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In a simpler world, choosing one employee on your team and promoting that employee into an open position at a higher level would involve easy math. Who works the hardest? Who produces the most? Who’s been with the company the longest? Enter those numbers into your magic formula and voila: the “best” employee’s name becomes clear. But in the real world, promotion decisions are far from simple.

Often, one team contains several people who are all well qualified, but in different ways and for different reasons. And some difficult news: this decision comes with high stakes. You can choose only one candidate—and if you choose the wrong candidate—expect resignations from some or all of the others. How can you navigate this thorny decision without painful consequences? Keep these tips in mind.

You can’t.

Expecting quiet, universal acceptance of your decision is unrealistic. If your employees are ambitious and good at their jobs, they won’t enjoy being passed over. It’s not personal, it’s just business. When you can’t provide the next rung of the ladder, it’s reasonable for employees to seek that rung from another employer. But you CAN mitigate the fallout by using clear, specific and measurable metrics to make your choice. And a little diplomacy goes a long way.

Choose the employee who will excel at the future job, not the present one.

The best employee on a team of junior associates is surely an excellent junior associate. But if the next level requires leadership skill the current one doesn’t require, you’ll need to make some educated guesses about each contender’s likelihood of success in an untested area. Nobody really knows why, but excellence at the entry level rarely translates into excellence at a leadership level. Factor this into your assessment. Examine work performance, but also examine personality, flexibility and the ability to stay in the game when the rules suddenly change. Prepare ALL the applicants for the surprise challenges of the next level, whether they arrive there or not.

Look below the surface and place a premium on ambition.

Your best choice may not actually be your best employee. It may be the one who tries too hard, gets anxious, overthinks and fails more often than the others. Or it may be the one who leverages all available resources (the one who leaves at 4:59 but still somehow gets everything done). It may be the one who others turn to for help (the leader and inspirer) who still makes mistakes. The 80-hour-per-week grinder may work extremely hard but may not be positioned for real success. The suit-wearing climber may not be either. No matter what you look for, look twice. And make sure you’re choosing a candidate who really, really wants the job—not just the bragging rights.

For more on how to hire, coach and promote your employees in ways that bring out their absolute best, turn to the staffing team at Extension.

 

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