Successful Promotions and the Bucket of Ashes

Published by the Wall Street Journal, April 1995

Jack sat down across from me, twenty days after he started working for me at IBM. He told me that he wanted me to promote him to a recently opened management slot. I asked him why. He told me he had put in three good years in this trench and had met his targets most of the time. He was looking for a reward. Vickie came to me the next day asking for the same promotion. Her first reason was that she was getting a little burned out, and wanted a change. Vickie had been leading teams that were consistently top producers. We couldn't afford to lose her competency.

Who gets the opportunity? Is promotion after a few years a reasonable expectation? Many people say it is. With reduced budgets, the pressure to use promotion as a reward for past behavior is stronger than ever. I am suggesting an alternative. Our experience has shown that it makes much more sense to promote prospectively than retrospectively.

It’s normal in many businesses to promote someone for tenure and the need for a change. If the person has done ​their job for us, we reward them. This is a promotion based on retrospective events, on what they have done in the past. It’s an easy and satisfying way to deal with employees and it often works.

As an example, just after Jack and Vickie came to me, I got a new boss who had been promoted based on his history. Kent had been in the field earlier in his career, and then became a very effective manager on staff. He came to us as a true star.

In his new job with us, Kent got extensive on the job training, all from us subordinates. We all worked hard, but he was a fish out of water and after sixty days, Kent was failing miserably. This isn't necessarily his fault. A person hired for his past achievements is usually the wrong person for the next job.

In Kent's case, we took over the operation and made it run. He didn't need to do or get to do much. He did little damage and was even twice given national recognition. Still, we all knew it wasn't right.

What happens when the criteria for promotion are retrospective? Often, things sort of work out. Either the new manager gets trained or he or she gets overrun by his or her own people. Occasionally the manager gets blown out of the water by his or her own incompetence.

Getting trained (growing into the job) is what we usually hope for. Managers and organizations are devastated when the manager is overrun. Kent, formerly a star for IBM, is now trying to rebuild his career. He could be a star again if someone will take the time and effort to help him rebuild his shattered self image. Unfortunately, he will probably retire first. After three years, Kent was mercifully replaced with Bill. Bill in his turn, had put in time on staff and was going to leave the company if he did not get a promotion. We were repeating the mistake. Promoting retrospectively, whether for time in grade or to keep the employee with us is common. It was killing our part of IBM. What else is there besides time in grade and the need to keep the employee from leaving? I suggest prospective performance, following what I call the Carl Sandburg school of management. Prospective performance, looking at what the employee will do for us in the future, is like Sandburg's comment that "The past is a bucket of ashes."

I didn't explain this to Jack and Vickie. I didn't even try to explain why Elizabeth got a promotion in less time after less performance. I did ask them what they each considered criteria for promotion.

Jack felt that promotion should come from past performance and loyalty. He asked about my own experience, and I even told him the truth. (My first management job came from surviving attrition.)

Vickie told me that she wasn't ready yet, but had it as a goal. She felt that she could do the job well for the company, and that the company would benefit if we promoted her.

I told them each that I had only one criterion, and that was whether the candidate would do the future job exceptionally well. The past might be an indicator, but we cannot treat the future of our organizations as though we were Phoenixes, flying backwards to see what we have come from. Jack did not like that answer. He was still looking for this as a reward.

We can't do that. No business can afford to use promotions as rewards. Rewards are for a job already done well. They come from raises, bonuses, and recognition. Promotions are for the job to be done. No organization, as IBM can attest, can afford to reward with promotions.

Jack did not get the promotion. We took care of him by assigning him to a team where he could be a real contributor and make a lot of money. He never understood my reasoning, but accepted the money and satisfaction.

Vickie, who focussed on the future, is one of the best managers in the division. She may wind up overrunning Bill any day now. Neither of us could be more pleased. No manager can do any better than to promote into success, not from it. That is the difference between the past being a bucket of ashes, and making the future into one.