Don’t Be Mad About Promoting Mad Men (or Women)

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The expression “those who can’t do, teach” is well known for good reason. But many business leaders nevertheless assume that top-performing employees are automatically good at managing and teaching their skills to others. The consequences of this assumption can be troubling, especially in today’s advertising business.

It’s perfectly understandable — even desirable — to want to reward exceptional workers, but owners and managers often believe that the only way they can reward employees is by promoting them to supervisory roles. This is not only not true, it is dangerous thinking.

Simply put, leadership requires a completely different skill set than most people use in performance positions. As a result, employees who perform the best aren’t automatically good at training or supervising other people in their areas. Indeed, without training, mentoring and ongoing coaching, the practice of rewarding top performers with leadership roles rarely has a happy ending.

Keep in mind that promotions typically remove employees from jobs at which they thrived, while exposing the entire company to their hidden shortcomings. Someone whose strength is putting clients at ease might not be assertive enough to lead a team. Promoting this person, meanwhile, risks creating a void in client relations that others can’t fill. A poorly executed promotion also tends to drive talent away. After all, when skilled people aren’t successful in new positions, they don’t typically want to stick around.

The above is true for all industries. But today’s marketing environment makes it especially treacherous to move ad agency people around without solid planning. It has always taken time for agency employees to master their craft. But the rise of tech- and data-driven strategies is constantly adding new levels of complexity to our work. These complexities have further heightened high expectations from clients, who want seasoned professionals with a deep understanding of their industry working on their accounts like never before. And so when you finally have an employee firing on all cylinders for your agency, it can be a big mistake putting them in new roles.

In theory, great leaders don’t have to know how to do what their subordinates do. The job is to motivate, teach and encourage others to get the job done well, on time and on budget. This is easier said than done, which is why talented employees are not always suited to lead.

That said, there is no question that many people have more than one skill set and can excel in several different positions. The obvious key is recognizing the people who do — and do not — have leadership skills. That is also easier said than done, which is why workplace surveys often show that employees have little confidence in their organization’s ability to recognize true leadership potential.

So before you promote anyone, have a candid conversation with targeted individuals whose excellence you want to reward. But first determine several possible options for moving forward. In addition to a traditional promotion to a supervisory role, reward options could include an arrangement to split time between the employee’s current role and training others, or an agreement to develop new skills for a higher paycheck. You can also consider options beyond supervising, like more vacation time or a seat at the leadership table. After you have a list of options, sit down with your reward-worthy employee and discuss each in detail, including how the work world would change.

Sometimes the best reward for hard work is helping people prosper — right where they are. But if someone wants to supervise, they need to be tested through both standardized testing in HR and temporary supervisory responsibilities. Those methods will help determine whether the individual has the aptitude and desire for such a role. And if you move forward with a promotion, do so with a specific mentoring program. Be patient, giving new leaders plenty of time to learn, practice and test new skills.

Promotions can be exciting advances in employees’ careers, but you don’t want the thrill to end like Thelma and Louise’s road trip. So work with your best employees to take their careers to the next level in ways that suit their strengths.

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