How to hold on to top staff when promotion isn't an option

Smaller, flatter firms can struggle to offer their rising stars senior roles, but that doesn't mean they can't keep them, says careers expert Sarah Ellis.

by Sarah Ellis
Last Updated: 17 Feb 2020

There are clear benefits to flatter, more flexible organisational structures: speed, adaptability and better alignment with cross-functional projects. However, one of the challenges managers now face is how to retain top talent when there are fewer opportunities for people to be promoted to the next ‘level’. 

A global study by Deloitte in 2019 found that 76 per cent of organisations now rate internal mobility as a board level priority and yet only 6 per cent of companies rate themselves as ‘excellent’ in this area.

Organisations are beginning to re-design and re-imagine how progression works and a significant part of delivering on this ambition relies on individuals re-defining their relationship with the concept of progression. Managers will need to play a significant role in supporting people through this process both emotionally and practically.

Here are three ways managers can support progression, without giving a promotion:

1. Job crafting 

Be open to, and proactive about, adapting the roles and responsibilities of your team. This is a collaborative process between managers and individuals and can benefit everyone involved. A useful way to begin the job crafting process is identifying opportunities for team members to use their strengths more frequently and in new and different ways. 

In our research of 500 employees across the UK, ‘using my strengths’ was identified as one of the top three most important factors in feeling motivated and enjoying work (work/life balance and flexibility were the other two). 

Another helpful question to ask people is: what is the one thing would you like to try for the first time this year? As a manager you then have the ability to marry the needs of the organisation with the development of your team. 

Job crafting has the most impact when approached as an ongoing endeavour rather than a one-off exercise. A consistent commitment with shared ownership between managers and individuals to spot opportunities to add more value in a role results in more motivated people and better results for the organisation – win: win.

2. Support the side-ways move

As a manager it’s natural to want to keep hold of the people you’ve nurtured and invested your time and energy in. However, offering them the chance to broaden their skills and experience with an internal sideways move can be a brilliant way to retain talented people within your organisation. In a recent survey by Deloitte, 50 per cent of respondents said it was easier to find a job outside their organisation than inside it, with managers and lack of transparency being cited as blockers to internal moves. 

Recruiting externally is expensive and time consuming compared with recruiting someone familiar with the organisation, with existing relationships and knowledge.

And managers can lead by example, seeking out talented people from other parts of the business who will bring different skills, experience and knowledge. 

Reid Hoffman (founder of Linked In) shares that he now hires people based on their ability to demonstrate they can be an ‘intense learner’ versus having specific technical knowledge. And Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, discusses the importance of everyone in the organisation, including himself, becoming a learn-it-all rather than a know-it-all. 

3. Develop your career coaching skills 

A one-size-fits-all approach to career development has become redundant and impossible. The personalised nature of our work today necessitates that individuals take ownership for their own learning. However, as careers become less linear, the need for manager support and guidance has also amplified. 

Without a clear path to navigate, employees are finding it difficult to figure out how and where to progress. Most managers recognise and enjoy the coaching aspect of their role but time and demands of the day job frequently get in the way. 

One of the best ways to integrate coaching into day-to-day management is feedback. Formal reviews are important but the most effective way of supporting an individual’s progression is to follow the three Rs of feedback: regular, relevant and real-time. 

Informal, short and specific feedback delivered ‘in the moment’ is powerful and more likely to stick and impact future behaviour. When we work with businesses we recommend using the language: ‘what went well’ and ‘even better if’ to deliver feedback and you don’t need to deliver both at once. In fact, on average it is suggested that people generally need around a 5:1 ratio of positive to developmental feedback to progress and thrive at work.

Promotions will always be part of what it means to progress in a career but re-imagining progression and internal mobility is already proving to be a point of competitive advantage for organisations. 

Early investors in internal mobility, including Spotify, AT & T, facebook and Disney are discovering it impacts employee engagement and motivation more than any other activity, and by up to 30 per cent in some instances. 

Sarah Ellis is the author of The Squiggly Career (Penguin) and co-hosts the weekly Squiggly Careers podcast

Image credit: Tobias Aeppli/Pexels

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