Our Misguided View on Promotions

Most organizations have a culture where being successful means moving up the hierarchical ladder. But because the ladder is a pyramid the downside of this way of defining success is that most people won’t be viewed upon as successful. As a result, they feel they’ve failed which leads to unmotivated employees. Another side effect here is that you have to hire me to address this issue. So unless you like having me around, I’d suggest reading this post.

I think we must stop looking at moving up the hierarchical ladder as the only way to be successful. I recently wrote companies should facilitate giving specialists a higher salary then managers to stimulate them staying in their role, getting better en train other employees. “The Toyota Way: #9”. But we must go even further if we want to engage all employees who are good at their work and also want to feel successful.

I am a big fan of the T-profile where you have 1 specialization like software engineering, quality engineering or management. And add to that other skills like, requirements engineering or architecture and coaching. Whatever adds value to the context you work in. To me adding those skills or getting better at your specialization should be the equivalent of a promotion. But I don’t get the sense all companies work this way. So employees keep looking up the food chain and want to go there. And you can’t really blame them, managers get paid better, they have more power and at parties telling people you’re a manager sounds a lot better than being a software engineer.

For me managing a team of specialists also is a specialization. And promotion from, for example a quality engineer to these kind of management positions is a giant step if you look at the different competencies required to fill in those roles. In some cases, a person has overlapping competences or he or she learns really fast and this works. However more than often good specialists become mediocre or even poor managers just because their forced into a role by a companies misguided perception of success. This way you’re removing value instead of adding value, which obviously is not a good thing. The value an organization produces should be more than the sum off all parts or something is terribly wrong. Lots of organizations even struggle with this principle so removing value by a misguided perception of success is not really helping.

The way to turn this around is a simple as it is difficult. Here are some adjustments:

  1. Start looking at management as a specialization and not as a skill you add to your T-profile. To do this you have to change the role of the manager, at the moment for me the best approach here is to be inspired by Management 3.0 patterns.
  2. Don’t pay people more just because they manage a group of specialists. Pay people more because they add more value or help others to increase their value to the organization.
  3. Empower those who add value and give them more influence and responsibility. Not by “promoting” them to be managers but by letting them stay close to what they love doing.
  4. Move decision making and responsibility as low in the hierarchical chain as possible. This means moving it into the hands the people who can really make the decisions. Listen to them and trust them to make the right (long-term) decisions. Of course these decisions should always be within the boundaries set by the organization.

We won’t change the perspective the world has on being successful. But we can change the perspective our department or our organization has on what being successful means and act accordingly. Start with that and maybe in a few years at a party you’ll proudly tell people you’re a successful Software engineer.

Peter Principle: “Managers Rise to the Level of their Incompetence”.