With Martin G. Moore

Episode #128

The Promotion Dilemma: Q&A with Marty & Em

In this week’s podcast episode, Em & I discuss a few brilliant listener questions relating to promotions – a hot topic amongst our leadership community!

The first question is from Anne, who asks about breaking through the middle management ranks to get to more senior levels when you think you’re overdue for a promotion, but your bosses don’t see your potential the same way you do.

The second question is from John, who asks about some of the ways you can prepare the future leaders whom you’re intending to promote from within the organisation.

These questions are faced by virtually every leader at some point during their careers, so there are some great tips in here for everyone!

A word of warning, this episode is VERY detailed, so you may need to listen to it a few times with a pen and paper on hand!

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Episode #128 The Promotion Dilemma: Q&A with Marty & Em

Marty: Hey there, and welcome to Episode 128 of the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast. This week’s episode: The Promotion Dilemma: Q&A with Marty & Em. Now it’s a couple of months since our last Q&A, and we know you love this format. So today, we’re picking up a couple of great questions from our listeners relating to promotions. The first one is from Anne, who asks us about breaking through the middle management ranks to get to more senior levels when you think you’re overdue for promotion, but your bosses don’t necessarily see your potential the same way as you do. The second question is from John, who asks about some of the ways you can prepare the future leaders whom you’re intending to promote from within the organisation. Now, these questions are faced by virtually every leader at some point during their careers, so there are some great tips in here for everyone. And of course, welcoming back to the mic, the other half of YCM and the producer of the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast, Em!

Em: Hi, Marty. So good to be back on the mic! Now you have been absolutely flat out the last few weeks, why don’t you tell everyone what’s been taking up all your time?

Marty: Oh yes, well we both have actually, but tomorrow is the big event we’ve all been waiting for, which is No Bullsh!t Leadership: Live. This was to celebrate our one million downloads of the podcast, which happened in December last year, and we’re running this live event on Thursday, tomorrow, which is going to be just awesome. We’ve all put an incredible amount of work into preparing the virtual event, and I know it’s going to be so beneficial to our leadership community. Why don’t you just give us a quick rundown it’s your gig, right?

Em: Yes, absolutely. And we should say it is free Marty. So anyone who hasn’t registered needs to go and do that. So we’ll kick off at 9:30 AM AEDT with your brand new keynote, Unlocking the Secrets of Exceptional Leadership, which is going to be an absolute cracker. Then we’ll run the interview that you pre-recorded with an incredible athlete, Luc Robitaille, who is now the President of the Los Angeles Kings National Hockey League team. But Luc was also a star player and is in the NHL Hall of Fame. He’s going to talk through making the transition from professional athlete to successful executive, and I know a lot of our listeners are going through that technical expert to lead a stage. So this one is going to be so incredibly valuable. He has so many words of wisdom. When we recorded this episode with Luc, I was typing notes the entire time.

We’ll then move into a deep dive master class with you on Leading for High Performance, and we’ll do a 30 minute Q&A with the audience. So make sure you guys who are coming that you’ve got your questions ready. That way our team can collate them all and we’ll send them through to Marty at the right time. We then have another awesome pre-recorded interview with Michelle Foley, who’s the Chief Customer Officer at The Arnott’s Group. Now I just love Michelle. She’s part of our Leadership Beyond the Theory alumni, and if I’m honest, if I was still working in corporate, I would want Michelle to be my boss. She is so generous in this interview where she gives us a look inside what it’s like moving into an executive team, as I guess the new kid on the block. She covers so much gold on competitive advantage and the work/life juggle. You do not want to miss this one.

We then finish with another deep dive masterclass on Succeeding at the Next Level and another 30 minute Q&A. We want this to be super interactive, so the Q&A time is your opportunity to get really contextual with Marty on any challenges you might be going through. Phew, that sounds like a lot. I can’t wait for the event tomorrow, so if you want to join us, this will probably be your last chance to register. So head over to www.yourceomentor.com/stats. That’s S T A T S, and save your spot. We’re not going to be running any replays, so you want to show up live. Alright, let’s get into the podcast episode, Marty. This one is going to be so good.

Marty: Yeah, it sounds great, Em. I’m so looking forward to the event, so I better be on my game, right. Okay, so what questions have you dug out for me this week for episode 128?

Em: Okay. So the first question is from Anne. “I’ve long been told that I’m an excellent leader and that I have great potential in all the organisations that I work for. However, I feel that I’m always being put into boxes that I don’t feel I fit in. For example, I’ve been on key talent lists in almost every organisation I’ve worked in and I’ve quickly moved beyond team leader into mid-level influencing positions as a leader of leaders. Every time I want to expand my career beyond this point, I find in the interview process that my authentic answers to how I solve problems doesn’t fit the box the hiring manager has constructed, in terms of how they would solve it. Has Marty got any advice for those of us who are desperate to break free from the mid-level leadership merry-go-round?”

