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Business Journal
Leadership Mistake: Promoting Based on Tenure
Business Journal

Leadership Mistake: Promoting Based on Tenure

by Brandon Rigoni and Bailey Nelson

Story Highlights

  • Defense Department considering a talent-based strategy
  • Natural manager talent is rare
  • Some great manager practices can be learned and developed

For U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) employees, new hiring and promotion policies may be on the horizon.

Up for consideration is a proposal -- named "Force of the Future" -- that would modify numerous government hiring practices, including the way federal workers are "hired, paid, promoted and fired," according to a recent Washington Post report. Though the proposal applies exclusively to the DOD, if implemented, it eventually may lead to changes in other areas of the government workforce -- and could be a compelling model for private sector organizations.

One aim of the proposal is to shift away from a promotion system primarily based on tenure. A change such as this would be significant for the federal government as well as for many private businesses.

Management Talent Is Rare

Tenure-based advancement to management is the norm in many organizations. A recent Gallup report, State of the American Manager: Analytics and Advice for Leaders, reveals that the two most frequent reasons U.S. workers are named manager are tenure with their company and success in a non-managerial role. But neither necessarily indicates that a person has the right talent to succeed as a manager.

In fact, Gallup estimates that organizations get it wrong 82% of the time. This finding isn't all that surprising given how rare highly talented managers are: Gallup finds that only about one in 10 people naturally possess high talent to manage.


After studying 2.5 million manager-led teams in 195 countries, Gallup discovered five attributes that predict managerial success. Highly talented managers excel at:

  • motivating every employee to take action and engaging employees with a compelling mission and vision
  • exhibiting assertiveness to drive outcomes and the ability to overcome adversity and resistance
  • creating a culture of clear accountability
  • building relationships that create trust, open dialogue and full transparency
  • making decisions based on productivity, not politics

Organizations that select these highly talented managers frequently realize 48% greater profitability, 22% greater productivity, 17% greater employee engagement, 5% greater customer engagement and 19% less turnover.

Unfortunately, employees typically can't learn or acquire high natural talent to manage; talent generally results from a natural disposition and early developmental experiences. These traits don't change often or easily throughout a person's lifetime.

Successful Management Practices

So what should organizations do with their existing managers -- many of whom may not possess naturally high managerial talent? Gallup has discovered some management practices that can help all managers increase engagement among their teams, regardless of their natural level of talent. These include:

Helping employees set work priorities and goals. By prioritizing performance management activities -- such as helping individuals establish work priorities and goals -- managers promote a culture of engagement and encourage employee performance. At least two-thirds of employees who strongly agree that their manager helps them set work priorities (66%) and performance goals (69%) are engaged in their work. By contrast, fewer than one in 10 employees who strongly disagree with these statements are engaged in their work.

Being open and approachable. More than half of employees who strongly agree that they feel they can talk with their manager about nonwork-related issues (55%) and can approach their manager with any type of question (54%) are engaged at work, compared with fewer than one in 10 who strongly disagree with these statements and are engaged in their work. Managers who promote an open work environment and open lines of communication can do a lot for their teams' engagement.

Focusing on employees' strengths rather than on their weaknesses. Strengths-based development is a powerful engagement tool that any manager can incorporate into his or her leadership style. Sixty-seven percent of workers who strongly agree that their manager focuses on their strengths or positive characteristics are engaged at work, compared with 31% of workers who strongly agree that their manager focuses on their weaknesses or negative characteristics.

When managers take steps to boost engagement on their teams, their efforts pay off. Gallup has linked improved employee engagement to increases in productivity, profitability, quality and customer ratings -- and decreases in safety incidents, shrinkage, turnover and unscheduled absences.

There's no substitute for scientifically identifying and selecting manager talent. Still, given that three manager behaviors -- helping employees set work priorities and goals, being open and approachable, and focusing on employees' strengths -- are linked to higher employee engagement, organizations should, at a minimum, develop managers based on these principles.

The Force of the Future proposal takes on complex government policy issues for which there are arguably no easy answers. But most can agree on the importance of maximizing every manager's potential to engage his or her employees. It's paramount to invest in developing managers -- whether in the public or private sector -- and to support their performance based on data-driven science and proven principles, regardless of their level of natural managerial talent.

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