Advice To That Team Member Who is Desperate for a Promotion (But Isn’t Ready for It)

We’re early into 2023 and new year’s resolutions are in full swing. It’s also a time of year where many people start looking at their career options and start applying for new roles. I’ve worked with several job search websites over the years and January is always a busy period and Glassdoor data reflects this too.

The chances are that at least one or two of your team are evaluating their options right now.

I know what you’re thinking – not my team, they’re perfectly happy!

I’m not saying that they’re not happy. I am saying that they are probably evaluating their options and early in a new year is the prime time to do this. Many people won’t physically apply for new roles or hand in their notice right before Christmas, but may be considering it.

And this is something important to understand – it’s okay! I spent far too many years worrying about my team applying for other jobs and when they left, thinking that I had done something wrong or failed somehow.

In some cases, yes, I could have done a better job and given them the progression they needed, or done a better job of communicating their progression options.

But the majority of cases – I couldn’t have done anything. 

People leave, it happens. Get over it.

It’s easier said than done, but it’s true.

Now, having said all of that, let’s move towards something more practical that you can do to be an effective manager and reduce the chances of your team leaving because of opportunities elsewhere.

One of the key reasons that someone leaves a role is because they believe that the new role will offer them more progression than their current one. One type of progression is a promotion to a more senior position – but what if they’re not quite ready for a promotion yet? What if they have more work that they need to do before they can take on more responsibilities? 

This is a tricky spot to be in because even if you’re 100% correct and they’re not quite ready, another employer will almost certainly tell them that they are ready and give them the more senior position that they’re seeking.

So, what do you do?

Don’t panic and make a snap decision

I won’t lie – I’ve done this more than once over the years and in some cases, it’s worked out fine. In at least a couple of cases, it hasn’t worked out and ended up being a fairly painful situation to fix. I ended up in a situation where The Peter Principle very much applied and the individuals were put in a senior position that they weren’t qualified for and couldn’t deliver on. 

Don’t fall into this trap. Have the conversation with your team member but don’t make any decisions during that conversation – take some time and consider your options.

Focus them on their current responsibilities

It’s very easy to let ambition get ahead of opportunity. If we fixate on a future job, we can become impatient in our current role. This can lead to a drop in productivity and performance which ironically, puts them further away from a promotion!

Have this conversation with them and focus them on their current role and the importance of not letting performance slip at exactly the wrong time. Be open that a big part of being promoted is consistency in high performance and they shouldn’t get impatient and distracted.

Essentially, as Bob Iger says in Ride of a Lifetime, their ambition can become counterproductive.

Be clear on how they get to where they want to be

This is crucial as part of this conversation and you absolutely can’t ignore this point. 

As we’ve said, it’s natural for people to consider their job options and to leave and most of the time, there is nothing that you can do about that. However, one of the biggest reasons that someone will leave and that you can do something about is showing them what success looks like and how they get there.

Hopefully, you’ve already been working with them on their progression and how they get their next promotion and / or pay rise. If you haven’t, even more reason to have that conversation now!

I could (and will) write a whole newsletter about this topic alone, so for now, I’ll give you the essentials of what you need to do right now if someone is considering leaving for a more senior position:

  • Show them what their next promotion looks like – the role, responsibilities and pay.
  • Show them what the difference is between their current position and the next one.
  • Highlight where the gaps are and therefore, what they’ll need to be capable of (capable soon, not right now).
  • Clearly show what you need to see from them right now in order to either promote them or put them forward for a promotion if someone else needs to review it.
  • Give them a timeline that you feel is achievable and ask if they are up for it.

I should be clear that I’m not saying they need to be already carrying out the responsibilities that their promotion requires, that wouldn’t be fair. But they should definitely be starting to take on elements of it and demonstrate that they are capable of making the step up.

Show understanding and empathy

Finally, show some empathy for their position and ambition. After all, you’ve probably hired them and enjoy working with them because of their ambition. It’s this ambition that is now causing you a slight headache! But that’s okay – talk to them about how it’s a good thing that they show ambition and that this is exactly what you want from your team.

If someone still decides to leave because they can get their promotion sooner elsewhere, then so be it. Again, this is normal and you should take the position that as long as you’ve done all that you can to keep them (whilst being fair and reasonable) then that’s all that you can do. 

General messaging to your team

Before we wrap up for this week, it’s worth revisiting Bob Iger’s book again which has some fantastic advice on dealing with ambitious team members who are hungry for promotion. After all, you’ve likely to face this challenge throughout the year, not just in the New Year.

Bob’s advice to give to your team is:

[The] Balance is to do your job well, be patient, look for opportunities to pitch in and expand and grow. Make yourself one of the people, through attitude and energy and focus, whom your bosses feel they have to turn to when opportunities arise. 

The last line is key – encourage your team to make it impossible for you to ignore when promotion opportunities arise. If they do this (and you honour your word) then you’re less likely to be faced with this situation in the first place. 

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