Effectively managing promotions is a key component in creating a high-performance workplace culture. When you have an effective promotion process in place, it supports the felt experience of being a part of a culture that is both fair in how it treats individuals and predictable in how employees can count on moving forward with their career. Well-handled promotions also serve as a critical form of validation and reward for individual performance.

The Evolving Role of Promotions

The role of promotions is evolving and becoming more acute because the velocity of employees being promoted is increasing substantially, primarily as a result of the large number of Baby Boomers who are retiring. A record number of Boomers will be leaving the workforce over the next decade, many of them in leadership positions. Most organizations will find themselves dipping into the ranks of Millennials to fill these positions, which leads to accelerated access for a younger cohort of leaders. It’s a development that Millennials will applaud, but it will create a challenge for more senior leaders who will have a less experienced (but highly aspirational) cadre of leaders. Aspiration is a poor substitute for experience and wisdom, so these younger leaders will benefit from a stronger leadership support system to help guide their success.

For example, it may have taken a Baby Boomer 25 years to move into a significant leadership role. For a Gen X employee, it may have taken 18-20 years. For a Millennial, they may get the position in 10-15 years. That’s why it’s critical that we give more and better training and coaching to younger employees because we can no longer simply count on job tenure to provide them with the experience and skills they need to be in these leadership positions.

Managing the Promotion Process for Aspirational Millennials and Gen Zers

One of the characteristics of Millennials and Generation Z is a keen desire to take on new leadership opportunities with equally positive feelings about their ability to succeed once in them. Often within just six months of taking on a position, they feel they could be running the team better and that they’re ready for their next promotion.

However, these generations don’t necessarily have the experience to work in these positions successfully. More senior leaders will need to provide better skills to fill the experience gap because desire and aspiration alone can’t replace the valuable lessons borne of managerial experience. Training, not tenure, will have to provide the managerial and leadership adeptness that these professionals will need to adequately support their organization. This phenomenon of being “unsuccessful” is not a trivial issue. When experienced, it can significantly contribute to self-selected turnover as the younger leader decides to “start fresh” somewhere else.

So, what can you do as a leader to retain these Millennial and Gen Z employees? It’s critical to send a clear signal to them of how important they are to the company every six to nine months. That signal doesn’t have to be a major title change or salary increase, but it needs to be something very clear. 

Think about slicing it thinner when it comes to job title iterations and use competency tiers. For example, use titles like program analyst level 1, program analyst level 2, program analyst level 3, and so on. Each one of these tiers has a specific competency set that an employee must achieve in order to get that designation. This provides interim steps of promotion in between larger job titles. Think of it as making the rungs on the ladder closer together – you get to the next step more quickly, but it’s really important to master the competencies associated with each level.

Additionally, determining whether an employee should be promoted is not just about whether they’re ready to take on a new position because they have acquired the skills and experience they need. There are other aspects that play a role as to whether an employee should receive a promotion, such as team dynamics and the customer experience. Customers don’t want to be interacting with a new person every six months because there’s a lack of continuity for them. It’s difficult to build sustainable relationships with customers that way. 

That’s why it’s important for employees to understand the big picture – even if they are ready for the next position, is it the right thing for the organization to make this change immediately? In this case, the employee needs to be a little selfless in order to do what’s right for the team, department, or company. Employees who work for the greater good contribute more and increase their own engagement.

According to a survey of more than 400,000 U.S. workers conducted by Harvard Business Review, when employees feel as though promotions are managed effectively in their workplace, they’re more than twice as likely to put in extra effort at work, as well as to plan a long-term future with the organization.

As you’re more rapidly promoting employees with the increase in Baby Boomers retiring, you can improve the effectiveness of your promotions by concentrating your energy on supporting your employees at each stage of the process. Here are some essential guidelines to follow:

Clarify aspirations prior to the promotion.

Talk with each of your employees about what their goals are and where they see the future of their career. This will help you to know how they will contribute to the company as it grows and enable you to support their long-term aspirations. For example, if a job opportunity opens up in another department that an employee is interested in, you’ll be able to advocate for that employee. 

Encourage and support employees when there is a new job posting.

A frequent complaint that employees have about the promotion process in their organization is that once a new job is posted, there’s already a preferred candidate that will fill it. This lack of faith in the process discourages qualified employees from applying even when they are interested in the role.

Even if you’re clear on an employee’s aspirations, don’t expect them to pursue the job necessarily. Make a point of encouraging and motivating the employee to step up to the opportunity.

When a leader supports and advocates for staff members when job opportunities arise, employees’ mindsets start to shift from that lack of trust in the promotion process.

Create buy-in once you’ve made the promotion decision.

After an individual is promoted, explain why to the rest of your people. Avoid simply restating the job criteria, and instead focus on sharing examples of how the promoted employee consistently demonstrated the criteria in the job description. Additionally, explain how the promotion benefits the overall team.

Use promotion announcements as opportunities to recognize employees on the team who strengthened the company’s ability to invest in the new job position. It’s not just about celebrating the employee who was promoted, but also about the staff members who made the promotion possible.

There will always be some disappointment among those who did not get promoted. However, being a valued member of the winning team is the next best thing to securing the promotion.

Connect with employees who weren’t promoted after the promotion announcement.

Once you’ve made the promotion announcement, talk with those who didn’t receive the job opportunity. Was it due to a matter of readiness, ambition, or with the organization overall? Your support at this stage is vital to the employee’s future success.

For employees who it was an issue of readiness, meaning they weren’t as equipped to do the job as the individual who was promoted, help them to obtain the training and development they need to be more prepared next time a promotion opportunity opens up. For employees who it was an ambition issue, or the opportunity wasn’t the right fit for them, work with them to explore what other opportunities align better with their career goals.

When employees are unsure about their future at your organization, it may indicate that they’re not interested in or feeling a lack of support when it comes to long-term advancement. If you think the employee is a good fit for the company, it’s essential to take the time to understand the situation, so you can better support them.

Encouraging leaders at every level of the company to use this process within their teams will allow more employees to define their aspirations, trust managers when they make promotion decisions, and feel like a valued part of a winning team. When leaders follow this approach, promotions become a shared win for all employees.

Key Takeaways:

  • When you have a solid promotion process in place, it enables you to motivate employees to reach their full potential, as well as demonstrate to your company the behaviors and results that are valued.
  • Improve the effectiveness of your promotions by focusing on supporting your employees at each stage of the promotion process.
  • Explain to employees how a promotion benefits the entire team, and use promotion announcements as opportunities to recognize staff members who strengthened the company’s ability to invest in the position.

Referenced resource: How You Promote People Can Make or Break Company Culture, Jessica Rohman, Chinwe Onyeagoro, and Michael C. Bush, Harvard Business Review.

Would you like more tips for leveraging the promotion process to empower employees to do their best work? Listen to our latest episode of Thrive By Design: The Podcast.