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Why promoting from within should be the norm

Nov 09, 2009 Business Daily, Management

“A good leader sees the best in his people, not the worst; he is not a scapegoat hunter. He sees winners, and he uses “the rule of 50 percent,” which makes him high on promoting from within. The rule is that if you have anybody in your organization who looks like 50 percent of what you need for the job and who has the support of the people around her and wants the job, give this person the job and she’ll grow the other 50 percent.
The corporate politician with no faith in his people hires a search firm, and they wind up bringing in an electric blue suit. He raises salaries all around, and a year later you’re still teaching him the business.”

ROBERT TOWNSEND, Up the Organisation (1970)

Let’s hear again from the outspoken, rude and wonderfully direct Robert Townsend. His landmark book is an acknowledged member of the business hall of fame – or at least of the list of business books you would actually profit from reading.

Here, Townsend is back on his favourite theme: that business is about putting people first.

Leadership is about doing things for the people who follow you: growing them, guiding them, provoking them, annoying them, coaching them, challenging them and uplifting them. Organizations are not great in themselves; the people in them can be led into making organizations great. And the first connection between leader and follower is trust.

Townsend was a lifelong believer in promotion from within, hence the “50 percent rule” highlighted in the excerpt shown. His reason was simple: if there is no one in your organisation worth promoting to the highest posts, whose fault is that? If you are the CEO and you’ve been there a while, take a look in the mirror. If you have collected a bunch of yes-men, sycophants and mere technocrats around you, that speaks volumes about you. If you now can’t find a leader anywhere around you, that problem is caused by you (and your board).

If, on the other hand, you’ve been doing a few things right and have built some trust with your key lieutenants, then your problem is much simpler. You will almost certainly have a few people beneath you that have what it takes; you just have to give them the responsibility and allow them to grow. If there is someone around who has a track record of success and who seems to be respected by those around her – give her a bigger job. Then coach her intensively so that she grows the “remaining 50 percent.”

The idea of talent has turned into a superficial beauty contest. We think that talent is about credentials, qualifications, experience and references, and therefore we want to look around in the market to fill every available position. All this does is give business to consultants and search firms, and bring in “electric blue suits” who create more turmoil.

Good companies do not need to do this. Here, looking outside should be the exception, not the norm. Once in a while, you need to refresh your team and recruit from outside. You need to inject new ideas and perspectives. But only once in a while. Too often is a sign of sickness. If you’ve built up a good team over the years, the chances are you already have all the potential talent you need – it just needs to be challenged and polished.

If you’re routinely turning to outsiders and advertising every post, that is a sign of how dysfunctional your organisation is. It is not a badge of honour, a sign that you always “go for the best.” It is in fact a damning indictment of leadership in your organization, that you have presided over an internal talent pool so shallow and murky that you can’t trust it.

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