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No matter the industry, executives look for the same shortlist of traits when deciding who to promote.
You could call me a pastor at a church, but an equally valid description of my job is that I’m an executive at a high growth rate company responsible for leading a large team of employees. I know it’s strange and maybe even off-putting to think of a church as a “company” and a leader in the church as an “executive.” For the record, each of those descriptors fail in multiple regards—and yet there are many ways the church I work at, Crossroads, operates that are like any other employer: we set goals, hire and fire, keep diligent track of cash flow, seek to maximize our ROI,1 and do our best to develop and manage our employees well. For the past seven years, I’ve served as part of our executive team, managing a large multi-team department with upwards of a few hundred employees in my care. Over the years, I’ve developed a mental cheat sheet of sorts that I use to decide who to promote and who needs more time developing in their current role. It contains surprisingly few traits.
Positivity and candor
You already know that Eeyore never gets promoted: the person on the team who is always sure imminent disaster is at hand and walks around with a rain cloud over their work. Less obvious is that the “Yeahbut” person never does either. You know this person, right? The one who can find a reason even the most promising of prospects will fail.
“A dump truck is pulling up to our doors with a literal truckload of free money!” “Yeahbut that might scratch the floors, which may cause someone to trip, which means they’ll probably sue, which means we’ll go into bankruptcy, which means we’ll all lose our jobs, which is going to make our dogs ashamed and want to move to our neighbors house, which means we’ll be left all alone. No dogs.”
This person has a head shaped like a pin and an always-on readiness to leap up and pop all the possibility balloons that are unfortunate enough to float their way.
The opposite is the person who can see possibilities and potential where others can’t. As an executive, I know the people I promote will set the tone and culture for everyone under them. I also know that I’m going to hand them difficult tasks that are tricky to navigate. I need them to be the most positive and possibility-focused person in the room—and the team they lead does too. That doesn’t mean I want people who ignore reality. A person who refuses to accept complexity and engage in genuine problems isn’t helpful either. But a person who can’t maintain a bullish outlook through complexity can’t be a leader and will never be promoted. I want to see positivity and candor. Are you someone who brings both in equal measure?
People focused on bringing their best in the job they’re in
Of all the lectures I sat through in college, there is one that stands head and shoulders above the rest in terms of practical impact on my life. I heard it in an elective business course I took during my senior year of college at Georgia Tech.2 The course was a series of lectures each by a highly successful CEO giving their best career advice. Most sounded the same: work harder than everyone else, no matter the cost to the rest of your life.3 They were all proud to talk about their accomplishments, unbridled ambition, and mythical ability to get work done. That is until one guy.
He was the CEO of a large bank, and in stark contrast to the others, he exuded humility and talked about his family in familiar and tender terms. Whereas the others told stories of broken marriages and estranged relationships with their children, this man glowed about his marriage of 40 years that was thriving and growing sweeter. The only pride he showed was in his children and grandchildren, who were clearly the center of his world, and I imagine he was the center of theirs, as well. His career advice was startlingly simple.
He said he never asked for or sought out a promotion. In fact, he started as a bank teller only after a former teacher saw him signing up to work in the coal mines and intervened to get him a job at the local town bank. From there, he said he only ever did one thing: focus on doing the very best he could in the job he was in. When he did that, he said, he was promoted to the next job and the next until one day they asked him to run the entire bank, which by that time had grown to a large multi-state enterprise.
In my career, I’ve tried to do the same. I’ve been promoted many times both in position and in the opportunity to influence, but never once asked for a promotion. Instead, I focus on doing my very best in the job I’m in. When it comes to promoting, I look for that same attitude and steer clear of people who are disgruntled with their current work feeling they should have more. That’s not to say ambition is bad. I invite conversations about career paths and possible next positions with people who work for me, and I do my best to help everyone succeed and grow. However, I will not promote anyone who feels they are above giving their very best to their current role. Every time someone takes their eyes off their current position and fixates on the next role, their hands soon follow, leaving the plow of the role they’re in, and their work suffers. Every role has one above it. Unbeknownst to them, they’ve told me exactly what they’ll eventually do if I promote them: the same thing—hard pass.
