Tuesday, June 28, 2011

How to Nail Your Interview

No Trophy for 2nd Place
I was leading our monthly Job Search Advantage workshop and most of the attendees voiced frustration and discouragement that they made it all the way to the final rounds of interviews numerous times but always got beat out. They came to the realization that being “good” or even “very good” was just not enough in this job market. Those of us who’ve punched our career ticket with a couple decades worth of rides on the up-and-down high-tech rollercoaster know that the laundry list of “experience” on our resumes alone are not enough. Interviewing, or better yet, selling-yourself skills make all the difference from being “The Chosen One” vs. the proverbial “runner up.”

Surely, if you knew what you were “missing” then you’d have a great chance at making the necessary course-corrections for the next job interview. Ah, if it were only that easy. One of my clients (we’ll call him Steven) made it to the “final presentation” stage twice, at both a disruptive startup and a SaaS giant. He didn’t get an offer from either. And as it typically goes, he never got the crucial feedback telling him why they didn’t feel he was the right fit. Unfortunately, the cold hard truth is that hiring managers are way too busy with their day jobs and working through the interviewing process with numerous candidates that they don’t have time to provide people like Steven with the simple courtesy of feedback. So left to his own devices, Steven’s best guess was that he needed to get coaching on his “interview and presentation” skills to ensure that he didn’t flame out again.

It’s an Employer’s Market
Although unemployment is improving slightly, 1 in 10 people in Silicon Valley are out of work and still looking. Just last week Oracle’s fiscal year earnings failed to impress and its stock price paid dearly the day after. Earlier this year, Cisco announced major restructuring, which resulted in killing off the Flip camera business (500 jobs lost instantly) and forecasted additional job cuts of around 4,000. My friends who’ve been at Cisco for 10+ years are still “waiting for the other shoe to drop” as the management restructuring works itself through and while HR tallies up how many people take the early retirement package. Even though these two Silicon Valley tech giants are showing signs of weakness, there are indications that hiring is picking up. That means more interviewing opportunities but still too many candidates for too few jobs - giving hiring managers and their companies the upper hand with interviews and candidate selections, offer terms, and more.

While Silicon Valley appears to be leading the comeback in California, the job market in the Valley has never been more competitive. So how do you make certain that you stand out from the crowd of hundreds if not thousands of other professionals who seemingly have the same experience that you have? But that’s really the point isn’t it? Those who are able to find key areas of uniqueness and to present and sell themselves in a way that distances them from everyone else will be viewed as the most valuable asset i.e. The Chosen One.

On face value, people really aren’t that different in the things that headline their resumes. If yours is anything like the thousands of resumes I’ve reviewed as a hiring manager, you’re putting a lot of focus on things that may not make you as unique and special as you might think. For example:
  • You’ve worked at Oracle? Good for you. LinkedIn shows nearly 12,000 former Oracle employees in the Bay Area.
  • Maybe you think Oracle is “old school” – you’re a Salesforce.com Alumni. Congratulations to you and the other 1,200 of you living in the Bay Area.
  • What if you worked at Google, the one company known as a major internet innovator who generally hires only top-quality talent? Well, there are more than 5,000 ex-Googlers in the Bay Area job market.
  • But you’ve got a degree from Stanford, one of the elite universities in the world? You and the other 45,000 Stanford grads in the Bay Area would more than fill the seats at AT&T Park in San Francisco!
So the question is: what really makes you unique? What can you bring to a potential employer that no one else can? The examples above are all things to be proud of, but those alone aren’t enough to make you truly stand out from the crowd.

The answer comes in how you tell “your story." Does your resume read like a laundry-list of roles and responsibilities? No one has the same combination of skills, experience, and accomplishments that you have so you must position your unique professional assets as your competitive advantage. Construct key messaging points to explain how you are different. Formulate well thought out themes together with your "career lessons" that are essential in shaping your story and explaining your career trajectory.

