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Who To Promote? A Manager’s Dilemma

Handling Promotion

21 September, 2020

Adam Bauman, Engineering Manager at Quizlet, explains how deciding between seniority and leadership potential made him regret his decision.

Problem

As any manager, I encountered an ever-present dilemma -- who to promote. I had a few months to decide and had several candidates to choose from. Two expressed explicit interest, but no one was an ideal match. One was more experienced and highly valuable to the team in terms of his technical competence but lacked leadership potential and people skills. The other didn’t have extensive technical experience but demonstrated considerable leadership potential, especially excelling in communication skills and expressing empathy.

I was torn over who to promote.
 

Actions taken

First and foremost, I wanted to test how serious they were. Expressing an interest is not enough unless they would follow up -- in one-on-ones or elsewhere -- and show most resolutely their commitment. Then, I would assess how the rest of the team was feeling about a particular person being a manager. I was especially interested if the team would respect a new manager and would be willing to follow them.
 

I deliberated a lot and was considering both options back and forth. I also discussed my dilemma with my manager, but ultimately it was my decision. I came up with the following criteria: the ability to lead people, technical competency, and the team’s willingness to execute on their decisions.
 

It took me several months to come up with the decision. There was no immediate need as I was filling in for that role for a while. Instead of sticking to my own criteria, I became increasingly concerned that the role of a senior engineer was hard to fill and that more than anything else affected my decision. If I had not promoted the senior engineer, they would have left. I decided to promote them.
 

Eventually, that turned out to be the wrong decision. The other person who was not promoted soon left the company, and the person who was promoted didn’t work out as a manager.
 

Lessons learned

  • Don’t promote people because you are scared of what would happen if you don’t. Make the decision that’s the right decision even if you have to lose something (or someone). You are not making the decision to make people happy, but to do what is best for the team and for the future.
  • I made the decision based on wanting to avoid hiring a new person and losing a senior engineer, instead of choosing the person who had the right leadership skills. The path of least resistance resulted in the wrong decision and in the end had to hire another engineer anyway!

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