Perils of Probationary Promotions

The Win-Win-Lose Proposition
When I was at Oracle, there was a major reorganization and a new department was formed. I was a Sr. Manager in operations and my boss, a Director, was tapped to join a temporary global taskforce and disappeared for 3 months. Here’s where it gets interesting: his manager, the VP, needed me to do my boss’s job but he couldn’t promote me, at least not yet. I was offered the “job of a Director,” but didn’t get the title. On face value everything seemed fine:

  1. The company wins – The job gets done and business moves forward.
  2. The manager wins – The job gets done and s/he also feels good about giving you the “opportunity.”
  3. You win… really? – You get more responsibility and learn more skills.

Here’s what’s wrong with the picture: You lose too! From a financial perspective, you get more work but have the same pay. You lose salary and bonus upside because you were compensated at the lower pay grade.

But the political ramifications are more serious. You have accepted a new role but don’t have full organizational support. Titles are important, particularly in mature organizations, because they give you the clout to represent your business function and to make decisions. Without the formal title and recognition, you are vulnerable to complexities and delays because people are questioning your authority. It’s effectively “the buck stops here” credibility that encourages people to work with you instead of going around you to make things happen. Also, without the title you have to swallow your pride because people in the organization will ask “why are Karen and Mike (your peers) Directors and you are not?” or “if you’re doing your boss’s old job and he was a Director then why aren’t you a Director?” Furthermore, when your promotion is finally official, the formal announcement is anti-climactic because you’ve already been doing the job. And worse yet, if you still haven’t been promoted then you are floating in limbo, while others are trying to figure out how they can get that promotion before you do.
How You Got Into This Predicament
Probationary promotions are commonly practiced within high-tech companies. They happen for several reasons: 1) your manager doesn’t have the power (or possibly the political will) to authorize your promotion 2) it’s outside of the focal/annual review process so you have to wait as a matter of policy. At any rate, managers play this card in order to get you to take on more work and hope that this “new responsibility” will be enough to keep you motivated and happy for a little while longer. One argument for the probationary promotion (instead of the “real deal”) is that it’s a good way to observe you in the role. It’s a low-risk “test drive” for your management where they can watch and see if you succeed without risking their political capital of officially promoting you first. That’s hogwash so don’t fall for it. If you are qualified enough to be given the responsibility, then you are surely qualified to get the title promotion and compensation that’s associated with it.

Negotiating Your Promotion
Let’s discuss how you can gain control over the process. Every high-achiever will chomp at the bit to get more responsibility and looks forward to being hand-picked to lead a new project. When you’re early in your career, taking on new challenges is a good way to get visibility and to demonstrate that you have high potential. Negotiating hard for that promotion at this early stage of your career is less important than when you are vying for Director and VP roles. At these levels, much more is at stake with respect to business need and impact as well as the professional risk and personal sacrifices that you take on. Here are important points to tip the balance in your favor:

  1. Build your business case – articulate why it’s better for the business that you are promoted. Focusing solely on your own motivations can put your manager in an immediate defensive posture if he is not ready or able to promote you. Whatever you do, don’t build your case for a formal promotion around your needs and goals. Your boss might be able to ask for an exception to company policy for the good of the business, but he’ll never be able to ask for an exception because of your individual needs and goals. So equip him to make a case that his superiors can respect and support based on the business need.
  2. How it benefits your manager – it’s in your manager’s best interest for you to be successful. Sending you off into the company to drive change, manage critical projects, etc. without the proper support can come back to bite him or her if you fail. Help her to realize how sending you in at the wrong level can undermine the projects that are most important to her. Another point is that the more senior her direct reports are, the stronger the case is for her next promotion since she’ll be managing Directors instead of first-line managers.
  3. Show your political savvy – your promotability has as much to do with acceptance up, down, and across the organization as what your manager thinks. If your manager promotes you and then receives a backlash of criticism, his own credibility is shot. Do you know how others feel about your expertise and contribution to the business? You should have a strong understanding of this before you push for your promotion. If there are any concerns raised, then this is your opportunity to correct any misunderstandings. Removing these barriers will help to align the political timing of your promotion to the benefit of your manager and the overall business.

Give Yourself a Promotion
How you handle and present your case for promotion is an important preview of your leadership skills and style. Your ability to demonstrate balanced thinking around business, managerial, and personal benefits will provide insights to your potential as a leader and future executive. The more you think and act like the level you want to be at, the more people will view you as already being there. Moreover, applying the principles of SMART objectives (specific, measureable, attainable, realistic, and time bound) helps to ensure that you and your manager are on the same page regarding your promotion expectations. When the requirements for your promotion are “SMART”, you’ll be working hard based upon a clear set of objectives vs. suffering from the “moving goal post” phenomenon where your manager just invents a new requirement or throws out a new challenge for you to overcome before the promotion process can continue.

Observing how your manager handles this situation is equally telling. If he’s fully committed to your success, then he will work with you according to the principles mentioned above instead of keeping things very loose, unspecific, and open-ended from a timing perspective.

Have you ever taken a probationary promotion? Did it work out eventually, or did you get stuck in the “slow lane” as a result? How did you deftly avoid a probationary promotion or accelerate a formal promotion? Please share your thoughts.

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The ExecCatalyst blog covers topics related to leadership, career advancement, hiring, finding the right job, company cultures and office politics, and general management. The authors have extensive experience in high-tech in Silicon Valley and elsewhere and have gained experience at small, fast-moving startups as well as large, global technology firms.

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