Tips for handling the career progression conversation (for First-time people managers)

Career progression is universal across cultures, so soon, as a people manager, you will be in a position where your team asks you about their progression. You are probably more familiar with the reversed situation, i.e. your progression conversation, so you should pay enough attention to this topic and prepare for it in advance. The prospect of career progression can be very motivating, and the lack of it can also severely impact morale. A few things to note:

  • People often compare themselves against others in the office (especially those they perceive as peers), and the promotion of one and not others could lead to a sense of favoritism and unhappiness amongst team members. When that happens, you can see the candidness and peer collaboration start to dwindle. 
  • Promotion without clear evidence of achievement, or if it happens too quickly, can create certain expectations that may not be met. For example, if your company promotes an entry-level graduate after nine months of joining the team, future graduates who don’t receive a promotion within 12 months may start to wonder what is wrong with them or the company.
  • One of the trickiest situations around progression is about explaining to someone that while he/she is performing at the next level, there is just no business need/case for the promotion. 

So as a first-time people manager, what should you do? 

  • First, research your company’s policy and procedure for getting promoted. Usually, but not always, the larger the corporation is, the more complex its promotion process. For example, some businesses have an annual performance review, while others might have multiple cycles throughout the year. Additionally, there may be several training programs and resources available on this topic that you can sign up for.
  • Second, plan for your team’s progression. Six to nine months or even one year is recommended. It takes time to: 
    • Delegate and evaluate if your team member is performing at the next level. 
    • Build a business case to justify the promotion with relevant stakeholders (from your line manager, finance director, or even the managing director / CEO). 
    • Assess the potential impact it will have on the rest of your team members. 
  • Remember, people compare themselves against others. This naturally leads to the third point: goal setting and measurement of success. It sounds simple, but it is not easy to practice. It is awfully easy to skip or cut short the goal-setting exercise or quarterly review under the pressure of an external deadline. Go for the quality of the conversation. 
  • Fourth, promotion and salary growth are not the only ways to show recognition and appreciation at work. If you think someone is working hard but not yet performing at their peak, a spot bonus may be a more suitable way to show appreciation.
  • Fifth, it is all about managing expectations. Give your team member a realistic picture, and do not over-promise. If the promotion comes sooner, it will be a pleasant surprise. 
  • Sixth, what if there is a transition between different teams? How could you ensure that the progression conversation is managed well between managers? I would encourage the following to be done.
    • You and your team member’s manager will have a discussion about their performance and if there is any conversation about progression.
    • Three-way meeting to align progress and expectations. 
    • Strive to end the meeting with alignment and make sure that important points are communicated clearly.

Last but not least, occasionally, you would come across a team member who is not happy with the speed of his progression at the company and is thinking about quitting. What should you do? If this is the first time you deal with this, I advise getting your line manager or perhaps HR involved so that they can give some advice. One of the critical questions you need to answer is whether he/she is performing at the next level. Assuming that the answer is yes, you want to keep him/her. However, you do not want to create the perception that anyone could/should threaten to quit to get promoted faster. Generally, with an experienced manager, after consulting with HR/Finance and other stakeholders, they will be able to articulate how far they are willing to go to keep a team member and what the message should be.


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