“I Nailed it!”
One of my prior clients (I’ll call him David) was in the “job search” stage. David has a stellar track record as VP of Engineering for over 15 years at large as well as startup software companies. In the first week of our engagement, we focused on preparing him for CEO and founder interviews with startups. But the following week he had an interview with the EVP of one of the largest companies in the Valley. As you can imagine, those company environments are totally different which required us to tune his “story” in ways that were very targeted and relevant to those business scenarios. As a simple example, consider how managing a team of 20-30 developers trying to get its first product to market is worlds apart from managing an army of 200+ developers that are releasing the next version of a mature product to an installed base of 10,000 production customers.

Well, David and I spent 2 hours preparing for the EVP interview. Fast-forwarding, David called me hours after the interview and his 3 words made my day: “I nailed it!”

Which “Nail” Are You Going to Use?
So how do you “nail it?” Preparing for an interview requires much more than reading up on the company, its website and competitors. You need to have a very clear understanding of problems that need to be solved and what challenges still exist that others have not been able to figure out. In other words, your unique skills and experiences are the “nails”. You need to pick the right nail according to the situation, and aim it squarely at that organization’s need.

The very first thing David and I did was to understand and categorize the business scenario with respect to the company and department he’d be managing i.e. Startup, Turnaround, Realignment, or Sustaining Success. For a deeper understanding of these stages, I’d recommend Michael D. Watkins book “The First 90 Days.”

The business stage dictates the internal and external drivers of what needs to get done and what specific tactics (drawing from your experience) you must use. We also made sure that he used the right business language associated with the business scenario.

Here’s a series of questions that you should be asking yourself:
  • What are the hiring manager’s business pain points? There are some hidden pains that may not be readily disclosed. Try to find people in your network on LinkedIn who are willing to give you the inside scoop.
  • Where, when, and how did you solve those similar problems? Get your success stories ready and make sure they are convincing and relevant.
  • What makes you uniquely qualified and different from anyone else who has the same “on-paper” experience you have? You’d better make sure this passes the “me too” test! If anyone else could say “me too” to your story, it fails the test and needs more work.
  • What insightful questions can you ask to elevate the conversation? You need to get out of the “defensive Q&A” death trap ASAP. Asking thoughtful questions about business challenges will get you off the hot seat, let you gain insight that you can use in the next interview, and make for a lively, strategic business discussion.
Answering questions like these force you to dig much deeper and below the surface. It gets to the core of your skills, experience, and abilities.

Whip out your hammer and take a good firm whack:
Once you know which nail to use (i.e. what you want to say), you need to get ready to drive that nail in. Making little taps won’t get you very far. In every interview, you only have 3-5 minutes to make a great impression. And remember, you only get one shot at a first impression. You need to come in and make a strong impact and a strong connection, or you’ll be spending the rest of the interview trying to recover.
Here are the keys to make sure you “hit the nail on the head”:
  • Match your energy to the company culture and management style – The question that every interviewer asks without asking is “Is he a fit for this environment?” If the environment is intense and internally competitive, they’re not going to like a laid-back, measured, collaborative style. If the environment is entrepreneurial and non-conformist, they’re going to screen out anyone who seems like a “pattern-matcher” or a big company political gamesman. Also, what is the personality of the interviewer? Matching or complementing his ego is key for good communication. Again, use LinkedIn to find people in your network who know your interviewer and can give you clues about what makes him tick.
  • Describe how you operate vs. how you think – too many people approach an interview with an intellectual and philosophical mindset. Give concrete examples of tough decisions you had to make instead of starting off with “I think…” For example, saying “I once allocated my entire bonus pool to only three of my six employees” (i.e. making a tough decision to only reward my top performers) sends a lot stronger message than “I think it’s important to reward top performers.”
  • Project confidence with an edge – The higher you go, the bigger the stakes in your decision making. They expect you to have an opinion. They’re hiring you for a role where you’re going to need to convince and lead people who don’t agree with you. So coming off as overly-sensitive or wishy-washy with a lot of “that depends…” answers won’t serve you well. Don’t ramble. Rehearse so it flows naturally.
In addition to extensive role-playing, David and I carefully deliberated on how he’d handle tough questions like “You’ve been in startups for the last 7 years, so why ‘big company’ again now?” We closely examined the specific political and organization dynamics that existed within his target companies. Having a strong network to complement his also enabled me to reach out to a contact that had recently worked in the organization where he was interviewing and I found out that one of the key issues was lack of collaboration across different development teams.