Creative Problem Solving
Every job, no matter the industry or level, is about solving a problem: that thing needs put in that box; our customers need to be served; the inventory needs managed and accounted for; our product design needs to keep pace, our brand message needs to be sharpened. If there were no problems to solve, there would be no job.
Yet, some people completely miss that being a Problem Solver is their job. Instead, they seem to think their job is to be a Problem Pointer-Outer. I call the most accomplished among them Creative Problem Pointer-Outers. They can find problems anywhere.4 To be clear, I want people who can foresee issues, but I also need them not to stop there. I need them to bring creative solutions to those issues.
The “creative” part is the key. I was fortunate enough to go to one of the top high schools for fine arts in the country and was taught by a brilliant old artist.5 Her brilliance was the brutal simplicity of her understanding of art and creativity. To this day, her concise definition of creativity is the one that steers my thinking. She said, “Creativity is courage.”6 This means that “creative problem-solving” is “courageous problem-solving.” The people I promote need to demonstrate a courageous nature in their approach to tackling problems. Are they bold? Are they willing to take a risk? Are they flexible? Do problems in our work stress them out and bend them (and therefore by proxy their teammates) out of shape, or do they demonstrate the fortitude to face challenges and discover new solutions?
I need my leaders to be creative problem solvers. No matter your industry, that’s what’s needed at the next level too.
Forward leaning initiative
A good employee gets everything they’re asked to do done with excellence. A great employee, one I look to promote, gets everything done they’re asked to do with excellence, and notices and helps solve other problems without being asked. If I notice initiative in a person, that overrides almost any other rough spots they may have and gets them on my list of people I’m looking to promote.
The best kind of initiative is the kind that not only helps with above and beyond problems without prompting but also helps with below and beneath problems without asking. When they consider the work of the team they’re a part of, they don’t see any task as being below or beneath them. Is the office kitchen messy? They clean it. Are there paper towels scattered on the office bathroom floor? They pick them up. Is there an important client meeting coming up? They’ll offer to help put together the slide deck out of a genuine desire to help, not get ahead.
People with initiative don’t have to be asked to help. They’re already doing it. People without it have to be micromanaged and prodded along at each step. If I promote someone without initiative I know I’m signing up for the constant mind-numbing chore of having to push them along like a stubborn mule up a mountain trail. No thanks. I’ll promote the person who shows initiative but lacks skill over the person with all the skills who lacks initiative every day. The person with initiative will eventually get the skills, but the person with the skills will never see the need for initiative.
Want to become more promotable? Look at this list and pick one trait to focus on and adopt. Then tell a trusted friend and have them ask you how it’s going. I can’t guarantee you’ll get promoted next month, but I can guarantee you’ll be on the right track.
This is one of the primary splits where we differ. In the business world, ROI is dominated by economic return. In the church world, we measure return much differently. Our chief goal is that everyone move continuously closer to Jesus. That can be tricky to measure, but some things we pay attention to: number of baptisms, number of givers (Because Jesus said, “where you treasure is, there your heart is also.”) At a more lead-measure level, I track cost per attender for big events that I believe are going to give people an opportunity to grow closer to Jesus. If that seems odd, consider Matthew 25:14-29. I work with the sober belief that one day Jesus is going to ask me what return I got for the money He put in my care. I want to have an answer that pleases Him. ↩
To Hell with Georgia! (Relax, that’s the standard line at Tech. Whenever someone yells, “What’s the good word?” You respond, “To hell with Georgia.” Jesus may say to love your enemies, but He didn’t say anything about your colleges rivals) ↩
Executive after executive would talk about their “work life balance” and how their family “understood” that they wouldn’t be seeing them much. Typically the balance was 99% work and 1% life. I wanted to raise my hand and point out what physics would say about that kind of “balance.” ↩
Linda Unger. She was at least 100 when I was in high school. ↩
Someday, I will write more about this. LOADS of things get unlocked in your life when you approach creativity this way. ↩