I got a field promotion this morning, asked to bridge the gap between the end of our overnight shift in a Red Cross shelter for victims of Hurricane Sandy and when the next supervisor could get there. In an instant, I went from being a volunteer to supervisor simply because no one else was available.

American Red Cross Shelter Entrance.

American Red Cross Shelter Entrance. (Photo credit: paulswansen)

The supervisor of our overnight shift gave me a detailed briefing on what I needed to do. Our onsite partners from the health department and police department gave me their full support. There were no major incidents and the situation turned out fine. But it got me thinking.


Promotion Timing

Ideally, promotions happen at the exact moment when the organizations needs and the peoples’ readiness intersect. We rarely live in an ideal world and most promotions take place either before or after people are ready. This is not an issue if the timing is close. Promotions that come much later than people expect cause frustration at best and disengagement at worst. Promotions that come much earlier when people are ready (like my field promotion this morning) are inherently risky.


Managing the Risk of a Field Promotion

The keys to managing the risk of promoting people much earlier than they are ready are:

  1. Be Prepared
  2. Manage the Hand-Off
  3. Learn and Adjust in Real Time


Be Prepared

Conduct basic leadership training with everyone that might conceivably be called upon to step up with short notice. Get them to a level of knowledge and skills at which they could handle a stretch situation. Additionally, have a hand-off procedure in place to enable a senior leader to set up for success someone getting a field promotion.

Manage the Hand-Off

By definition, a field promotion is going to happen suddenly. There won’t be time for full executive onboarding.  Make sure someone follows the pre-prepared hand-off procedures and provides whatever coaching and guidance they can. In other words, do everything you can to mitigate the risks in an inherently risky situation.

Learn and Adjust in Real Time

A well-structured experiment provides valuable learning whatever the outcome. But field promotions are not experiments. They involve asking someone to stretch into a situation you know they are not yet ready for. It is highly likely they will fail if left to their own devices. They are doing new things in new ways in new situations. Thus senior leaders should share their perspective and wisdom along the way in real time.

We’re all new leaders all the time. Field promotions bring out the best in leaders when handled well and cause a lot of pain when handled poorly. Whether you are the person who might get promoted or the person promoting others, think about “what if?” in advance.


Note this is a Leader’s Perspective article, which is different than my normal, regular New Leader’s Playbook articles. Those generally focus on one of the ten steps of The New Leader’s Playbook, drawing on learning from specific leaders (who are not PrimeGenesis clients). My “Leader’s Perspective articles are comments on things I see in working with clients, read about, or hear from others.