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The road to management

This is a topic we have written about before. It is an important topic and worth revisiting.


Companies contact firms like ours for one purpose. They want us to identify high potential and ambitious people at all levels. In thirty years of recruiting, I have never had a company call me and say, “Find me an average candidate who is a drone for a job.”  Candidly, those are the people they can find on their own.


That means we, as recruiters, are thirsty to find smart and ambitious people for our clients. We want to communicate with them about our clients and educate them about our client’s active openings.


Unfortunately, we often run across a worldview among some candidates, usually in the 25 to 35 year old range, that is self-defeating.  It is a perception of how to break into management ranks that is out of touch with how companies actually hire. I always have found it a shame when we connect with an ambitious person who, because of a lack of understanding of how the world works outside of their company, limits their promotional opportunities. In this White Paper we will explain to you how to get promoted. It is so simple that we will say it in one sentence and then explain the reasons that it is true.


To get promoted you need to work for a growing company.


It is absolutely as simple as that.


If your employer is not growing, you are looking up a ladder that has a lot of people standing above you. Much worse, each rung on the ladder is narrower than the one above. Each ladder is more precarious to stand on.  Unless the ladder is constantly getting longer and stretching, people will eventually start to fall off.


There are 3 things that you should know:

  1. If your employer is not growing it is probably shrinking. Business is too competitive to allow treading water to be a strategy.
  2. If your employer is not growing, your career strategy is limited to your boss’s leaving or dying and your hope that you are chosen as a replacement.
  3. If you are not a manager now, don’t expect an external employer to hire you as a manager. It is not realistic.

Most people, if they step back and stop and think about points 1 and 2, will get that intuitively. They know that intellectually they need to leave to advance themselves but complacency gets in the way. Next year’s job change becomes 5 years or 10 years later. Candidly, by then it is too late. At that point you’ve had 10 years or more with one employer without a promotion. Your career, in executive search parlance, is stale.


Point number 3 is tricky. Unless you fully understand employment decision making, you can get trapped by faulty logic. I’d like to spend some time explaining Point 3 and then make a side trip into the murky world of job titles.


We often run across people who have realized they need to change jobs but who don’t get Point 3 and, because of that, get mired in a type of career stasis. Here is the scenario.


A Sr. Accountant with an eventual CFO goal knows that he needs to become a Controller first. His road to a Controllership at his current firm is blocked by an entrenched incumbent and, with his current employer not growing; he knows no new jobs internally will be created for him or his boss.


He looks externally but he takes the stance that, since he is now a Sr. Accountant, he should only leave for a Controller job. Anything else would be a lateral move, he says.


Point 3 gets in the way of that logic. Here is why. Pretend you are an employer with a Controller opening. You’ve evaluated your four internal Sr. Accountants and feel that none are ready for a promotion yet. You look externally. What is your biggest concern about hiring from the outside?


You don’t want to demoralize your existing team. Even though they may not be ready for a promotion, they are valuable. They are just not ready for the jump yet. You know they will feel bypassed by a new hire above them and want to minimize the emotional damage. What do you, as a smart employer, do?


You make sure that the person you bring in from the outside has impeccable managerial credentials to mitigate any perceptual static to your internal team. So, when you get a resume from someone who is a Sr. Accountant, no matter how much potential they have, you get nervous that they lack the one credential you actually need, specific Controller experience. On paper, they have the same experience as your bypassed internal staff. You might interview someone like that but, at the end of the day, your default choice out of risk aversion will be someone who does not demoralize your current team.


So, a Sr. Accountant with ambition who is stuck in a dead end role runs the risk of being a perpetual second choice to those with managerial experience for Controllership positions. In limiting his job search to the title of the job, he is missing opportunities with growing firms that might provide more exciting paths to management roles. The biggest mistake people make is to focus on the title of the job rather than the growth prospects of the new employer. A good job at a lousy firm may mean a layoff a year later.  Any job at a growing firm may mean a promotion within 6 months.


Now, let’s talk about job titles. Job titles only have context relative to the employer’s size. We see this often in searches we conduct for Directors or Managers. A Director at a small company may mistakenly look down on a Manager title at a larger firm.  He or she may see it as a step back. We saw this on a recent HR search that Cathy did for an HR Manager/Business Partner. The job supported 600 people and had a staff of 5 with a very good budget. We had HR Directors with no direct reports at 100 person companies tell us it was a step back because of title.


They saw their next step as a VP. Now please look at this logically.


Irrespective of title, which is a better job-

  1. Managing a staff of 5 people with a $1,000,000 budget supporting a 600 person division in a billion dollar firm
  2. Being the total department yourself with a budget that you have to fight for and reporting to a CFO who thinks that you run the Personnel Department


Titles are meaningless compared to actual responsibility. I once had a 25 year old “VP Engineering” at a 10 person company tell me he was ready for a VP job at a 500 person firm. When I questioned him about his job, he said he had one direct report now and had never put a budget together or done a performance review. He was the most senior engineer and his boss gave him a VP title.


When I tried to explain that the job we were trying to fill had 3 direct reports and 15 indirect reports he insisted that he was a VP now and that he was ready for that level of job. That was after I had to explain to him what direct and indirect reports actually were.


Don’t be that guy.


If there is one thing I have learned in 30 years of recruitment it is that the people who succeed get “the game”. They know the rules and how the world works.  The problem is that there is no book with these rules and, indeed, the rules have changed over the years. They can’t be passed down generationally because yesterday’s rules are not today’s rule.


A successful career is a series of small decisions made over decades. Each decision has a small but measurable effect. However, at the end of the day, each small decision adds up to an inertial force that has a tremendous weight that is difficult to change. That is why, as I said earlier, complacency can be a career killer. Your career has an arc. The minute it flattens, gravity will eventually pull it down.


Inevitably, with these White Papers, I get an email from someone who does not want management and who thinks it is unfair that to move up they need to be focused on management. Here is my preemptive response.


There is no fair or unfair to the way companies think. You are allowed to not want to manage. Here is what will usually happen.


You will do the same job for 20 years. You may have different titles and, at a larger company they may shuffle you around, but you are essentially at the same level for 20 or more years. Each year you will get your 3-4 percent raise.


Those raises don’t sound like a lot but, over 20 years at the same level, it puts you at a very high salary for your actual job. That is a very nervous place to be. You are vulnerable to the next downturn or, honestly, to the next corporate decision about headcount.


Don’t be that guy either.


Think ahead and do not be complacent.


As ever thanks for getting this far and please, remember Right Recruiting for all of your recruitment needs.

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