Promotion. For ambitious employees, it’s a magical word. And once the first promotion is in the bag, the next one comes temptingly into sight. That’s why whole hordes of people within organisations spend so much time in their ceaseless quest for recognition.
If you think you give someone recognition through a promotion
Scarcely a year ago, I promoted Xavier to Sales Director of our office in Hilversum. He was delighted. And now I’m sitting here with his resignation letter in my hand. For the fifth time in three years, I’m again without a Sales Director. Xavier is going to work for our competitor. He explains his choice by stating that it will be a greater challenge for him. For a split second, the word ‘recognition’ goes through my head. More recognition, more status and more money. As well as the idea that it will all be so much easier elsewhere, because the first year following a promotion is always the most difficult.
I think back on my own promotions. One celebration after another as I took another step up the hierarchical ladder. More salary and more recognition. Strangely enough though, the euphoria never lasted very long. Of course I immediately wanted to prove myself in each new position, and demonstrate I could achieve results. After all, they hadn’t promoted me for nothing.
I can remember my first promotion to a leadership position only too well. The departmental head put a bottle of champagne on the table and said, “Diederik, you’ve earned it. Congratulations on how well you’ve developed in such a short time. What do you think about becoming team manager? Bastiaan will be starting in a new position at headquarters next month, and I think that you’re ready for it.” He didn’t wait for my reply, but uncorked the bottle and poured two glasses. “Now, congratulations then, young man!” And that’s how I got my boss Bastiaan’s job, while my colleagues suddenly became my ‘inferiors’. However, I wasn’t told exactly what it would mean to be a manager, nor how I should approach it.
In practice, a promotion like this wasn’t the bed of roses I had expected. Things that had always gone easily suddenly became difficult. I somehow no longer received certain information. Or I received information that I would have preferred not to hear, but that I still had to do something about. A colleage from my team with whom I had always had a good working relationship suddenly tried to go against me in everything, because she didn’t think my promotion was right. The list of disadvantages was endless. The first year in my new position was actually truly awful, thinking back on it. My wife Roos, who was my girlfriend at the time, often sighed and said she cursed my promotion. I was no longer the sociable, spontaneous, energetic Diederik she used to know. I had turned into a contorted, unsure and overworked Diederik. “Please, Diederik”, she used to say, “Just go and have a word with your departmental manager about how he felt when he first started being a team leader. I’m sure it will be a good idea if you just talk frankly about what’s bothering you and ask for help.” I usually shrugged my shoulders at that point and told her to just leave it. She just didn’t understand. I had been promoted because I was good at what I did. I wanted to prove that I could meet the challenge that I had been given. Naturally, that meant I couldn’t possibly knock on his door and tell him I found everything so stressful and tough.
Well, that’s what I thought at the time. I now realise that Roos was right. I would have loved it if Xavier had taken me into his confidence and shared his stuggles and proud moments with me. But there again, I hadn’t ever really invited him to do so. Up to that point, my promotional strategy had been just to throw someone into the deep end and see if they would sink or swim. That was the tradition I had been brought up in.
If I don’t want to have to look for yet another Sales Director next year, I need to take a very different approach to supervising our new man or woman. I want someone who’s going to stay – in other words, someone who doesn’t just take up the job for the recognition it will bring them. Let’s face it: there are enough people who want to show off their business card when it’s got ‘Sales Director, Hilversum’ on it. So in fact the question isn’t so much what they should come for, but why they should stay.
Here are my own conclusions:
- Hierarchy screws everything up;
- It makes everything more complex;
- Nobody realises this in advance;
- The recognition that comes with a promotion makes people go blind.
People see their promotion as a reward, and therefore want to give something in return. So we’re always only talking about the positive aspects of the promotion. In actual fact, a promotion is like giving someone a dog for a present. It’s great – at least, if the recipient actually happened to want a dog. But it’s a gift that’s accompanied with directions for use and a need for care. I intend to actively support my new Sales Director and help them to look after their new dog. And we’re not going to only talk about the fantastic tricks that it’s learned, but above all about how very demanding and difficult it sometimes is to be responsible for such a beautiful dog.
A promotion creates responsibilities on both sides
Discuss your staff’s talents and motivation separately from their position and role. Realise that you can give them a lot of recognition without directly reaching out to promote them. A promotion demands all sorts of things from a person, and successful existing strategies may no longer work in the new position. The question is therefore whether you will really make someone happy by promoting them. Besides this, your support shouldn’t end once you’ve promoted someone. They will need help in their new role, as well as someone to talk to.