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How to Promote Inexperienced Employees into Management Roles


A focused businessman is having presentation about project at the office.

Katie is a human resource director at a nonprofit organization, and the chief program officer (CPO) has asked her about potentially changing hiring policy by eliminating the “one year of prior managerial experience” requirement when filling internal management positions. The CPO’s logic makes sense: Promoting from within creates career growth opportunities for staff members and would likely help with employee recruitment and retention while reducing turnover.

Katie reasoned that while the argument is compelling, the suggestion might create challenges. First, while upward mobility opportunities are clearly important, the CPO’s idea of “taking a chance on people” seems vague and undefined without more structure and definition. After all, the skills that make someone a successful individual contributor don’t necessarily translate into people leadership abilities.

Second, Katie recognized that the organization has challenges with existing leaders who are struggling to manage their teams. By promoting employees into first-time manager roles without prior experience, it could exacerbate those challenges. Third, it may not be fair to the employees of those newly minted managers who may suffer while their novice bosses “learn on the job.”

While a program and strategy change like this may sound bold and refreshing, it could backfire and create countless employee relations issues with dissatisfied staff members. Even worse, it could lead to workers’ compensation claims or lawsuits that might be difficult to defend. How can Katie navigate the CPO’s suggestion while minimizing risks to the organization?

Here’s How to Start

“When you’re placed into a situation where you’re feeling an exorbitant amount of internal pressure to accommodate an executive’s or board member’s directive, don’t be shy about pushing back and buying yourself additional time,” said John Horn, vice president of human resources at L.A. Family Housing in North Hollywood, Calif. “Putting ill-prepared employees into managerial roles that affect so many others may carry real risks, and you’re going to need to think this through carefully and gain a lot of internal buy-in before changing your hiring and promotion practices, especially if success will rely primarily on on-the-job training. Leadership competencies and potential will need to be assessed, documented and well communicated before altering what may become a significant change to your core hiring practices.”

Likewise, it makes sense to set a reasonable rollout period. “Six months would likely be a minimum time period that an employer would need to assess the full impact of a transitionary program like this,” Horn said. “After all, while such equality-of-opportunity measures may be built on good intentions, the law of unintended consequences may kick in where employees not selected for promotion argue favoritism or even discrimination, especially if the qualifications for promotion appear to be unclear or inconsistent.” 

To be sure, Katie has her work cut out for her. Based on discussions with her CEO and outside legal counsel, she sets out to build a limited program with specific requirements to ensure that internal promotions are consistent and well communicated.

Make Sure Everyone Has Skin in the Game

After her internal discussions, Katie decides that removing the prior management experience requirement must be offset by other core competencies and training requirements. For example, ensuring that internal employees who are identified for promotion into first-time managerial roles demonstrate adequate interest in the promotion is a great place to start.

“In Southern California, we offer a well-known training program for those who currently hold or are transitioning into supervisory roles within the homeless-services sector,” said Edna Vallecillo Garcia, director of human resources of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). “The program consists of five full-day sessions over five weeks, and our goal is to provide state-of-the-art training that is specific to our industry and the unique needs of the homeless community. Who better than social worker managers and human resource leaders to teach and share experiences that are unique to our industry? Our program establishes a foundation that can be built upon over time.”

Even if your industry does not have its own internal training resource like LAHSA provides, you have many more options that seek to establish a broad foundational understanding of leadership and management. For example, LinkedIn Learning offers online coursework on inclusive leadership, building trust, conflict resolution, giving and receiving feedback, and change management foundations, among others. Certifications are available that can be highlighted on an attendee’s LinkedIn page. Likewise, MOOCS (massive open online courses) like Coursera, Udemy, Udacity, FutureLearn and edX offer courses and certificates on developing employees, inspiring and guiding teams, managing change, and influencing stakeholders across the organization. Many of the courses are free, but certification may come with a moderate expense attached to it.

“The point is that you can ensure that employees have at least a minimum level of common understanding across your organization in the intricacies of leadership, managing others, motivation, constructive confrontation, compliance and workplace ethics,” Vallecillo Garcia said. “That’s a great place to start to ensure that internal candidates feel better prepared, have skin in the game, are willing to invest in their own career and professional development, and hopefully acquire a greater appreciation of and interest in building their skills and personal brand in the management and leadership space.”

“Likewise,” Horn advised, “establish the core competencies that your organization is looking for in leadership and management candidates—even if they have no prior experience. You might consider, for example, investing in personal assessments that attempt to capture an individual’s proclivities in helping others, adapting to and training on new content, listening with empathy, teamwork and collaboration, agility and adaptability, accountability and personal responsibility, communication and emotional intelligence, and other areas that may be key to success in a first-time managerial role.” 

Vallecillo Garcia said that leveraging 360-degree assessments “might be a reasonable tool to capture feedback from superiors, peers, subordinates, clients and vendors regarding an individual’s potential to assume people leadership responsibilities and manage their first team. Whatever options you choose, communicate and document them clearly so that everyone who hopes to transfer internally into a first-time managerial role understands what is expected of them.”

Start on a Trial Basis

There should never be a rush to roll out a program of this magnitude, especially given the risks of failure and its effect on employees. Communication is the key to adopting a new approach to hiring and promotion practices going forward. Also, caveats should be communicated that completing the preparation elements does not guarantee a promotion into a particular role.

Where a program like this can work particularly well is at levels where internal promotions tend to fail most often. For example, employees may be promoted regularly from administrator to coordinator to analyst, but rising to the next level then leads to failure. If you can identify that choking point within your organization where internal promotions wane, and then build a program around addressing the issues that arise, it could go a long way toward building career ladders and succession planning opportunities. But starting small and slowly is key. Map your program’s core progression points (e.g., interviews, training requirements, personal assessments and 360-degree evaluations), project program costs, have outside counsel vet policy language and announcements to ensure you’re not missing anything, and give employees time to self-select into the training or assessment programs moving forward.

Katie realized that waiving the one-year prior managerial experience requirement and replacing it with educational opportunities, self-assessments and 360-degree evaluations, among other criteria, is a marathon, not a sprint. Her efforts likely will remain a work in progress for some time as successes and failures are measured on a case-by-case basis. Yes, this type of program has amazing potential, particularly in light of the talent scarcity that followed the pandemic and that will challenge most companies for the rest of this century.

Talent development—growing your own—may place you well ahead of the curve in the war for human capital. But proceed cautiously and make it a team sport. You’ll want your CEO and outside counsel to have skin in the game as you move forward on a united front that potentially benefits your employees, reduces turnover, and brings high levels of employee engagement and performance.

Paul Falcone (www.PaulFalconeHR.com) is a frequent contributor to SHRM Online and has served in a range of senior HR roles at such companies as Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon, Time Warner and City of Hope Medical Center. He's a corporate leadership trainer, certified executive coach, international keynote speaker and the author of the five-book Paul Falcone Workplace Leadership Series (HarperCollins Leadership and Amacom). His other bestsellers include 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees, 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems, 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire and 2600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews.

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