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Ready to lead? The perils of being promoted too early

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Responsibility is good, right. Promote emerging talent and fast-track the next generation of leaders. But what happens when young people are promoted too soon?

I considered the perils of promotions during a recent interview. The executive was unavailable, so a young manager stepped in. He was well spoken and presented, but lacked experience. I wondered how older colleagues would respond to his management style.

On top of the world in your Twenties? If it's based on merit, more power to you. But there could be other reasons for ... On top of the world in your Twenties? If it’s based on merit, more power to you. But there could be other reasons for your promotion. 

I’ve seen this situation more often in the past few years. Young staff promoted to positions that once were held by people 10 years their senior. Young staff who are so confident, and lacking respect for older workers, that they assume they can ace the job.

One need only look at the average age of MBA students these days – in the mid to late 20s at some universities – for a glimpse of the age of future managers.

Being promoted too soon is not a criticism of millennials. Good on ambitious young managers who do extra study and aggressively seek promotions. Careers must be kick-started sooner if millennials are to break into Australia’s insane property market.

The problem is companies promoting young people before they are ready.

Granted, I’ve seen entrepreneurial ventures give twentysomethings incredible responsibility and opportunity. And young people respond with outstanding performance. As I’ve written before, millennials have more workforce potential than any generation.

But that does not mean all twentysomethings are ready to lead. Or that all companies should fast-track millennial managers. Or that we should downplay the benefits of industry and life experience that comes with age and persistence in a role.

The key issue is, why is the young manager being promoted? Is it because they have the performance, talent and drive – and are ready to step up? Or is it because the company has hollowed out costlier, experienced staff, so must turn to younger, cheaper managers?

Perhaps the company uses quick promotions to retain millennial talent without paying them extra. Job-title inflation is an old trick that inevitably does more long-term harm. Young managers wonder why they have all this work and grand title, and only a bit more pay.

Some companies promote young managers to alienate older staff. They send a message to senior workers that they are on the career scrap heap, will never be promoted again and should leave. Or they hope that aggressive young managers will target older colleagues whose performance might have dipped and make their life hell.

A bigger problem is naïve managers who assume that promoting young talent is the right thing to do – and a great look for their career. Rather than treat each promotion on its merits, they stereotype staff: young managers are good for leadership, old is bad.

Often, managers who struggle to lead older workers, or positively change organisation culture, favour younger workers who do not challenge them. That’s not leadership. It’s a cop-out to promote the wrong people to the wrong role because it involves less grief.

Long-term damage

I doubt enough managers think about the potential long-term damage to the young person they promote too soon, or the organisation.

I’ve seen young people who love their role. Their best career-development path is to take on other operational roles, study part-time, and learn more about the business and its industry. That is, to build strong foundations on which to launch their career.

Before they know it, the young employee is thrust into a management role. He or she has glaring gaps in industry knowledge, yet is expected to lead older workers with years or decades of experience.

The young employee has no management training and possibly less access to leadership programs because of corporate cost-cutting.

The result: the young manager starts to hate their job, despises the longer hours and resents being paid well below their predecessor. They quit and leave a mess.

Meanwhile, older workers who had to tolerate the young manager are hostile. They were forced to take instruction from someone who did not deserve the job on merit, did not know what they were doing and refused to ask for help.

Not all promotions work out this way. Many exceed expectations. But I’m betting lots of readers have experienced the situation of people who are promoted too early, damaging themselves, their peers and the organisation.

So, think carefully about the reasons for promotion.

If it’s based on merit or part of a considered strategy, more power to you. But if people are being promoted mostly because of age, it’s just another form of value-destroying discrimination.    .

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