Promotions Are Not A Reward

Wall Street Journal Manager's Journal

Reprinted with permission of The Wall Street Journal, Monday, May 1, 1995 Copyright 1995 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. all rights reserved.

Jack sat down across from me, 20 days after I became his boss at IBM. He said that he wanted a promotion to a recently opened management slot. When 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? With money for bonuses and raises tight, the pressure to use promotion as a reward for past behavior is stronger than ever. But it makes much more sense to promote prospectively than retrospectively. A company that promotes based solely on an employee's past achievements is taking a big gamble.

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

Take Kent, who became my boss just after Jack and Vickie came to me. Kent had been promoted based on his history. He'd been in the field earlier in his career, and then became a very effective manager. He came to us a true star.

In his new job with our division, 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 60 days, Kent was failing miserably. We took over the operation and made it run. He didn't need to do&emdash;or get to do&emdash;much. He did little damage and was even twice given national recognition. Still, we all knew it wasn't right.

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. That's why he got the new job. We were gambling again.

When it comes to promotions, I suggest, instead, following what I call the Carl Sandburg school of management. Don't get hung up on past performance, because, as the poet says, "The past is a bucket of ashes."

I didn't explain this to Jack and Vickie. I did ask them what they each considered valid 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 saw the management job as a goal. She felt she could do the job well for the company, and she showed me that the company would benefit if we promoted her.

I told them each that I had only one criterion: whether the candidate would do the future job exceptionally well.

Jack did not like that answer. He was still looking for this as a reward. But rewards come from raises, bonuses and recognition. No organization 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 did understand my reasoning. Vickie, who focused on the future, got the job. She is now one of the best managers in the division. She may wind up overtaking 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's the difference between the past being a bucket of ashes, and making the future into one.