Marty: Oh, a great question, Anne. And so many principles to cover off here. Now, before we start, we did do a podcast episode on the curse of the middle manager some time ago. I think it was episode 74. Is that right, Em?

Em: Yep. That’s right.

Marty: Fantastic. Look, these are some of the toughest and most unloved roles in many organisations. It’s definitely worth listening to this. It’s really tough to be at that middle management layer, but it’s a great apprenticeship. And if you can get through this to reach senior ranks, you’ve done pretty well from a resilience perspective, if nothing else. So, depending on the company and industry, your leader may not know what leadership is. They possibly value different things than what you do. Maybe they value hard work and technical competency, for example. They may be looking for more detailed answers and a demonstration that your knowledge of the business is adequate. And they’ll generally value what they already have. Or, it may be the exact opposite. They may value the ability to think and function at their level and want to see you making that leap. Now that’s a slightly different problem. But first, your challenge, is to work out why you’re not getting through these roles.

Em: Okay Marty, that’s fine, but how would you know which of these is the case for you in your unique circumstance?

Marty: Well I guess to start Em, you’ve got to look for the patterns. So it sounds like Anna’s hit this a couple of times. Now, your bosses won’t necessarily give you honest and accurate feedback, but the ones who are prepared to, well you have to listen to them really carefully to develop your self awareness.

Em: Sounds simple. If you can work that out, then what?

Marty: Well, as you know, we actually have a lesson on this exact topic in Leadership Beyond the Theory. It’s called being promotable, and as you all hopefully know, Leadership Beyond the Theory opens doors for the March 2021 cohort in a couple of days, but let’s get the Cliffs Notes out on this particular one. The first principle is don’t be a workhorse, be a trusted advisor. So you’ve got to show your boss and your boss’s boss, that you can actually add value at the next level. If you just reliably churn through work, well your boss will let you, and you’ll do a really good job for them, and you can actually just make them look good. But you can take making the boss look good too far, particularly if you never push back, because if you just do everything that’s thrown at you, great work, but you’re never going to be seen as a thought leader.

The other principle is don’t try and make yourself indispensable, try and make yourself redundant. So this is really counter-intuitive. But what you need to do is show that you can build capability below you, and the first job of a leader is to build leadership capability below. Show that you’re not afraid to create a world where you don’t need to be there. Now, the next cue you get will be really important, if you can manage to make yourself notionally redundant from a role. Are your bosses urgently trying to find ways to keep you in the company or are they helping to negotiate your exit? This is probably the best sign you can have. It’s the most immediate feedback that you’ll ever get. And I faced this a few times in my career, but one that strikes me particularly is the structure review at a Aurizon after we’d gone through the IPO.

My role had been made redundant by me, and just by the way we were going to structurally set things up for the new organisation. At that point in time, I started a dialogue with my boss and my boss’s boss about, “Okay, what’s my next step? Where do you want to move me?” And that’s how I ended up going from an acting CFO role to a Senior Vice President of Marketing. So these conversations are always good to have, but you’ve got to have them. Then you need to start thinking about developing a broader perspective and a broader range of skills. So for me, when I was making that transition from software development project manager through to corporate executive, I took an MBA and that was super useful for me in learning the language of business. So, you know, marketing, economics, finance, strategy, and forth, and it gave me an incredible perspective.

What it did for me basically was that it enabled me to have a sensible conversation with any expert in any field. And it also helped me to develop an awesome bullshit detector. Now, not everyone needs or wants an MBA and that’s fine. So if you don’t, take an interest in industry and competitors, that’s always gonna help. Read and listen to leaders who’ve already been successful at the levels you aspire to get to. There’s a great old podcast episode we did, episode 21, which is Education vs. Experience. And it talks about how education and experience play a part in developing you to where you need to be. Back in those days, it would have been awesome if I could have coupled my MBA with Leadership Beyond the Theory, but of course I hadn’t developed it yet. Then of course, one of the other things that I think is overlooked sometimes is contextual thinking ability. Now not everyone has that chip in their brain. Is your level of abstract reasoning capability, sufficient to show that you can perform successfully at the next level? Most of us have a ceiling for that, regardless of what our personal ambitions are. So the bottom line is be self-aware.

Em: Alright, Marty, there is a lot in that. Where do you even start?

