May 04, 2009
King's Corner

Mediocre? You’re Promoted!!!

Tenure-based reward structures at companies are common. Many companies have base eligibility requirements in order for someone to be “promotion-ready”. Common requirements include things like “at least 2 years at the current level” and “at least 1 year in the current position”. The spirit of these requirements is well-intentioned, i.e. mandatory experience level, time for appropriate seasoning, etc. But like most requirements of these sort, they leave room for improvement. Or more precisely, they should leave room for exceptions. And more often than not, the right exceptions aren’t made.

I used to work for a company that had minimum-at-level time-based requirements. And for the most part, they worked well. People at Level I were required to be at Level I for a minimum of 2 years. And since experience is certainly a factor in someone’s effectiveness, there was an inherent accuracy in who was being promoted. What happened? It became a right of passage. As soon as your two-year-anniversary hit, boom, the promotion came, even if it wasn’t deserved.

The key is in managing expectations. The fundamental absolute requirement, i.e. performance worthy of promotion, got ignored over time. People who were decent performers, adequate at their current level, were getting frustrated that some of their peers were being promoted that they raised a stink. During good economic times (which this example was), the company didn’t want any attrition, so they caved in and rewarded the mediocrity. And then the dreaded ripple effect. We had people getting promoted to Level II after the pre-requisite 2 years and people at Level I who had been with the company 1 year and 6 months were out-performing the newly promoted Level II’s. To make matters worse, since Level II’s were asked to supervise, they were often supervising the Level I’s who were better than they were. Not a good situation.

Unfortunately, this became prevalent, bordering on the “norm”. And with this “new normal”, the strong performers became stifled. Their supervisors were self-conscious of their own abilities, and would often “shut down” the brilliant ideas of their “more junior” strong performers for fear of “rocking the boat”. Rocking the boat? Name me a brilliant leader who never rocked the boat. Anyhow…

The problem with promoting and rewarding mediocrity is not the good spirited attempt to retain adequate talent in an up economy. It’s the fact that the person now believes that their past performance was worthy of recognition. It’s the fact that others around them now view them as a barometer of what it takes to get to the next level. And it’s the fact that you cannot put people into leadership roles who have not yet proven the proficiency to be a leader. The ripple effect of promoting mediocrity is extremely far-reaching. It leads to the strong performers wanting to leave, to seek stronger management and greater and more timely upward mobility. It leads to a “dumbing down” of your organization as a result of the point above. And it leads to a population of people in roles which they are not suited to fill. And it’s this last point that cripples many companies.

For your organization’s promotion policies, be sure to promote the best and the brightest. They may in fact also be your longest tenured. In fact, they often will be at each role within your organization. But allow yourself the flexibility to withhold promotion from people who simply aren’t ready or cut-out for the next level. And allow yourself the flexibility to reward those who are, even if their readiness came faster than the norm. The result will be that your strongest players feel duly rewarded, the barometer will be at the right level, and your best decision makers will be in decision making positions. Novel concept, huh?

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