The stakes are too high not to be fully prepared for final round interviews. Getting yourself organized in both content and form is most efficient and productive when you do it with someone you trust. Fumbling through your practice sessions will only help you to get better. Be prepared, because a misstep during game time could mean “game over."

For more information on leadership development, visit ExecCatalyst What techniques do you use to prepare for late-stage interviews? Please share your thoughts.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Don't Let Your MBA Work Against You

Moving Walkways and Secret Weapons…
I remember a particular lunch I had with a colleague in the early 2000’s. We’ll call him Henry. He was an MBA graduate from Kellogg and was explaining in a matter-of-fact tone that he was entitled to a Director promotion because he found out recently that 2 of his classmates from business school had recently become Directors. He believed his graduating class was on the same timeline (as if they were all standing together on a moving walkway you’d ride at major airports) and should all be advancing in parallel, even though they were in many different industries and roles.

As background, I was working at Siebel Systems at that time as the result of the acquisition of Onlink Technologies. Onlink’s Product Management team was folded into Siebel Product Marketing, which was staffed with roughly 80% recent MBA graduates from top programs. It was a very talented (and competitive!) employee pool.

At the time of this conversation, Siebel had been struggling for a few quarters in a row and quarterly layoffs had been the norm for more than a year. The economic slowdown, 9/11, ERP players like PeopleSoft and SAP grabbing market share, and the emergence of Salesforce.com’s disruptive SaaS offering were all contributing factors to disappointing results. The company’s “We’ll just succeed by being more ‘Siebel’ than we’ve ever been” mentality wasn’t turning things around. It was making them worse.

We were faced with yet another wave of layoffs, and some of the people being laid off this time were recent MBA grads who had been hired in just the previous 3-4 months! Managers had to make the tough call to let some promising new recruits go simply to save proven A-players who had 2-3 years of experience at the company. I felt very bad for the employees who were being let go and asked Henry the question “Why do you suppose our organization still hired a large class of new MBA grads when there was obvious risk that many could be cut only a quarter later?”

He answered immediately, with a tone of absolutely certainty. “To keep them from falling into the hands of the competition!” Seriously?, I thought. As if every single new grad was capable of radically tipping the scales in our competitive market? I asked him why, if our market was so competitive, and new MBA grads were the “secret weapon” that would shift the balance of power, those same competitors wouldn’t instead come after MBAs on our team who also had 2-3 years’ experience at Siebel, the CRM leader. His puzzled look and inability to answer betrayed the fact that he had a deeply-internalized belief that new MBA grads (which he had been a couple of years earlier) were the single most high-value asset in the high-tech marketplace.

Enlightenment or Entitlement?
The potential problem with getting an MBA from a top school is the attitude that many new graduates develop. For numerous reasons, the system itself and the expectations it creates actually work against many graduates’ initial professional success. Business school staff, alumni, colleagues, and media can create a “Chosen One” aura for a new MBA graduate.

On-boarding into a new organization with an entitlement mentality, or confidence that borders arrogance will fail more often than it succeeds. And don’t forget that in high-tech laden Silicon Valley, many of your peers don’t have MBAs, but do have advanced Engineering degrees, or have successfully launched $100M product lines, or have otherwise proven that they can deliver results. You’re not likely to be working with a lot of “second-stringers,” in this neighborhood, and if you are, you chose the wrong company.

