I’m 30, have an MBA, been here 5 years, why am I not a VP?

If you work in HR, you’ve almost certainly heard a question like this one, and maybe even struggled to come up with a solid response. One of my senior HR clients recently asked me to help him respond to a similar question from his leadership team colleagues – “We have several directors with 5-10 years’ experience who want to know when they will be VPs – so what do we tell them?”

Historically, titles and compensation were tied to specific roles, and promotion was available only when that role was vacated, or when similar new roles were created – the classic hierarchical model. Recently, this model has begun to change, as organization structures and roles reflect the new reality of a global and decentralized business model. Instead of waiting to succeed to that VP role, people want to be recognized and compensated for their contributions and, if they aren’t, they likely to move to another organization that will do so.  The challenge becomes HOW do you decide to promote someone in this brave new world?

Unfortunately, the past provides little useful guidance, because the traditional criteria never worked all that well anyway.

  • Good performance in their current role? (then maybe the person should stay in that role and continue to perform well)
  • Years of experience? (sure, but one year of experience 10 times isn’t the same as 10 years’ experience)
  • Lots of development activities? (perhaps, but did they apply those skills or not, and how well, and are they even relevant for the new role?)
  • Outstanding recommendations? (maybe, but what’s the interest of the promoter, and is he/she qualified to judge what’s needed in the new role?)

Promotion shouldn’t be based on skill acquisition or tenure or even successful performance in a prior role. Instead, a promotional decision should be based on a DEMONSTRATED CONTRIBUTION to create more value for the organization – specifically to create different, more useful RESULTS than those created in previous roles. Following are some examples of the improved results you might expect to see when you make this decision.

Associate to Senior Associate

  • become self-directed on tasks (to free your manager to develop others)
  • resolve simple conflicts about goals or methods (to remove performance blocks)
  • influence adoption of new methods (to speed performance, reduce cost)

Manager to Director

  • manage results and relationships across teams (instead of only inside the team)
  • anticipate and prevent conflicts or problems (instead of reacting as they emerge)
  • develop leaders of leaders (instead of only developing individual contributors)

Director to Vice President

  • build and sell systemic solutions (instead of responding to problems locally)
  • identify a strategic risk, and then build commitment to a solution (instead of waiting for others to act)
  • identify a new capability or product, and then build commitment for implementation (instead of relying solely on current methods or products)

When I discuss this approach, I will sometimes hear someone say, “I can’t demonstrate these results until someone gives me the opportunity” – which is code for don’t expect results until you put me in the job. However, each of the examples listed above is what we call a “half step” – a slight stretch in performance that a person can achieve with effective performance management – assuming they have both the aptitude and interest to reach ahead!

Demonstrated contribution is only one part of effective performance and talent management systems but, when used effectively and systematically, it can be the foundation for highly effective selection, development, and (of course) promotional decisions.

View Kyle Dover's LinkedIn profileView Kyle Dover’s profile