Why your leadership development efforts are not netting you more internal promotions…

Paradox Triangle

When perception creates a paradox

There are a number of paradoxes in the modern workplace but one that seems to plague a lot of organizations is leadership development and succession planning not leading to better internal talent or higher retention. And it befuddles HR professionals, senior executives, recruiters, and all employees.

A story (* = fictionalized…kinda)

Ryan* is a 28 yr old IT Jr. Project Specialist and has worked at Vector Resources* for 4 years. Starting as a departmental admin, Ryan proved her ability and moved into the coordinator role after 2 yrs. Since becoming a project coordinator, Ryan has received multiple recognitions from various stakeholders and completed a number of successful projects. She has also taken a few leadership courses and professional development courses as a part of her Individual Development Plan. Now Ryan is looking for her next career step which is to a Project Manager that would include up to two direct reports.  The regional office in New Mexico has an opening for exactly that position. Ryan has long-standing good relationships with the people she would be supervising and they are supportive of her promotion. Ryan’s direct manager feels Ryan would be great in her new role and has acted as an advocate for her promotion as well.

Sounds good, right? She’s got a great track record, recommendations from her boss, colleagues, and recognition from other stakeholders proving her ability to successfully lead projects. Additionally, she knows the company, already has established relationships, understands the strategic vision of Vector Resources, she’s willing to relocate at her own expense, and love’s the company. Seems like a no brainer.

But here is what happens. The position posts internally and Ryan goes through the process and everyone seems to like her…but rather than offer her the job, they decide to post it externally to get some comparisons. EVEN THOUGH SHE IS THE PERFECT CANDIDATE! And here is the kicker, the salary range they are targeting for an external is MORE than they would offer Ryan.

So here is where Ryan sits – capable, recommended, ready, internally knowledgable, and accepting of a lower than external market salary because she loves the company.  Yet, here is the message she is getting – external candidates are worth more AND might be more suitable for a role she is already doing. So regardless of the outcome, Ryan is starting to feel unappreciated leading to disengagement and cynicism towards a company she loved.  Not to mention, the time to fill this valuable position is just getting longer and longer with two direct reports having no manager.

Despite all the things going for her, Ryan is subject to two contributing factors that are roadblocks to internal promotions – her longevity in her position and a concept of internal equity.  Lets look at these individually because they are acting against internal promotions is different ways. One is leadership failure and the other is a cultural failure.

The Paradox of Longevity

Despite the high praise and desire for employee loyalty, it is harmful to your career progression. The culprit to this conundrum is a component of gestalt psychology known as “figure-ground.”  It is a concept of how we perceive things.

Faces or a vase?

Largely illustrated in visual form by optical illusions that show two or more objects depending on how you look at them, the concept of figure ground states that once something emerges from the background as a distinct image, it can no longer be unseen. So while you may see the vase first and then the profiles, you cannot “unsee” the vase.

Old woman or young woman?

How this works against an employee when it comes to longevity in a certain company, and more specifically in a certain position, is people sometimes have difficulty seeing someone as capable of doing something beyond their current position.

Take Ryan’s example, Ryan has been in a non-management role for an extended period of time and as such, the leaders around her (the hiring managers in particular), and unable to see her as a manager. In fact, she may even be told she is not qualified because she does not have management experience, which she will NEVER get in her current non-managerial role.

It is a Catch-22. You aren’t qualified to manage people until you manage people. And if she is not given the position for that reason, what leads her to believe she will ever attain her career goals at her current company. They are in fact sending a message that quitting is the only way for her to further her career.

Seemingly, some organizational leaders are more appreciative of the unknown potential with an external candidate, than with the known capabilities and internal knowledge of an internal candidate.  That is the leadership failure, failure to see your own employees’ potential.

The Cultural Issue

This one is more a fault of systems being designed independent of one another but it becomes a blind spot for many organizations. They pay internal candidates less than external hires. And while the basis of this might be rooted in good financial theory, the human message it sends is, internal experience is worth less than external experience.