Many MBA graduates are incredibly talented and successful. But I believe that in most cases, those people are successful for their own talents, not for the prestige or even the education of their MBA. It’s a question of correlation versus causation. Do incredibly talented people who are highly likely to be successful get MBAs? Yes. Do MBAs make that same person far more likely to be successful than if they had not gotten an MBA? That’s unclear.

Making it Work for You

If you are a new MBA entering the high-tech workforce, here are some keys to help you get traction quickly, sustain it, and reap the benefits that you deserve as you make a huge contribution over time.
  •  Stay hungry - In almost all cases, when you’re a new, non-executive employee, people will respect and respond to an attitude of “I’m here to learn and contribute (and by the way, I’ll learn fast because I’m talented)” far more positively than an attitude of “I’m here to teach” or worse, “I’m here to get what I deserve.” You even see this in professional sports. A star athlete moves to a new team. Their new teammates, coaches, and fans embrace them when they project an attitude of “I want to learn the system here, see how I can make a contribution, and prove that I can deliver a lot for this team.” When they project an attitude of “I’m a proven star. Now watch and learn and try to keep up,” they lose support and suddenly a bad game, bad practice, or even a bad play can generate significant criticism because some observers want to see the “star” fail just because of his arrogant attitude. Stay hungry, and you will reap the rewards of your education far more quickly.
  • Show it off without “showing off” - There isn’t much value in spending the time and money to get an MBA if you can’t use that knowledge to enhance your contribution to your employer. The issue is how you demonstrate that knowledge. Recently, another colleague of mine who’s a Director at a $1B+ software company described a direct report of hers by saying “In between constantly reminding us that he has a Business degree from Haas, he actually brings some great ideas to the table.”  Of course, talking directly about business school is probably the clumsiest way to try to showcase your knowledge in the workplace, but using obvious “B-school vocabulary” or citing a case study will often invoke the same eye-rolling reaction from your peers. Imagine the example without the “In between constantly reminding us” qualifier. Her direct report would get the recognition and respect for her great ideas from her manager and peers without the distraction or annoyance. That’s the way to demonstrate that you got a great education from a great school.
  • “Pick your spots” - Choose the right opportunities to demonstrate strategic thinking. One of the most useful things I’ve noticed in many of my MBA colleagues is that it becomes quite natural for them to approach challenges and opportunities in high-tech with a more strategic view. But it’s important to consider at what time and what level to raise strategic issues because it doesn’t always help you to come off as the “strategic thinker.” When a critical, mid-stream project that’s behind schedule needs to be completed and you’re in a meeting discussing ways to get it back on track, talking about how the company needs to re-think its market segmentation is inappropriate. You’ll likely be seen as an academic who lacks either the sense of urgency or the work ethic to jump in and help out. It’s also wise to keep your strategy recommendations at your manager’s level unless you’re specifically asked to participate in a higher level strategy project. For example, if you suggest how a certain major acquisition should have been made and wasn’t, without having been involved in the due diligence, you’ll make it look like you think you should be running the company, not that you’re thinking strategically.
Avoid an attitude of entitlement like the plague. Focus on how to effectively bring your new skills to bear in your workplace and you will earn the respect and support of your coworkers and reap the rewards you deserve over time.

For more information on leadership development, visit ExecCatalyst.

We appreciate your thoughts, so please weigh in with your comments.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Don’t Make the Wrong Case: 3 Worst Reasons Why You Should Be Promoted

Due to popular request, we continue with the 3rd part in the “Promotion” blog topic series.

A Not-So-Happy Birthday…
A few years ago, a Senior Manager who reported to me (I’ll call him “Rick”), with whom I had a very good relationship, greatly disappointed me when he asked for a promotion. It didn’t bother me at all that Rick asked. It was how he asked that troubled me, and it’s a good lesson in how not to justify a promotion.

