How Do Managers Know Which of Their Employees to Promote?

Some promotions are requested by staff members (ahead of time or during interactions with managers or HR); others are “scheduled”—i.e., every couple of years or so.

While both staff-requested and scheduled promotions have their merits and challenges, the key is to strike a balance.

Organizations should maintain flexibility in their promotional strategies, ensuring they recognize and reward talent while also aligning with the company’s broader objectives and needs.

But generally speaking, there are two common ways employees are promoted:

  • Stepping up their own rank – i.e. juniors to mid-level to senior
  • Promotion to a managerial role

The first type of promotion is usually defined internally as a set of KPIs and skills that a team member needs to cover in order to move to the next level.

For instance, juniors require a lot of handholding, editorial, coaching, and mentoring for almost all of their assignments. They take longer to accomplish a task and can’t tackle more complex activities.

Mid-level roles can handle more complex assignments and completely take over simple, recurring activities. They no longer require supervision for basic tasks and can work together with more senior people to help out with complex tasks.

Seniors can tackle almost everything, and decision-making happens between them and managers. Some companies require seniors to help out with juniors and interns, though certain job profiles don’t necessarily develop the coaching skills as they progress (i.e. hardcore technical roles).

Not every company has a clear “matrix” that explains the right traits for a mid-level promotion or a senior, but it’s usually based on a similar hypothesis.

For management roles, there are different considerations such as:

  • Is the individual capable of leading larger initiatives, engaging in strategy, overseeing, mentoring, and managing other team members?
  • Are they interested in a management role in the first place?
  • Is their skill set replaceable – i.e. if they move to management, is there anyone who can step in and cover their current responsibilities?
  • Have they developed the right soft skills required for management within the organization?
  • Is there an available management position that allows for promotion?
  • Has the size of a team/department grown to a point where a new manager/lead is required to keep everything organized?

The emphasis on soft skills when promoting to management uncovers opportunities for individuals who don’t rank as #1 in their own team (when it comes to job productivity). This often poses conflicts whenever the most senior person feels insulted if they don’t get the job.

Then again, the most productive employee doesn’t always make the best manager. Trust and respect from other team members matters, but you also have to account for organization skills, resolving workplace conflicts, escalating issues, reassigning work as needed, potentially participating in client conversations, preparing proposals, and tons of other management-related activities that revolve around certain traits.