What it looks like initially: Jackie has shown great promise in her role running the fundraising team for a mid-size unit on campus. She’s made all of the right decisions, she’s successfully faced tricky board situations with poise, and leadership knows she is looking to move up or the organization runs the risk of losing her. She is promoted to a new, exciting title, Executive Director of Special Campaign Outreach, a role never used before in the organization.
Where it goes wrong: The new title is just that: a title. Functionally there is no difference between what Jackie’s responsibilities are now from her previous role. The prestige of the new title was billed as a large retention offer to Jackie: increased weigh-in on strategy, visibility to the board, ownership of new initiatives. What it offers to her in practice is no staff support, increased ambiguity, undefined expectations, and increased pressure to maintain her previous level of output despite being in a new role. She is given no more access to leadership nor are decisions delegated to her.
How people usually leave: Someone in Jackie’s position is likely to spend a few months making the most of an undefined role. She might initiate one or two new ideas and see them sputter out in implementation because she lacks the resources to drive change. She may burn internal bridges because she has no buy-in from leadership. Her new title does catch attention of recruiters, however, and eventually an institution with a clearly defined role will attract her. In many cases this recruitment is to the leadership team of the institution.
What you can do about it: Part of successfully attracting and keeping talent people is to be able to provide programs and responsibilities that inspire and challenge them. Creating a new role for a rising star isn’t a bad practice per se; it just requires strategic execution. To avoid a scenario like Jackie’s your leadership team should connect ahead of the promotion decision to:
- Immediately and concretely define the role’s access to leadership and influence in decision-making.
- Project workload and core responsibilities for this position three years from now. If you cannot articulate what the role will eventually become then it is an empty promotion.
- Build a succession plan for Jackie’s previous responsibilities and former unit. A multi-month transition to the new role in which Jackie is given the opportunity to handoff her core responsibilities while taking on a new challenge eases the pain of a transition and maintains her confidence in her abilities during pressure points of the new position.