Every manager needs to plan for the development and promotion of their staff. Over the past few years the economy has been slow, so for most of us planning on how to hang on to our existing staff has usually been more of a priority than career development. Likewise, you may have had to reduce staff but you probably haven’t had many key people leaving because they had an offer at another firm. There have definitely been rough patches over the last couple of years, but (excluding outsourced/offshore) the hiring treadmill hasn’t been a big issue. But that was the past. As the economy slowly recovers, you can expect the demand for promotions to rise and staff to become increasingly vocal. If you have managed your operation long enough, you may remember the problems you had during the last upturn: identifying promotional candidates, getting candidates involved in “developmental” projects, and dealing with disagreements over who was promoted. Is there a better way to handle promotions? There might be. Every operation is different, and this process will work better with some groups than others, but in the end I think It’s all about the projects.
Let me expand on that. Every support group has projects… challenging work above and beyond the daily services your group provides. IT departments usually have a lot of projects, while groups like a corporate library have far fewer. Accounting, document centers, secretarial, and other groups fall somewhere in the middle. There’s no absolutes, definitions of projects may vary, but overall it is these projects that provide experience and new skills above and beyond daily work. Some groups need to assign projects exclusively to managers because: A) the work requires higher level skills and/or B) non-management positions (ex.: receptionist, transcriptionist, IT help desk, etc.) have very structured jobs that do not allow free time for projects. Still, if you can be flexible in staffing, you can allow candidates to have a few hours a week for projects. Very much like applying for a new job, candidates would need to request assignment to a project, their request would need to be reviewed and approved (using whatever makes sense), and rejected candidates would be told why they are not the best fit (perhaps they could be directed towards better fitting projects?).
You may be thinking, “That’s all very Democratic, but why should I go through all this trouble, when I already know who should be promoted and who should be assigned to projects?” Even if you have a formal review process, the review generally focuses on performance for the existing position, and have little focus future development. True, some reviews have a development section towards the end, but even these sections are really speaking to individuals how need to improve in their current position, not how to prepare for their next position. That pretty much leaves every support group on their own when it’s time to fill the big shoes in their department. Most managers have no choice but to use instinct and a few bits of evidence to assign projects. When a promotional position opens up, you usually have just a few qualified candidates to choose between anyway. Your managers see this as a fair system, but the rest of your staff sees something different. They see a mysterious system with no known rules, where only a few insiders have access to promotions. They might agree that few candidates are qualified for any promotion, but they might quickly add that this is because individuals were previously selected for promotion and then received the experiences needed to become the obvious candidates when promotional positions were available. Every manager I know has had this sort of discussion with their staff, and some have it with great regularity. By moving towards a system where everyone can know about the availability of projects and how performance on your day job plus work on projects results in being qualified for a promotion you may be able to significantly improve your staff’s opinion on how fair your group is. The perceived fairness of your group is one of the most important indicators of staff retention. And it’s one of the few indicators (such as benefits, total compensation…) that is almost exclusively under your control.
There is another benefit. By allowing self-selection of projects you create a larger, and usually happier, group of promotional candidates. The group becomes larger because a process of self-selection of projects usually leads to more of your staff gaining the experience they need to be promoted. They are happier because more of the tasks that promotion candidates receive math their interests. You will always have some less pleasant projects that need to be assigned, but as long as some can be self-selected, your promotion process becomes more transparent and more candidates are assigned the projects that interest them. For example, one person may view a trip to India as a once in a lifetime opportunity to visit an exotic location, but someone else may see it only as a hardship… having to make extensive plans for family and pets before traveling around the world to a location they would never choose to visit. Yet this unhappy individual might be ecstatic about a trip to London or Paris.
Creating all of this happiness does come at the cost of extra management time, and some managers may be very uncomfortable about a formal and transparent process to promotions, but the rewards outweigh the costs. Especially when the economy is improving and keeping the staff you’ve developed becomes a higher priority. Disagree? Then write back and let’s talk about the barriers you are running into in your organization… otherwise, that’s my Niccolls worth for today!