In every organization there is one place where the promotion – the leap – from one level to the next is particularly big and challenging. The chances of success after the promotion at this level are lower than at any other move up the ladder. It’s the place where the supply of “ready now” internal candidates is lowest, so either those internal folks are promoted as a “stretch” before they are really ready, or external hires are recruited – demotivating the internal talent and increasing the cost of hiring. Why do these big leaps exist in the first place, and how can they be reduced or eliminated?
At the lower levels in organizations, success is a direct function of the ability to “do” and to “get things done.” Further up the ladder there comes a need to persuade, to influence, to negotiate, to advocate – in short, to do lots besides “do.” At these critical inflection points the level of complexity increases, the strategic thinking requirement builds and the political waters are more treacherous. Sometimes it’s purely driven by internal structure and levels of decision-making, and other times it’s the point at which the role faces outwards as a spokesperson or ambassador, or where negotiation with government, vendors or partners is required.
In any event, the leap exists because the skills needed at the next level are different than those that have driven success at the previous level. While the potential candidates for a bigger role have been doing their current job, they haven’t been preparing – or being prepared – for the next one.
It would be easy to lay blame on the organization – after all, they “should” be thinking ahead to what’s needed and putting the appropriate development plans and resources in place, right? Well, right – but only partly. The responsibility for closing the gap – for making the transition from one level to the next easier and ensuring that there are internal candidates ready – ought to be shared.
Organizationally, there needs to be better attention paid to actively preparing candidates for that next level. If the next move has a strategic dimension, be sure the candidates are involved in strategic projects and given opportunities to participate in strategy-level discussions. Establish developmental roles and create ‘acting’ terms when there are temporary gaps in the leadership structure. Take some risks with who you involve in key activities and decisions and allow them to stretch – and potentially mess up. Be willing to think creatively when it comes to lateral moves, putting good managers into roles outside their subject matter expertise.
From the individual’s point of view, raise your head up out of the day to day and pay attention to what the people at the next level actually do all day. Develop your team so you’ve got obvious successors, and so you’re able to confidently delegate. Seek out special projects and opportunities to work – and build relationships – cross-functionally. Read Marshall Goldsmith’s “What Got you Here Won’t Get you There” and my own book for ideas about how to develop before you get the bigger job, and to increase your chances of success once you get it.
Most importantly, organizations and individuals need to stop being surprised that there all of a sudden is a gap where “ready now” talent ought to be. Individuals – top talent – ask yourself whether you’re really ready for a bigger job that requires you to use skills you don’t use today. Organizations – what can you do to actively involve your top talent in the business at a higher level before they get there?