We were having our weekly one-on-one meeting, and after getting through the fairly standard update on key projects and metrics, Rick said “Can I ask you about something?” with a tone that implied we were about to shift gears into a more serious conversation that he had clearly prepared for. He grabbed a small pad of post-it notes that was sitting on my desk, wrote on it for a moment, and passed me a post-it that said “Age 30: Director.” Rick proceeded to explain - “My thirtieth birthday is coming up next month. It’s been a goal of mine for years to be a Director by age 30, so I’m here to discuss my promotion and see how I can meet my goal.”

I was stunned and took a few moments gather my thoughts and remain composed. This “title X by age Y” reason for a promotion was an incredibly myopic way to plan one’s career, but more than that, the weak justification based on his birthday demonstrated that he had no understanding of the promotion process and hadn’t considered what actions I would need to take to promote him. Moreover, it showed that he didn’t respect the Director role for anything beyond being a nice title. It made me think that I had overestimated him because he clearly was not thinking at the next level. Put another way, asking for a promotion in this manner actually proved that he wasn’t ready for it.

Three Proven Paths to Promotion Failure
Rick isn’t the only colleague I’ve worked with who demonstrated weak reasoning to support a push for a promotion. Here are the three that I’ve seen most frequently in my years in high-tech:
  •  Comparative justification – using someone else  at the target promotion level as a comparison to prove that you’re deserving of the same level
  • “It’s about time” – using time-in-grade, performance ratings, or a combination as the primary justification for a promotion
  • Non-business justification – using something that’s completely extraneous to the business  to justify a promotion

Comparative Justification
We’ve all heard people say “I’m contributing a lot more than she is, and she’s a Director” or “I’ve been in the industry and the company longer than he has, and his department just made him a Director.” I’ve never seen this work. While those comments might be true, they set you up perfectly for an argument with your manager. Now, instead of focusing on what you bring to the company and how you could contribute even more at the next level, you’ve put your manager in a defensive posture, forcing him to justify why someone else got promoted. It’s more productive to spend time talking about you than getting side-tracked by talking about someone else. Worse yet, your manager might even feel compelled to lay out a case against you to explain why you really aren’t as deserving of a promotion as the person to whom you’ve compared yourself. An inexperienced manager might even agree with you, effectively undermining another manager by agreeing that the other employee was not deserving of the title. But every one of these outcomes is a distraction, a potential setback, and has nothing to do with your manager partnering with you to put together a promotion plan. Even a passing mention of a comparison jeapordizes any chance of a positive outcome for you.

“It’s About Time”
When you’re in low-level, individual contributor roles, promotions are fairly simple and easy. Your manager can probably promote you from Product Manager to Senior Product Manager without any other approvals, and can do it just to reward your hard work while sending a good message to the rest of the department. Time-in-grade and performance-based justification alone don’t work for promotions at the Director level and above. The primary justification for your promotion needs to be built on why it’s better for the business for you to move up. Your talent and initiative are great supporting arguments, but you want to engage your manager in a conversation to create a plan for you to move up, not to review your timesheet or your performance ratings.

Non-business Justification
I’ve also seen experienced, talented people completely undermine their manager’s willingness to promote them by using non business- related reasoning. There’s the example from the opening about the employee who tried to drive a promotion discussion based on his upcoming birthday. Others have mentioned that they just bought a house and need to make mortgage payments, that they’re getting married this summer, or that their Business school classmates were all recently promoted. I knew a manager back at Hyperion Solutions who told me that he was going to explain to his boss that he needed a raise because he recently purchased a new BMW and had not realized how much more he would have to pay for insurance. Again, much like the “comparative justification,” any mention of non-business justifications will kill your credibility with your manager.

Put Yourself in Your Manager’s Shoes
We’ll continue to discuss the key ingredients that go into successful ongoing promotions in future blog posts. Meanwhile, as you consider how to make a strong case for your promotion, simply put yourself in your manager’s shoes. Imagine your manager having a conversation with his manager, advocating for approval to promote you. What would you want him to say? Would you rather have your manager outlining how promoting you would help the department (and overall business), or lobbying for you based on your birthday or even explaining how there was a promotion mistake in another department?