Marty: Well look, I’d start with a personal inventory. Do you have the smarts, the capability and the focus on demands for the next level? And you may need to get some help with that, so seeking feedback from trusted advisors around you or perhaps even your boss. And if you do talk to your boss, I’d be asking them some very explicit questions about your future. Don’t be shy about doing this, that’s their job, whether they realise it or not, is to let you know what your future holds. So share your self observation and ask them to validate it and to add data as necessary. Then at least you know that in that organisation, you’re comfortable with where you stand. Pretty useful I would’ve thought.

Em: Yeah, I love that. That’s going to be so useful for Anne and I’m sure a lot of other people who are in similar situations. Is that it, are you ready to crack on to the next question?

Marty: Sure, I think I’ve covered everything and then some.

Em: Cool. So next question is from John. He looks at the issue from another angle. “What happens when you’re looking at promoting people and you want to know the best way to sort out the potential aspirants for the role?” John says “We are a young, fast growing organisation and as the business grows, it will be inevitable that we’ll need to employ more people, and with that, more management positions. Under myself I have a number of staff who stick out as ideal candidates for excellent future managers in the business. And I would love to see these people grow into specific management positions rather than bringing in new managers above them. Many of these guys have helped to build the business up from the ground. Can you please provide any advice on some good ways to provide my current staff with higher managerial tasks as a way of testing them to see how they fare? And if so, how do I not upset those who I have decided aren’t on the promotion path? Should I give them all, some form of management exposure so it doesn’t look obvious that I’m testing them?”

Marty: Oh, so much here.

Em: I know that’s why when I picked this one out, I thought it was going to be a juicy one!

Marty: Yeah, probably about 14 questions from John and a couple that he hasn’t actually asked, and I’m going to dive into anyway. First one of those being should you promote from within? Now, there are pros and cons to this, right. The pros are, it’s much lower risk, you know who you’re dealing with. So you’re not relying on a limited resume, interview process and reference checking. You’re actually dealing with real experience of how someone behaves and performs on the job. So it’s low risk. It creates a sense of potential advancement, for your people. It’s a signal that you value the people that you have, and of course developing others is one of the great joys of leadership that balances off all the other tough stuff you have to do. So there’s a lot of pros for promoting from within. But there are also some cons you have to be cognisant of. The first one is, you’ll get very few new ideas or experience from people you promote from within, to the extent that it might be useful. So if you want more of the same, that’s what you’re likely to get. You do limit the pool of potential talent if you’re not looking at even considering talent from the outside. And over time, your organisation may suffer from group think because you’re not getting any injection of new ideas in there. Change is unlikely, right? The people who built the house can’t renovate it. So my goal in hiring senior roles was to always seek a mix. And for this reason, every senior role I had went to market.

Em: But if you go to market every time, doesn’t that tell the people that you have, that you may not value their skills and contributions?

Marty: Oh, not at all Em. I mean, from my perspective, it certainly sends a signal to your people, but that signal isn’t that I don’t trust you, the signal is, I’m going to build the strongest level of capability for the company that I can possibly get. Now, it doesn’t mean you won’t have preferences. So you may have a preference for an internal candidate, but why wouldn’t you see what’s available in the market, while you go through the process anyway? In my career I’ve often had a preference based on the circumstances I found myself in. So often I’d have a strong preference for an external candidate if I knew my internal capability was devoid of, say commercial nous. Or a strong preference for a female candidate, if there was insufficient gender diversity on the team, which was often the case in some of the industrial businesses I worked in. Or sometimes I had a strong preference for someone from another industry, if I wanted an uplift in a capability that we didn’t have, like safety. So sure, understand your preference, but don’t cut off your nose to spite your face. You’re always looking for the best person for the job, no matter what. And this means you have to take a lot of competing factors into consideration based on the people you already have.

Em: Okay. Totally agree with that. So, what comes next?

Marty: Okay, next step I would look at is how you actually identify the leadership talent that you have. Now there’s some real pitfalls here, if you aren’t super experienced in this. There are some real pitfalls even if you are experienced, but for example, what are the criteria I’m using to vet my people? Are they just a good bloke or a nice lady? Do they act and think like you so that you identify with them? Do they show work ethic? Do they work hard? Do they get on well with their workmates? Now these are great attributes to have, but they aren’t great predictors of how someone’s going to perform and fare at the next level. So look at the things that are more likely to make them successful. For a start, do they have the intellectual horsepower? And this is one of the few fixed constraints you run into and you can’t compensate for it no matter what. Same with their value set. If they haven’t got the right values, you can’t fix that. Are they up to the challenge intellectually? And I’ve got to tell you, I’ve learned this the hard way a few times. One guy that comes to mind was an extraordinarily loyal and capable middle manager. I promoted him to the GM level and it was disastrous. But, was that his fault? Absolutely not. It was my fault. I should have known that he wasn’t going to make that turn to the next level.

