When Should You Promote A Leader?
Avoid the bad leadership carousel. Know when to promote a leader and when not to.
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The single most important question to ask when determining if you should promote a leader is:

Does he or she have a ready-made replacement?

Has she delegated well and trained her people well and, thus made herself easily replaceable?

If the answer is “no” it means that she has not delegated or trained well. Not only can you not promote the person because you don’t have a replacement, but you also don’t want upper-level leaders who don’t delegate and train well.

If someone has been in a leadership role for two years and has seven direct reports, she should have a replacement (or two) at the ready. If she doesn’t, she is both undeserving of a promotion and potentially failing in her current role.

Over the years, I have fallen victim to the same mistake that so many small business leaders have: I promoted people too quickly, out of desperate need rather than skill set. I promoted the best customer service rep to head up the team of customer service reps. When I needed a department leader for the customer service team leaders, I promoted the leader with the best performance.

I showed little regard for two important factors:

1. Their relationships with their peers.

2. The presence of a ready-made leader among the customer service reps.

I found myself in an endless cycle of promoting the wrong person (or promoting them at the wrong time), training a new leader from scratch, and then doing it all over again. It was a mess. Before long, we had multiple people in the wrong seats on the bus.

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I realized years later that it started with me. I was not delegating to and training my reports well. They followed my example and the bad leadership carousel went round and round.

I promoted them before they were ready. They promoted people under them who weren’t ready. I soon found myself surrounded by unprepared leaders with unprepared teams and I pointed the finger in the only direction I knew how: a 360-degree circle around me.

The day you start leading, you must start training every one of your team members to replace you. It will take time. Take it slowly. Some people will take to your training better than others will. These are your future leaders. Spend even more time with them and delegate more to them.

If you do this, your leaders will notice and you will be a perfect candidate for promotion.

If you are at the top, look for leaders who do this. Look for the ones who spend a lot time with a few team members, training them and delegating to them. Look for the ones who often report about certain team members who demonstrate leadership capabilities. Those leaders have ready-made replacements.

They are ready for the next level.

What do you look for when determining whether to promote someone? If you are not a leader yet, what can you take away from this post?

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10 thoughts on “When to Promote a Leader

  1. Bret Wortman says:

    I’ve always felt there were two ways to be indispensible to an organization — by holding tight any knowledge you have so that they can’t fire you without losing access to your store of knowledge & experience, or by sharing it so freely that they don’t want to lose you because of how much you bring to the teams you’re on.

    This sounds a lot like the second.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      And I’d have to say that the second one is much more enjoyable!

      1. Bret Wortman says:

        Amen to that!

    2. Wade Thorson says:

      The first methodolgy is all to common of a throught process for some. I see it happening everyday, and it is proclaimed as their thought process. I focus as well on the second one, but need to be more direct in training them to replace me! We are always looking to see who the future leaders will be but not training them to become that future leader. Thanks.

      1. Matt McWilliams says:

        Do it Wade!

  2. Todd Liles says:

    Reminds me of Moses and Aaron.

  3. Jon Stolpe says:

    Great thoughts, Matt. This is definitely something worth processing as I continue to develop future leaders in my own organization.

  4. Dan Black says:

    GE is a great example of the importance and benefits of keeping the leadership pipeline filled with potential. Jack Welch had 7 potential successors when it came time for him to retire. The success of a business greatly depends on having leaders in every section of the business(from the lowest to highest position). Great thoughts Matt!

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      Great reference Dan. I loved reading through Jack Welch’s books, of which delegation and succession planning were a big part.

      1. Dan Black says:

        Same with me.

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