Which brings us back to Rick. As we wrapped up our conversation, I asked him to “Put yourself in my shoes, and think about what Director-level skills you can demonstrate and what projects you can deliver successfully so that I’ll have a strong case for your promotion down the road.” Within a year after he successfully delivered against his plan, I was very happy to promote Rick. 

What lessons from the “school of hard knocks” have you learned from when pushing for a promotion or discussing with your direct reports? Please share any other insights you have.

For more information on leadership development, visit ExecCatalyst.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Negotiating Your VP Title When Changing Companies

How to Secure Your VP Title Upfront
Last week we scrutinized the practice of probationary promotions and focused on the importance of getting the higher title that’s commensurate with the level of responsibility. Negotiating your title when you are joining a new company can be equally as arduous. A friend of mine (we’ll call him Mark) was interviewing for his first VP of Marketing role at a startup after holding Director titles at much larger, public companies. The CEO wanted Mark to lead the Marketing organization (reporting directly to the CEO), but proposed that Mark come in initially as a Director, deliver results, and then be promoted to VP after 6-12 months on the job. Basically, the CEO wanted to “de-risk” himself so he could “test drive” Mark before spending the political capital to make him a VP.

Mark was faced with an important negotiation. Here’s the advice I gave him:
  1. First impressions mean a lot - You only get one shot at a first impression so bringing you in at a Director level will set the wrong expectations when you join the company. You will be introduced at a lower level and everyone will think of you in that light.
  2. Use your compensation leverage while you have it – Your greatest ability influence your compensation structure is before you join a new company. Remember, if you are in the Offer Phase then you are the person they want. The CEO has “chosen you” and doesn’t want to keep looking so he’s very motivated to bring you on ASAP. Once you join the company then you are part of the standard HR process and it’s more difficult to negotiate your terms. And in the executive ranks at startups, equity (i.e. stock grants, options and RSUs) is a much more significant component of your compensation package. There are some rules of thumb and expectations among investors about what amount of equity is appropriate for a VP, and it’s substantially more than what a Director would typically be offered. Theoretically, Mark could get the additional equity once he’s promoted to VP, but companies are much more willing to allocate equity to attract a new rock-star talent than to thank/reward talent that’s already on board and committed.
  3. Expect and enjoy the negotiation – As I mentioned in last week’s blog post, how you handle your title and compensation negotiation provides your new employer with a preview of how you will conduct yourself in business. If you are unwavering in your terms, it could be a major turn off. On the other hand, if you cave in too easily, you will project weakness i.e. how you will handle negotiations with peers, vendors and customers. Focus on the business reasons that support why it’s better that you come in as a VP. And as anxious as you may get, don’t rush the process. I know one executive that took 2 months to agree to terms… now that may be stretching it.
How to Negotiate Your Future VP Title
While it’s usually best to secure your VP title upfront, there may be extenuating circumstances that call for you to switch to “Plan B” i.e. negotiating your future VP promotion into your offer letter. Before I joined one of my early startups, I came across a Director role in my job search that was reporting to the CEO. Given that I’d been at the VP level for several years, I didn’t want to take a “step back,” but with this opportunity I felt that as long as the role was reporting to the CEO then I was at the right level. Within 20 minutes of my first meeting with the CEO, I knew I was his top choice. At the end of our meeting, we started talking about title and compensation ranges. I then came to understand that he had set the expectation with the Board (and the rest of the company for that matter) that he was not going to hire a VP. The company had previously made “big bets” on VPs that didn’t work out (which is why he posted a Director job). This was important company history to understand and I leveraged this knowledge to create a win-win. Here’s the success strategy I used:
  1. Make the boss look good – I knew if I forced the CEO to bring me in as a VP then there was a fair amount of political damage for him if he were to “change his tune.” I made sure that he understood that preserving his leadership credibility was of upmost importance to me and that I was ready to come on board to help him work through this challenging time in the business. However, I made it clear that I was not coming to the company to be a Director i.e. my pride made it hard for me to take a Director title
  2. Secure the VP role commitment – I helped him understand that my career progression would be shot if I took a step down at this stage e.g. if he hired a VP above me. So I suggested that we have a 6-month review. If I was doing what was expected then I would be promoted immediately. And if not then I would leave the company, giving him an “out.” This made it really easy for him in either scenario i.e. back to point #1, “making him look good.”
  3. Negotiate built-in promotion terms – We were very specific on the triggers for the promotion and also built in the VP compensation elements (i.e. salary, bonus, and stock) into the offer letter. This made the 6-month review a very simple cut and dry process. In fact, he seemed more comfortable with this part of the negotiation because from his perspective, it was a “safe bet” – he’d only have to provide that compensation if he was convinced after 6 months that I would be a great VP.
  4. Put walls around the Director role – Here’s the part that’s easily overlooked. I made sure that the VP and the Director roles were clearly distinguished, for example, the VP role had direct reports and the Director role didn’t. This is counter-intuitive for people who think that taking as much responsibility as possible would create the fastest path to VP. We clearly outlined the focus, responsibilities, and tasks as a Director and the comprehensive responsibilities as a VP. If the roles were not markedly different then the VP title (and compensation) would be less significant. I was very careful to make certain that I didn’t creep into doing the VP job without the official promotion.
Within months of joining the company, things were going very well and the CEO was so pleased with the immediate impact and contribution I brought to the business that he wanted to start giving me more responsibility. With Point #4 above in mind, I told him “If you’d like to accelerate my promotion to VP, I’d be very happy to take on the full VP responsibilities."