Em: That’s such a good example. So, what else are we looking for?

Marty: Well once you get beyond that, think carefully about what they do now. For example, do they have a thirst for knowledge and the motivation to apply it? Do they have willingness to tackle tougher and tougher challenges? Do they have the ability to anticipate and avoid obstacles? Do they have openness to ideas and improvements submitted by others? Do they take calculated risks to accelerate progress? Do they learn from their mistakes and avoid repeating them? Do they put the team results ahead of their own? Do they connect the dots to get leverage? Do they seek feedback from diverse sources? Can they articulate complex problems in simple terms? I mean, there are so many indicators here that you can look at, to give you an idea of whether or not someone’s likely to grow.

Em: Wow. That’s a pretty comprehensive list.

Marty: Yeah, it is but it’s also nowhere near the extent of the picture you’d ideally like to have. So there’s just a few indicators for how to spot leaders who are likely to grow. But, the talent management domain is a whole thing, right. And in large corporates I put in place some incredibly comprehensive talent management processes because that’s everything. If you can’t get the right talent and capability leading your organisation, you will always struggle to perform. Now what I did in corporate, when you’ve got plenty of money and time, may not be fit for purpose for a smaller business, but, it’s much easier to scale it down than it is to scale it up. So the principles remain the same.

Em: Alright. So assuming that we’ve got our eye on the right people for potential promotion to leadership roles, how do we then develop them?

Marty: Well look, in this regard, John’s absolutely spot on. Find ways to test them out, give them projects and opportunities that will indicate whether they can adapt to the tasks of the next level up. And this has two advantages. So for you as a leader, it’s an opportunity to try before you buy. And for the people, it’s a motivator. It’s personal development. It shows them the future possibility better than you could explain it in words. And it makes them feel valued. So I have to say this is much easier in large organisations. There are many more opportunities to move people to appropriate roles in larger organisations without creating too much havoc in their existing teams. But once again, the principle is the same.

Em: Okay, cool. So it sounds like a win-win. Last question from me, I think. Let’s see, should you do that for everyone to make them feel special and not like they aren’t valued?

Marty: Hell no!! Now in a company where you’re trying to create a culture of performance, meritocracy rules. And one of the things you really have to do is to differentiate between people based on their behaviour and performance. Always reward the most capable, committed people, the ones who are driving results for your business. Now, it doesn’t mean that you don’t love the others. 70% of your workforce is always going to be those essential rump of the organisation that drives results in a business as usual sense. That’s fine. Right? And those people we value highly, but they’re just not going to be our next level of leaders. Importantly, you can’t ignore the others. Make sure they get feedback about how you perceive them. Let them know that you value them for what they do, and assuming you do value them, otherwise you would need to give them a different message all together. But not everyone has a burning ambition to progress. You need to make sure that their ambition level is consistent with the reality that they find themselves in, in your team. So remember, people want to know three things from their boss when they walk into work each day. What are your expectations of me? How am I performing against those expectations? And what does my future hold? That’s not that hard.

Em: Well, it’s easy if you say it fast enough, Marty.

Marty: Totally.

Em: Alright. So there is a lot of stuff in there. Some great tips across those two questions. I’m going to summarise this.

So when you’re trying to break through to the next level, you need to find out specifically how you are perceived. Once you know that, make sure that you’re demonstrating your ability to be successful at the next level. Be a trusted advisor, not a workhorse, and make yourself redundant, not indispensable. So then we go into the second question with the dilemma facing the boss. Make sure you understand the pros and cons of internal vs external appointees. Work out the criteria for success at that next level. Give people opportunities to show what they can do. But most importantly, differentiate on performance. You don’t want a culture of socialist uniformity. You want a performance focused meritocracy. Have I got that right?

Marty: Fantastic summary, Em. I reckon that’s a wrap. Good work. Alright. So that brings us to the end of episode 128. Thank you so much for joining us. And remember at Your CEO Mentor, our purpose is to improve the quality of leaders globally. So please share this podcast with your network of leaders.

Em: And guys, if you haven’t subscribed to, or rated the podcast, or left us a review, please take a minute to do that now. I know that there are tens of thousands of you who haven’t done it. It would mean the absolute world to us. Thanks for having me on again, Marty. Looking forward to the event tomorrow. Another value packed episode, and we are going to drop so many leadership bombs tomorrow at the event. So make sure you join the registration list for that as well, if you haven’t done it already.

Marty: Yeah. Thanks Em. I look forward to next week’s episode, once we get through the live event, Counterintuitive Truths.

Until then, I know you’ll take every opportunity you can, to be a no bullsh!t leader.


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