“I have to start out this conversation by asking if you’ve ever turned down a promotion.” This was the opening line in an email I recently received from a 34-year-old who has made impressive progress in his young career.
His question might sound crazy, yet some among us chose this profession to help others, not as a vehicle to bigger career dreams. In fact, this question brings up a dilemma for employers as well as employees. What do we do when our expectations conflict with what our employees desire?
Some years ago, I was invited to meet with a group of firm partners and the associates they hoped to promote into the partnership as equity owners. To the shock of those in charge, not one of the six candidates looked forward to the promotion. The younger associates said they enjoyed their careers just as they were — focused on serving clients, not running a business. To them, the partners seemed burdened by unrewarding duties.
This meeting turned the owners’ succession plans upside down. It also caused them to question whether they had hired the right people because, as the founder exclaimed, “not one of them has any ambition.”
Both sides had a point. The partners had hired passionate client advocates whose reward came from the guidance they provided and the loyalty they created. Economically, the arrangement worked well for both the employees and the owners.
The tension emerged when the owners assumed that their professional staff wanted to work their way into the ownership class. They discovered that ownership was their own personal definition of success, not that of their employees.
Both this episode and the inquiry from the young man reveal something very important: The burden to communicate intentions does not fall on the owners alone. Employees have the responsibility to ensure that their definition of success aligns with the goals and the culture of the business where they work.
The author of the email explained his story: “Since arriving here, they have taken very good care of me and I feel like I’m part of a successful company. I have been given a lot of free rein to enact creative solutions and make positive changes. I took a considerable initial pay cut by taking this current job after leaving my other firm, but I have worked hard and have already surpassed my previous compensation. I’ve also completed all of the qualifications required for this job.
“But I’ve never worked on getting promotions for the salary or title alone. Frankly, I have never cared much about titles and am not driven by them. I’ve tried to push myself to learn new skills and try new things, often forcing myself to come out of my shell a little more and get out of my comfort zone a bit. With every job I’ve ever had, I’ve always advanced to new positions but I’ve generally had some interest in those advancements. I genuinely enjoy doing a good job and going above and beyond. I feel as though I’ve been very blessed throughout my working career and working here is no different.
“Things have gone well enough that management is encouraging me to be ready to apply for a new position they will be creating later this year. One of the partners has also repeatedly given me hints that there will be some opportunities coming up for me, and I feel as though they would be stunned and utterly disappointed if I did not put in for the position.
“I could probably do a decent job at it and feel like I have to at least consider the position. It would definitely be a promotion and an increase in pay. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, I feel as though I’ve made an honest attempt to get a feel for the work they would want me to do and I simply cannot see myself doing it for a living. I find it boring and frustrating.
“I want to enjoy my work and be passionate about what I do. I don’t want to turn down good opportunities; but if I dread going into work each day, I feel it should be acceptable to turn down a promotion.” He then asked, “What is the best way to have that conversation with the management team? Am I looking at this all wrong? Have you ever had such an experience? I would REALLY love to hear any advice you have on this, as this is an extremely important decision I am not taking lightly.”
My email friend presents an interesting dilemma. While I have never turned down a promotion, I have chosen not to pursue certain bigger opportunities because I didn’t feel that I would perform well in the roles. In my case, that didn’t happen until later in life. If I had still had another 25 or 30 years to go, I might have been inclined to look at every new opportunity as a way station on my road to fulfillment.
Working Through ‘No’
Over the years, people who worked for me occasionally turned down opportunities for promotion. As a manager, this presented a problem. Employees who decline a promotion end up occupying a permanent spot that could be offered to another up-and-comer. How does one work around these people to make a path for those who do wish to be promoted?
Employees must take an active role in designing their careers. This includes communicating with the firm owners and working through any misunderstandings. Management might assist by helping candidates for promotion evaluate the offer from several perspectives:
First, what are your core strengths and interests? Will this job leverage those strengths or require you to develop new skills? Thinking beyond technical knowledge, could the work be rewarding and present an opportunity to learn and grow?
Second, how do you define success? Is it possible that your commitment to a high standard reveals a greater desire to contribute? While it may not be money or title that drives you, the opportunity to make an impact may shape your definition of success.
Third, is this a work environment that you enjoy? If not, can you affect change as a leader? The higher up the ladder you go, the more people depend on you to support them, help them grow and create opportunities for them.
Fourth, if not this, then what? Can you think of another solution to make the job work? Clearly, your employer values you and wants to keep you. Could this promotion put you in a better position to move forward with your goals in the future, either at this firm or elsewhere?
Remind employees not to downplay the money, title or recognition factors too much. Natural humility causes some people to eschew those things, but sometimes we dismiss their value because we fear change in our lives. Many of us carry seeds of doubt that we are not worthy of the recognition others want to give us. Growth can require a leap of faith.
Employees: Before you reject the job, think about it from every possible angle. What would it have to look like to appeal to you? Identify what you might need, including additional training, to be good at it. Articulate your reservations to your boss and open an honest discussion. If you decide to turn down the promotion, be thoughtful in your communication. When a mentor puts their reputation on the line to promote you, don’t let them go too far out on the limb as your advocate if you don’t intend to follow.
The advisory business is facing one of the most critical talent shortages in its history. Employees and employers must work together to ensure that jobs are filled by the right qualified people with the passion to excel.
— Read 30 Best Paying College Majors: 2017 on ThinkAdvisor.