There is another key lesson here. Coming in as a Director lowered the expectations and optics around my on-boarding period. Given the company’s history with prior VPs who didn’t work out, my near term focus on prioritized projects took the tremendous pressure out of the system that would have existed if I had come in with the VP title i.e. needing to “walk on water” and fix everything that was broken. The success criteria were certainly more realistic which is important for anyone starting a new job.

And what happened to Mark? Well, Mark successfully negotiated and helped the CEO to see that he, the CEO, and the company would all be more successful if he came in as a VP. And here’s the kicker: Mark found out later that the company’s Director of Product Management, who joined at the same time, came in with the “test drive” deal. More than a year later, that Director was still struggling to create a sense of urgency for the CEO to finally promote him to VP.

What promotion negotiation strategies have worked for you? Please share your thoughts.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Perils of Probationary Promotions

The Win-Win-Lose Proposition
When I was at Oracle, there was a major reorganization and a new department was formed. I was a Sr. Manager in operations and my boss, a Director, was tapped to join a temporary global taskforce and disappeared for 3 months. Here’s where it gets interesting: his manager, the VP, needed me to do my boss’s job but he couldn’t promote me, at least not yet. I was offered the “job of a Director,” but didn’t get the title. On face value everything seemed fine:
  1. The company wins – The job gets done and business moves forward.
  2. The manager wins – The job gets done and s/he also feels good about giving you the “opportunity.”
  3. You win... really? – You get more responsibility and learn more skills.
Here’s what’s wrong with the picture: You lose too! From a financial perspective, you get more work but have the same pay. You lose salary and bonus upside because you were compensated at the lower pay grade.

But the political ramifications are more serious. You have accepted a new role but don’t have full organizational support. Titles are important, particularly in mature organizations, because they give you the clout to represent your business function and to make decisions. Without the formal title and recognition, you are vulnerable to complexities and delays because people are questioning your authority. It’s effectively “the buck stops here” credibility that encourages people to work with you instead of going around you to make things happen. Also, without the title you have to swallow your pride because people in the organization will ask “why are Karen and Mike (your peers) Directors and you are not?” or “if you’re doing your boss’s old job and he was a Director then why aren’t you a Director?” Furthermore, when your promotion is finally official, the formal announcement is anti-climactic because you’ve already been doing the job. And worse yet, if you still haven’t been promoted then you are floating in limbo, while others are trying to figure out how they can get that promotion before you do.

