Did You Promote the Right Person?

Bad Hiring Decisions are Painful

I could hear his voice trailing off on the other end of the phone. He had asked me to assess his company’s job contracts to name the core competencies of each position because his top executive was not performing up to speed. The lack of performance was impacting revenues and morale in negative ways.

“Based on this set of competencies I moved this person up before they were ready…” his insight focused more on his own mistake than the frustration and anger he had earlier expressed at the flagging financial performance and imploding morale.  We talked about the next steps he will take to correct a difficult situation.  After the conversation I thought about how organizations find and develop the leaders they need. It is not an easy job particularly in small to mid range privately held companies like that of my friend’s. The challenges of finding the right talent to support a successful company are manifold.  What needs to be considered?

Don’t Make Me Manager

The first challenge is the fact that some people do not want to lead.  Who are the next generation of leaders in your organization? According to the Ranstad World of Work Survey (2009) over half of US workers would say “no thanks” if offered a promotion to a manager’s position.[i]    All they see is stress and the discomfort of working with unhappy subordinates.  The challenge of this reality is that (a) it disallows the use of knowledge and experience gained by these employees and (b) it may show a problem in how employees perceive the organizational culture.[ii]

According to the Randstad survey, 68% of workers over age 64, 50% of “boomers” (age 45-63), and 47% of “Gen X” (age 30-44) report they’d refuse a job with supervisory status.  In the survey the primary reasons given for avoiding management opportunities were:

  • increased level of stress
  • handling disgruntled employees
  • increased paperwork
  • having to fire or layoff employees

If half a company’s employees feel this way what about the other half?  How does a leader or business owner develop a leadership mindset that realistically understands both the challenges and the opportunities of leadership?   If the reason leadership is unattractive consists of the realities above the benefits also emerge in the survey.  Those who expressed an interest in becoming a supervisor wanted to:

  • Share their knowledge and experience with others (89%)
  • Be responsible for the success of an organization (85%)
  • Be able to influence decisions (85%)
  • Be responsible for a budget (47%)
  • Work in a high pressure environment (37%)

The survey authors expressed surprise that the respondents did not point to a desire for increased power, recognition, or even more money.  However the issue of power and recognition is inferred in the answers that were given.

Understand Motivation – Not Everyone Makes a Good Leader 

Power and other leadership motivations has been the subject of significant research.  Thomas (2008) notes that three dominate motivations evidence themselves in the work force: achievement, association and power. He contends that power is the motivation that makes leaders effective and those people who are uncomfortable with power should reconsider accepting leadership roles.  Does this negate the findings of the Ranstadt survey?  No, but it may explain the deeper motivational issues behind the reasons why employees want to enter management roles.  It is important to define each of Thomas’ motivational labels.[iii]

Achievement is concerned with excellence and efficiency.  It is a preference for personal work and those motivated by achievement typically exhibit low emotional intelligence (a prerequisite for success as a leader) and moderate risk taking capacity or desire.  For those motivated by achievement the focus is on getting things right. People motivated by achievement have the potential to develop deep understanding.  However, achievement motivated people also face the pitfall of rejecting ambiguity or forcing facts to a premature synthesis.

Affiliation is characterized in a concern with friendship, wanting to be liked or accepted or to take part in social situations.  People motivated by affiliation make great support people however they experience a significant amount of stress in leadership/management situations.  They have a high emotional intelligence which is a great leadership characteristic however they also have a low willingness to undertake risks.  Their discomfort in leadership roles stems in part from the tendency to see feedback as personal.  Those motivated by affiliation have a dynamic ability to involve others and they generate a broad influence.  The pitfall faced by a person motivated by affiliation is a strong tendency toward projection and blame shifting.

Power is demonstrated in a concern with influence and influence relationships.  A person motivated by power usually possesses high emotional intelligence, willingness to take moderate risks in influence situations, either high or low risks in task situations, verbal facileness, a preference for qualitative feedback and ability to persist in a goal for lengthy periods without feedback or with negative feedback.   The focus of those motivated by power is a focus on getting the right things done and recognizing the potential for new action.  The pitfall faced by a person motivated by power is isolationism and resistance to internal probing (i.e., they are less willing to challenge their own assumptions).

Does the emphasis on power set the stage for unleashing Machiavellian tyranny on the workforce?  Power is not the end that effective leaders pursue, hence the lack of mention in the respondents of the Ranstadt survey.  However, it is the means that effective leaders use to achieve the kinds of results the respondents mentioned.  Notice that the ends described by the survey respondents include a willingness to accept responsibility (versus skirting responsibility), engage influence (versus manipulation or power-mongering) and serve others (the point of servant leadership research).

