment in the employee's career development as a planning and retention strategy. It's the rare case an unprepared individual is put in the position to manage others and succeeds.

Though no one gets it right 100% of the time, companies of every size minimize the the risk by working hard to get internal promotions right. Companies that get it right most often set a budget for training and leadership development, create corporate universities, pay for leadership conferences, online learning, and send promising talent out to seminars. They own learning management systems, and create leadership development plans based on performance review goals. They have people within their organizations devoted to learning and development. They identify employees with high leadership potential and work with them to chart an intentional path for growth in the organization.

Even companies without an established budget for learning and development can make an investment in other ways - through coaching, mentoring, shadowing, stretch assignments, cross training, and succession planning. To be effective for the organization this needs to be a top priority - intentional, planned, and a pillar of of the organizational culture. The Williams won't feel compelled to leave you and the ROI will be worth it.

And, some people are more talented at being high performing individual contributors. Every company needs to hold exceptional individual contributors closely, recognize, motivate and reward them accordingly. Incentives come in many forms and working with each individual to understand what is motivating and rewarding to them is incredibly important. It might, or might not be, opportunities for advancement. If it isn't, there are great alternatives we can discuss another day.

Speaking of William, it sounds like he'll be ok. On his way out the door Doug said he mentioned he had accepted a job for the same hourly rate he had before becoming a supervisor, and a better bonus structure. Since he's a high performing individual contributor he'll likely do well for himself and his employer.

P.S. Based on completely unidentifiable information about the company and individuals. The moral of the story is truly the important part.


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