26 September 2023

Perpetual promotion: How old loyalties stack up against new achievers

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Brian de Haaff* discusses the problems faced by many leaders in growing organisations: Who to promote — and for what reasons.

The word ‘promote’ is interesting in a subtle way.

It can mean different things depending on the context.

Advancing in rank or placement; contributing to growth; increasing awareness; even presenting something for acceptance.

When you think about it within the context of professional development, all these come into play.

But look closely at those definitions — you do not see career longevity or tenure in the mix.

In many dysfunctional organisations, how long you have been there or who likes you best may drive the decision-making.

I am sure you can think of a few promotions that were accompanied by an organisation-wide eye roll.

With smaller organisations, things get more complicated. The time-boxing is less defined.

Aha! is five years old and has matured well past humble start-up beginnings.

We now serve thousands of enterprises and more than 150,000 users with more than 75 team members working across eight time zones.

This rapid growth can be bittersweet, especially when it comes to promoting people.

Many times, early joiners are absolutely ready and able to take on leadership roles — but not always.

Loyalty is a key human value, but loyalty is not necessarily correlated with profound organisational achievement.

I am not suggesting that you care less about the people who first believed in your vision and values, but the team benefits when everyone keeps growing.

I believe it is my responsibility to build a learning organisation.

The investment should start early and extend to everyone.

It is mutually beneficial because you are building a deep bench of talent and people grow new skills.

This is wise and good but it does not solve the paradox.

Do you promote based on who was there first?

Or do you promote based on who is creating the most value today.

You really want to do both — honour people’s loyalty by challenging them with new responsibilities and create exceptional value for the organisation right now.

This will put pressure on you emotionally, as you likely have developed deep and meaningful relationships with the individuals who have been with you the longest.

Let’s unpack the paradox a bit more and consider the complex process of identifying and promoting leaders who can best serve the current needs.

I think organisational need and individual skill must come before loyalty.

People deserve to work hard, achieve their best, and be respected and rewarded for it — regardless of tenure.

I have some suggested actions below that identify growth opportunities for your team.

Doing this well requires deeply knowing the past, present and future of your organisation.

You need to know the people as well. Guessing is not an option.

Start with a clear definition:

This should be brief and concentrated on the organisational challenge that requires leadership.

It might require creating entirely new roles within the organisation’s structure.

Define the requirements:

List every requirement needed to solve the challenge.

This will be the basis for your job description.

Identify people:

Focus on those who have achieved in the past, either in previous roles before joining the organisation or work they currently are doing.

Discuss the opportunity:

People have their own career ambitions.

Honour their path by confidentially sharing the role you are considering to make sure they are interested.

You need to know if they have the interest and ambition for what is needed.

Do a test project:

This optional fifth step is to have the person do a test project or two before deciding with them if the new role would be right.

It is a great way to give someone a taste for what is expected and to allow both the organisation and the person to gently back out.

No harm done if it is not a great fit.

Remember that it is simply not possible for your most tenured teammates to be the only ones who can add the most value in the future.

Being there first definitely does not mean that they are suited to lead a large team when you need someone to.

A “not now” answer could mean they will be ready the next time a new organisational challenge is presented.

This is the power of a growing and learning organisation — opportunities and growth abound.

Aligning what the organisation needs with what long-serving team members want is not a science.

All we can do is strive for our best and move forward with intention.

*Brian de Haaff is the Chief Executive of cloud-based software company Aha! He can be contacted on Twitter @bdehaaff.

This article first appeared on the Aha! company website.

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