"A Leader at Every Level": The Learning Mission

Typically, at the end of a satisfactory job interview, the topic of promotion comes up. Sometimes it is folded into that perennial question: "Where do you see yourself in three to five years from now?" The subject is always raised because it sets up the future of the job. It signals what is invested in this position, and where it and you need to be a year or so from now. It also alerts you to the expectations of supervisors looking for tell-tale signs of your readiness for advancement.

If the applicant is bold enough to ask for examples of such signs—for what he should be looking out for—the answer will be intentionally vague and finally deflected with a gesture toward general leadership traits—which then usually ends the conversation.

It is odd—that a subject of such future or reverberating importance is treated in such a casual and off-the-cuff manner. Are we worried about over-promising and then later being held accountable? Or have we been warned about being too predictive and generating expectations that cannot be met later? Or is the vagueness a form of leverage to retain power, control or guessing over those under us?

Whatever risks may be behind such reluctance, it does point to one of perennial defects of the entire HR evaluation system—the lack of explicit knowledge of cues and clues to guide promotion progress. Indeed, the subject of promotion in general has become even more of a neglected issue because of downsizing. That is unfortunate because I needed just such help.

I was recently hired as VP of HR with an unusual charge: "I want you to review and revise our promotion process and criteria. I want a leader at every level of this company— and I want it within six months! And no tokenism or shabby substitutions. The real McCoy—immediately recognizable in every case!"

Even a few days later that still takes my breath away. I had never heard of such an official policy anywhere, anytime, at any company –let alone accomplishable in less than a year. Besides, it went against standard practice. Most organizations are agonizingly slow to promote. But to be able to change such an entrenched HR monolith in less than a year even with such a dramatic rallying cry seemed doomed to failure—so much so that I considered quitting before I really started.

Instead I called upon my old companion and gadfly, my Alter Ego, to talk things over.

"Your CEO was less than truthful. He lifted the phrase a leader at every level form title of a book by Noel Tichy published in 1997. The full title was The Leadership Engine designed to multiply and distribute leadership throughout as an infallible way of insuring company success.

Surprised that no footnote was given, "I hoped that is not a sign of his stealing other people’s ideas—including mine. In any case what do you think of the notion itself?

Alter Ego: "It is a rallying call—a favorite of CEO cheerleaders— designed to stir the troops but in this case not to action but in admiration that now we can not fail—that we have come up with the winning formula for success in the industry."

"You are too cynical. It clearly has merit. I can quickly name at least a half dozen units that are poorly led with no sign of a change in sight. Indeed, I can imagine how many supervisors are now nervously updating their resumes."

"That may have been what your CEO hoped would happen. But the subject of promotion and promotability is too profound and imbedded to be discussed and disposed of quickly or casually."

"Oh, Oh is this going to be another one of those marathon sessions replete with theory and documentations that can go one for weeks when I have to make an immediate judgment?"

"OK. OK. It won’t be a quick and dirty fix but we should be able to cover enough ground that won’t give way under you if you decide to stay the course."

"I appreciate that but what would you say are the critical issues?"

"There are many but the most serious is employee mistrust of the promotion process. What they find is favoritism across the board: good old boy networks, fraternity cronyisms, mid west comfort zones, like preferring like, etc. Surveys of supervisors and executives confirm that in spite of elaborate rules and transparency nearly 85 percent of all promotions are subjective, known and favored."

"Equally disheartening is the general failure to provide guidance along the way. Or what is offered seems for insiders only. Indeed, until that sin of omission is remedied and grants all an even playing field and an equal advantage of access, favoritism will rule. But where should those guidelines come from?"

I stepped in, "Obviously given the charge--from leadership models. The job of CEO has to be deconstructed into its most imitable and transferrable parts and spread out for review like a disassembled bike."

"Yes, but remember the hardest part is translating those traits—rendering them in every day or familiar terms so that they are recognizable behaviors of promotion. Remember too that the list is cumulative—it is not a single shot or one-time brass ring venture. It is also not sequentially exclusive, and some of the links are secretive, buried, finally enigmatic. It is still a crap shoot."

"In any case here is my top ten list:

Leadership Traits

  1. Decisive
  2. Persuasive
  3. Framing( and Frame Shifting)
  4. Due Diligent
  5. Intervening
  6. Engaging followers
  7. Intelligent
  8. Quick Study
  9. Success
  10. Ambitious

"Let us now take a sample of a few. Describe how the trait emerges; in what typical forms and contexts; and how it manifests itself and catches the attention of supervisors.


Our candidate for promotion displays a sense of the lay of the land— alert to where mine fields are, where the discussion is going and why—and how important it is to get there. He has enormous and, at times, excessive respect for process especially for decision making—knows it houses the secrets of success and innovation. The candidate understands the value of data but also sees its limits. Patient and aware, (s)he resists premature or hurried calls for conclusions; (s)he is especially suspicious of early demands for consensus. Always gives supervisors the benefit of doubt, although not always sure why the leader is not pressing his/her advantage, following his/her own timetable and moving toward closure. Has provided constructive input along the way but did not want to over step his/her bounds at the risk of becoming dominating. Respects, but does not worship chain of command.

Due Diligence

Very thorough and never slap-dash reports submitted on time; following recommended formats; neat; never too long or short; meticulously edited. Reputation for being trustworthy and reliable— for "dotting all i’s and crossing all t’s," so to speak; for public presentations too stiff and even frosty; excessive reliance on PowerPoint; uncomfortable with questions, but always covers the agenda; starts and end on time. Overall, an excellent ally in your corner or to cover your back. Every one (s)he trusts turns out to be trustworthy.

Engages Followers

Never plays the role of lone ranger, or of the indispensable member of the team. Not a lurker or behind the scenes player; never keeps score; never makes deals; generally upfront; "what you see is what you get"; never tells jokes or gossips at expense of others; solicitous without being pandering. Every once in a while, (s)he is invited to have a drink after work at the favorite watering hole with the group of rollers and shakers.

Quick Study

Grasps complex matters quickly. Loves to think and figure things out, and equally eager to psych out group dynamics. Generally asks tough questions—sometimes so unsettling that no one initially knows the answer—sometimes so tenaciously that he appears overbearing. (S)he is an an after hours type—forgetting to leave when everyone else has gone or slipping upstairs to the library. Without being designated as such, (s)he is often the unit’s a go-to-resource person—patient, open, unpretentious. Someone you will find a double picture on the outside wall of his/her cubicle—Steve Jobs and the Buddha.

"That should at least start us off, but there two final steps," concluded the Alter Ego. "First, acceptance of the above behaviors and profiles as grounds for promotion. Second, how these qualities translate into and signal the kind of upper level performance behaviors exemplified by leaders at every level of the company."

"Thank you, Alter Ego," I said. "You inadvertently have solved another problem—defining the direction for bringing about a major change in the culture from within. For which— sorry, old chap— I will accept the credit."