The underlying principles at work on this one is from a financial standpoint this practice makes good fiscal sense. An internal will generally accept less for a promotion than an external might demand. But beyond the messages it sends to an internal here is something to consider. The reason an internal would take less is because there is less stress of learning a new organization. It is easier to stay with a company I know for less money, than have to re-establish myself and learn a new role at the same time. The inverse of that is where irony sits. For the external hire, they fully anticipate the stress of learning a new organization and establishing themselves. So in essence, you are paying MORE for someone to learn your organization before they can even bring benefit. You are paying MORE for an external hire’s learning curve before productivity kicks in.

There is also the concept of internal equity that many HR professionals cite saying they do not want to create an expectation of a high raise percentage for internals as they move up. But this tends to be a fallacious argument. It may make sense when it comes to performance or cost of living raises, but it should not apply when the nature of someone’s job changes in accordance to a promotion. The role is worth a certain range and adjusting it simply because someone is an internal candidate is creating a negative culture for internal promotions.

Ultimately, here is the message and culture this practice of basing salary on the internal status and current salary creates: quit and work somewhere else, then come back and we will not only be more eager to hire you, we will pay you more than if you had just been promoted. It encourages the exact thing you are working to prevent. And what is more, you have now taken a sincerely engaged employee and turned them into a cynical job-hopper.

Straighten Things Out

Much of what I encounter in organizational roadblocks to performance are a result of misalignment. Everyone to detours around the roadblock to continue moving forward. In this case, the roadblock is a misaligned compensation philosophy and leadership perception. The detour is exiting people out of your organization only to pay them more to come back.

A major argument I hear from many senior executives is “if we develop people into leaders, they just take that experience to another company.” To which I respond, if that happens more than 50% of the time then you are either not looking at your people with fresh eyes when it comes to potential promotions or your compensation philosophy tells them they would be worth more if they quit.

When leaders start bemoaning the talent shortage and worrying about leadership gaps (such as in this article from Inc.com) it is usually a good idea to start looking at your efforts. If you are not developing your talent, start. But make sure you look the environment you plan to grow them in. You might create great seedling leaders but if you don’t replant them when they need more room or water them as much they deserve…you could find your leadership crop dying off.


Work is not a “place”

The office set for Jacques Tati's Play Time an...

Image via Wikipedia

There is “work” and then there is the “workplace.” Many people think they are the same or that one necessarily must occur at the other yet more and more studies are showing that the traditional office environment stifles creativity, reduces productivity, increases group-think, and can even deteriorate personal health. And while you may read some of my posts and think I advocate abolishing the workplace all together, that is not my stance. I think going to work, at times, is very necessary to getting the results you need. But equally required to achieve results is time somewhere else. Sometimes it is going for a walk, sometimes it is a hike, maybe the gym, maybe a coffee shop, maybe it’s at home.

My stance is: allow people to work where and when they are most productive. It is a sign of trust in your employees, true delegation on your part, and is empowering to you employee.  Not to mention, as this article in Psychology Science suggests, the metaphor “think outside of the box” has real physical significance. Sitting in your cube, office, or office building can constrain your thinking and narrow your perspectives.

I am not necessarily anti-office, I am pro-productivity. Don’t assume presence implies action.  Give people clear expectations, provide access to resources and tools to do their jobs, give them directional feedback, then leave them alone so they can do their jobs.  Your attendance policy may just be hurting your company in more ways than you realize.

Anyone Can Build a House?

Training is a delicate thing. We have all endured bad training and hopefully some of you have had the benefit of quality training. The difference, training and learning professionals versus subject matter experts (SMEs) or HR generalists. I am not questioning their intellect or skills in what they do, and while all have great intentions, the subtleties of quality training design and facilitation go beyond knowing Adult Learning Principles or the ADDIE method. And sadly, yes, with much fumbling and frustration, anyone can and has designed training. Often resulting in an immediately cynical workforce when it comes to further training. If you want people to engage in your development efforts rather than blithely walk through them (with little or no result) then you need properly educated and qualified learning and development professionals. Saying anyone can design quality training is very similar to saying anyone can build a quality house. Anyone can build a house, really?