Based on research motivation is important to leadership success.  Based on Thomas’ work on motivation we know that those motivated by power have a somewhat easier time in adjusting to the demands of leadership/management roles. While this is helpful in coaching potential leaders a prior step should be taken.  Before starting a search for leaders identify clear criteria – don’t go on first impressions alone.  Use criteria to apply more rigorous evaluation of potential candidates.

Identify Clear Criteria

In considering who may make a good leader/manager or who may not a clear criteria is advisable especially in light of the fact that managers are not only depended upon to propel the mission and profitability of the organization forward but are also called upon to problem solve, drive productivity and innovation and offer opportunities for employees to develop.  This is especially true in times of recession when efficiency and managing cost is very much a focus. 

“Especially in periods of economic recessions, companies rely on managers to problem solve, drive productivity and innovation, [and] motivate and provide opportunities for workers,” said Eileen Habelow, Randstad Senior Vice President. “It’s not just doom and gloom that managers are focusing on today. Companies must make sure they consistently recognize managers’ valuable contributions, not only to the company, but to the broader workforce.”

When thinking about criteria for identifying effective leaders six characteristics identified by Watkins offer a starting point.[iv]

  •  Competence: Does this person have the technical competence and experience to do the job effectively?
  • Judgment: Does this person exercise good judgment, especially under pressure or when faced with making sacrifices for the greater good?
  • Energy: Does this team member bring the right kind of energy to the job, or is he or she burned out or disengaged?
  • Focus: Is this person capable of setting priorities and sticking to them, or prone to “riding off in all directions”?
  • Relationships: Does this person get along with others on the team and support collective decision-making, or is he or she difficult to work with?
  • Trust: Can you trust this person to keep his or her word and follow through on commitments?

The two greatest mistakes I see business owners and other leaders make in promoting new leaders is (a) promoting too quickly for some sense of urgency  – as when a business or organization grows quickly and (b) promoting prematurely because they wish to sidestep the rigor of establishing disciplined and efficient business processes (sometimes called the premature success syndrome and seen primarily in small business owners who equate steady cash flow with success without assessing their organization’s true financial health).

So now that you have an idea of the candidate’s motivation, a good assessment of whether your potential candidates meet you criteria it is now a good idea to create a checklist to guide your implementation.

Create a Check List

Use a check list to think through the process you need in your own organization.  Notice that the suggested checklist uses more than one set of eyes to check the candidate’s capacity and ability to work effectively in a new leadership role.

  • The candidate has performed their current duties in a satisfactory way.
  • The candidate possesses the minimum education and/or industry knowledge and experience needed to succeed at the new role.
  • The candidate’s current supervisor recommends the candidate to the new role.
  • We have created a clear transition strategy to help the candidate and their new direct reports and their new supervisor adjust to the new role.
  • The human resources department agrees to the promotion to the new role.


Recruiting and employing the right leaders/managers in your business, organization or department is critical to building a consistently effective operation.  By using rigor in your selection process you avoid the most common mistakes.  This is not a comprehensive paper on identifying leaders but it gives a start.  What other factors should be considered?  What is the situational context of your organization?  Is it a start-up, a turn around, a success that needs to be sustained?  What are your short-term and long-term goals?  Use criteria and a good process to focus your search on the right talent.  Is there one other piece of advice?  Yes, don’t use financial restrictions as your first criteria.  I have had clients tell me they could not afford to hire the right talent.  This is rarely true.  Why?  The right talent is typically motivated by more than money.  The reality is that the right talent will pay for themselves. 

[i] Source: http://pihra.lawroom.com/Story.aspx?&STID=2076; accessed 8 Sep. 2009.

[ii] Happiness at work is a measurable aspect of employee commitment, contribution, conviction, culture and confidence and a concept that quantifies the impact of an organization’s culture on employee performance.  The significance of happiness cannot be understated.  For more information see: http://www.leadership-praxis.com/leverage-self-awareness/ and the article, “Are you Happy at Work – Does it Matter” – available at http://raywheeler.wordpress.com/2011/05/01/are-you-happy-at-work-does-it-matter/).

[iii] Robert Thomas. Crucibles of Leadership: How to Learn from Experience to Become a Great Leader (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2008), 101-02.

[iv] Michael Watkins. The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at all Levels(Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2003), 163.

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