BrainTrust Query: He’s a Lifer

Discussion
Apr 06, 2010
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By Bill
Bittner
, President, BWH Consulting

My father was an accountant for DuPont. The plant manager where he worked
attended the same church. One Sunday, my father jokingly asked how the manager
justified his high salary compared to all the PhD’s working in the research
department. The plant manager answered, “When those PhD’s put two atoms of hydrogen
together with one atom of oxygen, they know they’re going to get water. When
I take two people from over there and one person from somewhere else and put
them together, I can never be certain what I will get. That’s why I get paid
the high salary.”

A recent management decision reminded me of the uncertainty managers face.
In this case, a senior manager decided to leave and there were two eligible
candidates for promotion into his position. One candidate had worked for the
company for over 20 years, was well respected by both his peers and his direct
reports. His managers were sure he was a “lifer.”

The second candidate had worked for the company a much shorter time, he was
respected by his staff and peers but certainly did not have the same breadth
of company understanding as the first candidate. Management felt the second
candidate was more likely to leave if he were skipped over for the promotion.

So the decision was made to skip over the lifer. When he asked why, he was
told, “You
are too important where you are.”

You know where this story is going. The lifer left and took all his knowledge
with him. Just as importantly, the people around him were taught a lesson about
loyalty.

Discussion Question: What factors do you think need to be taken
into account in situations such as this where companies are dealing with an
internal promotion decision involving older versus newer talent?

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15 Comments on "BrainTrust Query: He’s a Lifer"


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Dan Gilmore
Guest
Dan Gilmore
11 years 1 month ago

So, the key to this story is: why hadn’t the lifer received promotions before?

The harsh reality is that when you are perceived to have plateaued, you don’t get the promotions. The employees being developed do.

No right answer here, just the way it is. Would the company have done differently if they knew the lifer would be upset and leave? Hard to know.

The harder/worse thing is when it’s layoff time, and the lifer is given the pink slip because he makes more money than the younger person. If you’re over 40, that’s illegal but rarely enforced, as anyone who has been in business knows.

Pradip V. Mehta, P.E.
Guest
Pradip V. Mehta, P.E.
11 years 1 month ago

The most important factors while considering internal promotion, or for that matter, any promotion, are job requirements and qualifications of the candidates. Once a candidate, whether young or old, is selected for promotion, it is the responsibility of management to let it be known why that particular candidate was chosen. It is my experience that management never bothers to communicate in this regard and that causes a lot of unnecessary heartburn on the part of the involved parties resulting in lower morale! Most reasonable individuals will understand why they were not picked for certain jobs if explained clearly.

David Livingston
Guest
11 years 1 month ago

These kinds of decisions are always a gamble, especially in a close call. Sounds like management underestimated the job prospects of the older employee. By promoting the younger employee, the company is taking a more long term view. With most people opting out at 55 these days, just how much longer was the lifer going to be around?

Sounds like the lifer was the competitive type who moved on to another company, most likely to prove a point that he could. Once he gets tired of sticking it to his old company, he will probably retire.

There’s no guarantee the younger employee will stick around either. He just proved he was promotable, so what’s stopping him from giving himself another promotion and moving on? Companies need to remember employees are people with all kinds of emotional quirks, not robots with resumes. Before making these kinds of decisions, make sure you know your employees on a more personal basis and find out what makes them tick.

Anne Howe
Guest
11 years 1 month ago

This is a story I expect will be told over and over in the next ten years. Many organizations, as a result, will get the chance to pick up “passed over” talent with a broad range of experience and a sincere desire to contribute. Additionally, I see a resurgence of smaller service organizations blossoming to fill the knowledge gap that crops up when a cycle such as this proliferates.

Steve Montgomery
Guest
11 years 1 month ago
It is one thing to promote a younger person who has a better skill set over someone who has been with the company longer; it is another to do so because you don’t expect the more senior person to leave. I have faced both scenarios in my business history. Having made a similar decision as the “lifer” in the article, I can readily understand why he left. No one likes being taken for granted. As the article points out, one of the considerations is what the decision tells the rest of the employees about the company. In this case, it tells them that being loyal may not count for much. A better process might have been to have the more senior person move up and then mentor the younger person for an eventual smooth transition. In that case (assuming it was possible to do), the other employees see a logical career progression for both. I would also add that there is a difference between being a “lifer” and being a “career” person – something that… Read more »
Kevin Graff
Guest
11 years 1 month ago

The details of the story are a little vague, but provide enough of a framework to consider various options and raise certain questions. Why wasn’t the lifer previously promoted? Did it really hurt to see him go? Was the young gun ultimately successful?

