First-Class Coach

I've been at my company for three years, and my line manager has just announced that she's leaving. I know I'd be perfect for the role, but my firm is desperate to appoint someone from outside, as they want to attract new blood.

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

As an internal candidate, I feel as though I'm at an unfair disadvantage. Should I give up now?

A. Don't give up without a fight. I've had two clients in the past two years in your position - insiders with an outside chance, who nevertheless succeeded in being appointed to the top job in their organisations, despite strong pressure from stakeholders for an external appointment. One is now CEO of a FTSE-100 company and the other MD of a sizeable UK business.

How did they do it? First, by using their insider knowledge to work out what was now required of the new leader. There is always a danger in modelling your thinking on who and what went before. Even if your departing boss was good in her role, things move on, the marketplace changes, and needs and expectations shift. It's now regarded as good practice when drafting a job specification to ask: if this role didn't exist, would we need to invent it? What are the core requirements now? What kind of person would be best to provide these skills, this knowledge, this management approach?

Showing that you can think beyond the current status quo would be a definite advantage. One of the strongest pressures to look outside when making an appointment is the belief that a new brain will see a way through problems that insiders are too close to spot. Einstein pointed out that it is impossible to solve a problem using the same logic that got you into the situation in the first place. You need to demonstrate you are not hidebound by previous experience.

Even so, you have a developed knowledge of the current situation and resources, and so can come up with suggestions for developing and improving the organisation that are likely to be workable. Why not put together a short paper on what you perceive as the strengths and weaknesses of your part of the business, the threats and opportunities it faces, and give your ideas of what needs to change to increase success? If you have tangible and realistic recommendations it will certainly help your credibility.

My clients made sure they had good relationships with all the stakeholders in the appoint- ment decision, not just their immediate bosses. In both cases, since their previous roles had been more internally focused than external, they needed to increase awareness of themselves and their achievements among external observers, especially those whose opinions counted. They also took the opportunity to be spokesmen for their companies - which allowed them to be seen in a prominent position and in a positive light.

The job you want may not be such a senior position, but you can still do the equivalent for your department or function. If an internal candidate has been a solid number two to a high-profile manager, they may not have had much time in the limelight and there may be doubts about whether they can hold down a more public role.

I advised both my clients to start behaving as if they were already doing the job they wanted, to be seen in action. Demonstrating capability can discourage the organisation from embarking on an external trawl. I've known managers who've negotiated a trial period in a more senior role, reviewed after three months. The disadvantage is that if you fail to make the grade during the probationary period, you'll have go back to your previous role, reporting to the new incumbent.

Of course, the job may go to someone else. There are several attractions to making an outside hiring - stealing a key member of staff from a more successful competitor, gaining market insight, being seen to be doing something bold and dynamic. But your efforts will not have been wasted: you'll have moved yourself to a better position within your organisation and shown that you have ambition to progress and are not afraid of hard work. You'll be more knowledgeable about your sector and will have put forward ideas on ways to improve performance.

You may even be able to negotiate a different, more senior role, or at least put yourself in a good position to be a front-runner for the next internal vacancy. But, if you give up now, you'll just confirm you weren't the right candidate.

Miranda Kennett will be appearing at a conference that MT is holding on coaching and mentoring on 6 December in London. www.mtcoachingconference.com.

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