How You Got Into This Predicament
Probationary promotions are commonly practiced within high-tech companies. They happen for several reasons: 1) your manager doesn’t have the power (or possibly the political will) to authorize your promotion 2) it’s outside of the focal/annual review process so you have to wait as a matter of policy. At any rate, managers play this card in order to get you to take on more work and hope that this “new responsibility” will be enough to keep you motivated and happy for a little while longer. One argument for the probationary promotion (instead of the “real deal”) is that it’s a good way to observe you in the role. It’s a low-risk “test drive” for your management where they can watch and see if you succeed without risking their political capital of officially promoting you first. That’s hogwash so don’t fall for it. If you are qualified enough to be given the responsibility, then you are surely qualified to get the title promotion and compensation that’s associated with it.

Negotiating Your Promotion
Let’s discuss how you can gain control over the process. Every high-achiever will chomp at the bit to get more responsibility and looks forward to being hand-picked to lead a new project. When you’re early in your career, taking on new challenges is a good way to get visibility and to demonstrate that you have high potential. Negotiating hard for that promotion at this early stage of your career is less important than when you are vying for Director and VP roles. At these levels, much more is at stake with respect to business need and impact as well as the professional risk and personal sacrifices that you take on. Here are important points to tip the balance in your favor:
  1. Build your business case – articulate why it’s better for the business that you are promoted. Focusing solely on your own motivations can put your manager in an immediate defensive posture if he is not ready or able to promote you. Whatever you do, don’t build your case for a formal promotion around your needs and goals. Your boss might be able to ask for an exception to company policy for the good of the business, but he’ll never be able to ask for an exception because of your individual needs and goals. So equip him to make a case that his superiors can respect and support based on the business need.
  2. How it benefits your manager – it’s in your manager’s best interest for you to be successful. Sending you off into the company to drive change, manage critical projects, etc. without the proper support can come back to bite him or her if you fail. Help her to realize how sending you in at the wrong level can undermine the projects that are most important to her. Another point is that the more senior her direct reports are, the stronger the case is for her next promotion since she’ll be managing Directors instead of first-line managers.
  3. Show your political savvy – your promotability has as much to do with acceptance up, down, and across the organization as what your manager thinks. If your manager promotes you and then receives a backlash of criticism, his own credibility is shot. Do you know how others feel about your expertise and contribution to the business? You should have a strong understanding of this before you push for your promotion. If there are any concerns raised, then this is your opportunity to correct any misunderstandings. Removing these barriers will help to align the political timing of your promotion to the benefit of your manager and the overall business.
Give Yourself a Promotion
How you handle and present your case for promotion is an important preview of your leadership skills and style. Your ability to demonstrate balanced thinking around business, managerial, and personal benefits will provide insights to your potential as a leader and future executive. The more you think and act like the level you want to be at, the more people will view you as already being there. Moreover, applying the principles of SMART objectives (specific, measureable, attainable, realistic, and time bound) helps to ensure that you and your manager are on the same page regarding your promotion expectations. When the requirements for your promotion are “SMART”, you’ll be working hard based upon a clear set of objectives vs. suffering from the “moving goal post” phenomenon where your manager just invents a new requirement or throws out a new challenge for you to overcome before the promotion process can continue.

Observing how your manager handles this situation is equally telling. If he’s fully committed to your success, then he will work with you according to the principles mentioned above instead of keeping things very loose, unspecific, and open-ended from a timing perspective.

Have you ever taken a probationary promotion? Did it work out eventually, or did you get stuck in the “slow lane” as a result? How did you deftly avoid a probationary promotion or accelerate a formal promotion? Please share your thoughts.