Decisions like these are never easy. Ultimately, the question becomes not only who is best served to do the job now, but who is most capable of pushing beyond the current parameters of the job and leading the company/department to a higher level? Look for those individuals who have the skill, experience and desire to break the company out of its current status quo. It’s not about doing the job well … it’s about leading a team or company to success. So, who’s most capable of that?

Carol Spieckerman
Guest
11 years 1 month ago

There are so many variables to consider and, back to David’s point, a big one is what makes the two employees tick. When companies reactively look at each opening as something to be filled vs. creating a career track for employees that allows them to see their future, low morale and bitterness sets in and proliferates as the process repeats.

Plenty of companies still haven’t right-sized to fit their current business and the hard truth is that some are doing everything they can to eliminate legacy players first without drawing too much attention.

Warren Thayer
Guest
11 years 1 month ago

A good thread, so only a couple of observations. As one who has been told “you’re too valuable where you are,” I don’t think that is code for “you’ve plateaued,” since I’ve risen far since being told that many years ago, and many others have had the same experience. I think it more often means, “We don’t like your office politics,” which was probably true in my case since I always stank at office politics. And as for most people opting out at 55, the vast majority of people I know do not expect to retire at 55, or have already passed that birthday and see years of productive work still ahead of them.

Christopher P. Ramey
Guest
11 years 1 month ago

A couple thoughts:

1. Time in a position means nothing unless you’re in a union.
2. Personnel case studies have variables requiring more in-depth information.
3. The concept of “lifers” is dead.
4. Sometimes life isn’t fair.

Doron Levy
Guest
Doron Levy
11 years 1 month ago

This is a frequent occurrence in the retail world and there are different approaches to handling the possible blow back from such moves. The one I like the best is to openly allow dissatisfied employees to talk to you about the move. I like to ask the question: Why should you be in this position instead of so and so? Things like seniority and experience are valid merits, but I want idea generators on my team. It’s easy to read and execute merchandising plans but is this person really thinking about the bottom line? So I put the ball in their court and make them sell me on why I made the wrong decision.

Another approach that I have seen is to talk a bit about the candidate’s accomplishments at a group meeting. Offering a few reasons may satiate the masses. The best cure for this is time. You would be surprised how quickly people forget things when they are kept legitimately engaged in their work.

Mel Kleiman
Guest
11 years 1 month ago

Lots of great comments here but, if we work only with the facts given, the company did a rotten job of dealing with the promotion. They assumed that the older employee would not leave. They assumed without the promotion the younger employee would leave. They did not consider the message they were sending the other employees. They did not make a decision based on facts, but based on feel. We don’t know anything else.

A major learning point is that you need to make decisions based on fact and not assumptions, you need to give both candidates a fair shot at the job and pick the best one for today and tomorrow. You then need to communicate your message to everyone involved and make the person who did not get the job feel that it was a fair decision. You should give him some training to make him ready for the next promotion or more responsibility and challenges in his present job.

W. Frank Dell II
Guest
11 years 1 month ago

People decisions are the most difficult for all managers. There is no simple answer. I have seen long-time employees who know how everything works and can get anything you want done. I have also seen employees with one year of experience repeated twenty times. Older employees may or may not accept change easily, whereas younger employees may. So the decision is not only the people, but where you are trying to take the organization.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest
11 years 1 month ago

Finally (!) a story w/a happy ending. Well, perhaps not so happy, and perhaps not so “finally” but anyway… I think the big problem in management. Ultimately, it is ignorance of the details of the jobs they control. Bravo to the company if it could really measure who was/wasn’t qualified (even if they did little with that knowledge). My experience has tended to go in the other direction: people were promoted not because they would do the job better – no one really knew – but because “they earned it.”

Mark Burr
Guest
11 years 1 month ago
I’ve seen many decisions like this made and the same results occur both ways – the lifer lost and left; the less senior lost and left. Both left for the same reasons. What’s evident in the story if you read between the lines is that the perception was there that the lifer wouldn’t leave in spite of the fact that they provided no career path. I recently saw an exceptionally talented less senior associate leave for the same reason. The associate was passed over, not told why, not given a path to aspire to, and saw no possibility of that occurring. When much younger (and certainly smarter – so I thought at the time), I lost out to a more senior associate on a promotion. Certainly, I felt I should have been selected. I charged in and asked for answers. To my surprise, I got them. More importantly, I got a promise. It was a promise that if I took the answers seriously, I would be worked with, mentored, guided and eventually rewarded. It all… Read more »
M. Jericho Banks PhD
Guest
M. Jericho Banks PhD
11 years 1 month ago

Perhaps too often, top management makes promotion decisions by giving greater weight to how the promoted individual will work with them, rather than how they will work with subordinates. It’s also important to consider the younger person who was promoted – were they put in a position where they could succeed? Or, was there resentment among their subordinates that impeded their success? Did top management really do the promoted person a favor?

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