Dear Crucial Skills,
I have three direct reports who are very loyal and hardworking supervisors. These employees have worked for the organization for over twenty years. They have also held down the fort during my and my predecessor’s lengthy absences.
I have recently hired a fourth supervisor with better leadership skills. I would like to promote this newcomer to a manger’s position without hurting the feelings of my current supervisors. HR has recommended that I create the new management position and interview all internal candidates and then select the most qualified.
What would be an effective crucial conversation with these supervisors?
You’re in a very tough situation. I hope you’ll forgive me if I suggest that some of the reason for your predicament could be of your own making. I offer that perspective not to create more pain or turmoil for you, but to teach something that I hope is of use to you and other readers. If my perspective is unfair, I beg your patience as it may be relevant to others.
One way people get into your situation is by failing to hold crucial conversations with the previous three direct reports over the course of years. When long tenured and loyal employees do good, solid, competent work over the years, they can often fail to move to “great” because their supervisor becomes accustomed to “good enough.” And because they work hard a supervisor can feel guilty for riding them too much to help them work better. We reward loyalty with our silence about employees’ potential for greater contribution.
But I would be less than fair if I didn’t acknowledge that there’s another way leaders get into your predicament. And that’s through growth. In these cases, as the company becomes more complex, someone who filled a job perfectly for years will simply be “outgrown” by their job. These are painful situations to respond to as a leader because the individual has done nothing wrong—in fact they’ve been contributing to the growth that they now can’t keep up with.
Difficult as these situations are, you still have an obligation to do right for the “many” first, and the “one” second. In other words, your first commitment must be to your leadership responsibility. As a leader, you are trusted by the organization to ensure that you make the right decisions in the best interests of the institution. Having made the right decision, you then need to do right by the individual in how the decision is implemented.
Even in situations where the job has outgrown the candidate, we have to be vigilant by not waiting for organizational changes or promotion opportunities to let someone know they aren’t keeping up. Your job, as a leader, is to help them see how their game has to improve so if they’re passed over, it is no surprise.
Here’s how that might look in your current situation:
1. Commit to doing your duty. You absolutely must commit yourself to promoting the person who will best serve the needs of your organization.
2. Own up to your loyal employees. You owe it to the three loyal direct reports to let them know as far in advance as possible that there is a gap between the needs of the organization and their current capabilities. If you’ve waited too long to do this, then you’ve failed them and need to acknowledge that as you discuss the promotion possibility with them. It should not have taken a better candidate arriving on the scene to show you what “great” performance looks like. If it did, then you may need to own up to having allowed mediocrity to become your own measuring rod. You can’t let this conversation with the three long-timers be about “them vs. the new kid”—because it isn’t. It’s about them vs. the needs of the organization. So whether you’re doing this early or late, sit down with them and a) shower them with praise for the loyal service they’ve offered; while b) letting them know that the promotion requires capabilities they currently lack.
3. Show loyalty through generous coaching and support. The way you can reciprocate the loyalty of the three employees is by letting them know that you will give them all the support you can to help them compete for the open position. Now, if the time required to prepare them is unreasonably short, there’s nothing more you can do—just apologize for your failure and commit to helping them prepare for future opportunities. Offer coaching, training, cross-training, temporary assignments, or any other things you can give to help them step up their game. This is how you show loyalty, not by giving them something they don’t deserve.
4. Offer similar support to the new kid. Be sure you aren’t guilty of cronyism by ignoring the need for coaching and advocacy of the new supervisor. Let the new candidate know that you will offer any support he or she needs—including any of the developmental opportunities you’re affording the long-timers.
I wish you the best. Even if you’ve made any of the mistakes I describe above, you’re not alone. And facing this situation appropriately will make you a better leader in the future.