When filling an open role, most IT leaders aspire to land a rock star who not only ticks every box but brings in technical experience and knowledge not widely present in their current IT ranks. But a better solution might just be hidden in plain sight: the IT pros you already employ.
When you promote from within, “you boost morale throughout the company,” says Andy Byron, president of Lacework. “When other team members see their peers advance, it shows that the company is committed to employee growth and development.”
This strategy is terrific for retention and even recruitment, but it is not without risks and challenges. Opening up roles to internal talent can wreak havoc if you end up passing over current employees in making your final hire, or if you find that a key technical staff member isn’t as interested in managing people as they — or you — first thought. It can also backfire if success hinges on experience you have not yet offered to those you decide to promote into the role.
There are strategies for managing all of this, though. To help you promote from within with minimal blowback, I spoke to CIOs, tech leads, and other experts who have struggled with, and mastered, the art of deciding when to hire and when to promote.
Deciding how to fill an open position is a new decision every time. Sometimes it will be obvious you need to hire new people. Maybe you simply don’t have enough bodies. “Or maybe you need to fill a technical void in the organization,” suggests John Roman, CIO of The Bonadio Group. “For example, if you are embarking on an RPA [robotic process automation] initiative, you might want a subject matter expert who can hit the ground running.”
Finding an outside candidate with the skills you need, though, is often not an easy task. And it has repercussions that should be part of your decision tree.
“Start by asking yourself, Do you honestly need a rockstar unicorn?” says Susanne Tedrick, cloud computing specialist at Microsoft and the author of Women of Color in Tech. Because there is a reason everyone is calling them that. “They likely don’t exist. And if they do, it’s going to take a long time to find one and you will pay a lot of money.”
A better idea, says Tedrick, is to “focus on the immediate near-term future and think about what you need. Then look at the current skill set of your people and ask if they can handle it. Would it be a stretch? Are there opportunities for upskilling?”
This might seem like more work than writing a job description, but the payback can be huge in terms of recruitment — people like to work for companies that do this — and for retention because people don’t have to leave to advance their career.
“In every exit interview I’ve done, and if you look at the data as to why people leave, it is because of a lack of career visibility and mobility,” says Mari Kemp, senior vice president of HR at Ease.
Bringing in a unicorn is also a fair amount of work, even after you get them in the building.
“One of the key value-adds of promoting from within is that you get someone who understands the systems you have, the applications you use, your network, and your users,” says Matt Radolec, senior director of security architecture and incident response at Varonis. “They might also be passionate, invested in your business, and keenly aligned to your mission. You just can’t replace that. Not quickly.”
But each time you fill a role, the answer is never obvious.
“We always start with who we can promote from within,” agrees Zack Rosen, co-founder and CEO at Pantheon. “But every decision is case dependent. You are doing calculus. This is the art of leadership, and one reason leadership is so hard. These are difficult, make-or-break decisions.”
How to know whom to promote
Unless you are very lucky, your team is likely a mix of people who are promotable and those who don’t want or aren’t ready to move up. Waiting for someone to ask for a promotion is not a good filter for identifying who’s who. Some people are eager but lack skills. Others are reticent but would make terrific leaders. Most need mentoring or training to make the leap.
“I depend on my senior leaders to tell me who is promotable,” says Bonadio Group’s Roman. “We look for people who have personality, motivation, and drive. We can train people on technology. You can’t train for motivation or dedication.” After that? “Do they already have a skill that fits the promotion? For example, say I want to promote somebody to Azure administrator. Does someone have a little experience? Maybe it’s just a matter of getting them some formal Azure training?”
Just because someone would be a good fit, though, doesn’t mean they want it. Especially in technology, there are lots of people who don’t want to manage people, aren’t interested in leadership roles, and want nothing more than to hone their technical skills. It’s never a good idea to promote someone who doesn’t want it, but it is possible, sometimes, to coax them.
There is that person that has great people skills, gets along with everyone, can think about the big picture and everyone’s role in it, but they don’t want to be a manager. “Maybe tell them you could really use them as a project manager,” suggests Roman. “That combines both technical and people management but is not really a management role.”
Perhaps along the way, they will discover a desire to lead. Meanwhile, you have a project manager.
The danger of failing to promote
When you open up a role to both internal and external candidates, you expose your team to the possibility of serious disappointment, if they apply and don’t get the position, which can backfire in unforeseen ways.
“I think it’s always good to start with promoting from within, so you offer every opportunity to your team,” says Steve Fairbanks, chief technology officer at O.C. Tanner. “But there is something very demoralizing when internal candidates apply, and you end up hiring an external candidate. Often the internal candidates who didn’t get the role leave the company.”
It’s important to be careful to guard against this in the process leading up to the decision, Fairbanks offers. “Overcommunicate that these people are valued and — whether they get the position or not —there will be other opportunities in the future.”
The high-level hack that simplifies promotions
There is a simple secret, though, to mastering awkward conversations around promotions and preventing disgruntled team members from eyeing the exit. It requires examining your job descriptions, mapping out career paths for every team member, and making those maps clear to employees and managers.
“Promotions should not be something sudden where you’re making a decision at the last minute,” says Kemp. “Come up with an intentional plan, a roadmap for promotions. Without that, employees think the manager is supposed to drive their career, while managers think the employee is driving it. And they end up never having healthy discussions around career movement.”
Knowing where your job is going should be baked into the job, from day one.
“Leaders should be always training their own replacements,” agrees Len Covello, chief technology officer at Engage People. “They should be actively making themselves obsolete. In fact, you should be training your team to train someone to take their roles.”
Doing this means everyone is thinking about moving up, all the time. And they always know where they are going.
Once you have clear pathways from entry-level positions all the way up to leadership, it’s easy to see where you need to build skills.
Make sure the map includes upskilling
Varonis’ Radolec is a believer in waterfalling skills from the top down and used this idea to upskill an entire team to form a new department.
“We had an internal security team but wanted to build a security team with the mission to help customers,” he says. “I took people who were technologists, proficient in Active Directory or systems engineering, and made them security professionals. To do this, we took everything we thought they would be exposed to on a day-to-day basis and bundled it into a training experience.”
They created an intensive 90-day training program and combined that with daily job experience, starting small and building on it, until they were able to deliver what the company needed. “It was a crawl, walk, run approach,” says Radolec.
The same approach can be used to promote one person to a role they don’t yet have the skills for, says Microsoft’s Tedrick. “Maybe a person has half the qualities you want in the role. Rather than looking for an outside hire, give them a few stretch assignments so they can learn the skills. This shows that you see their potential and are investing in them.”
Oh, also kill your bias
If you are looking at your team and not seeing someone you think is ready to stretch into a management role or to move to the next level, take a minute to examine your bias. Are you looking only at people that you think look ready? What does that mean to you?
“We push leaders to not look at only one type of person,” says Ease’s Kemp. “Male managers automatically assume other male managers are ready for promotion. We help them look at the women in their department, too.”
Especially when it comes to leadership roles, the statistics show that the people doing the promoting exhibit a clear bias towards men.
“Once we start talking about senior level and executive level, something happens,” agrees Tedrick. “The focus on diversity trails off.”
“Talk to the women,” says Kemp. “Talk to the underrepresented people in your department. What’s their career plan? The onus is on the CIO, the leader, to help them get there and provide the appropriate development to make them able to achieve whatever the roadmap has in place for them.”