Tools are Not the Same as Design

One of the biggest travesties I see in training is the confusion between instructional design and material design. The misconception that delivery tools are the same as delivery design is a gross oversight in many training programs. If you focus is on the delivery tool and not the purpose of the training, then you are likely spending a lot of money and not getting the results you are looking for. Sure, eLearning can increase efficiency in training delivery…but it does not always corollate to an increase in impact. ELearning, social media, PowerPoint, webcasts, etc. are training TOOLS, not training design. The neatest new drill or hammer cannot replace a good blueprint. And just because someone is skilled at using a hammer or drill it does not mean he/she could/should build a house.

Focus on the Result First

If you do not know what you want to be different, then stop and figure it out. I have asked this simple question a hundred times to people requesting training of one sort or another – “what would you like participants to know, do, or think about after this training that they cannot do now?” And I often left with a blank stare and a few seconds of silence. Training is meant to increase knowledge, skills, or shift perceptions…that is it. If you do not know what you want as a result of the training, don’t waste your time or money. Continuing the house metaphor – if you do not know what you want that is different than what you already have, then why would you build a new house? And similarly, be clear on what is accomplishable thru training.  Saying you want people to get along as a result of the training is kind of like telling an architect you want the kids to keep the house cleaner as a result of building a new house. Training cannot make people want to do anything; it cannot make people like anything (or anyone), and it cannot make anyone believe something different. It also  cannot make them accountable – that is YOUR job as a manager.


Contractors know a lot about the overall process of building a house.  They can schedule resources, get workforce mobilized, and manage the building project’s timeline.  But they are not an architect or an engineer.  When it comes to design. Contractors are generalists or project managers.  The have a broad understanding, but most contractors at one point or another outsource a lot (if not all) of the construction work. The same can be said about HR Generalists. HR Generalist are the consumate organizers of HR functions – they make sure people get paid, processed, retain benefits, all while keeping you (the employer) out of employment legal trouble. They have a great broad understanding of the HR functions including training AND often is it best to outsource parts of the work. Be sure to acknowledge your limitations and outsource when necessary.

Plumbers, Electricians, and Carpenters

Masters in these trades are skilled beyond belief. They make the parts of the blueprint come to life. Yet many, though skilled and handy, have a deep knowledge of one or perhaps two areas. They are the subject matter experts. Though, I would not ask a master plumber to design my house, nor electrician, nor carpenter. Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) are wonderful resources of copious amounts of knowledge and expertise. You call on them when you want to dig deeper or need specific knowledge.  Techincal, finance, or sales SMEs are no different. They are wonderfully skilled at what they do. And interestingly enough, have a lot in common with training professionals.


Architects are the masters of bringing a vision into a physical form and detailing how it needs to be executed. They understand the concepts of flow, sequence, material usability, and innovative concepts. They are design experts both in an artistic form as well as in physical possibility. Training Professionals are the architects when it comes to developing talent. They understand the importance of flow, timing, sequence, design, appropriate materials, and adult learning. They understand the value of SMEs because in many ways they are themselves subject matter experts in the realm of knowledge, learning, and skill transfer.

Foundations of a Company

The inescapable fact of organizations is that without people, companies die. Even if you are the sole proprietor – if you abdicate, your company dies if there is no one to replace you. People are the foundation, walls, floors, aesthetics, HVAC, plumbing, and electricity of your company. Talent development is not arbitrary or accidental just as the quality construction of a purposeful building is not dumb luck. Of course if you are only looking to hang some pictures or build a box, finding someone who can drive a nail and handle a saw might be all you need. But if you are looking to build or rebuild your talent development programs- you might want to talk with a learning architect.