Moving on up

A few years ago I wrote a post about internal promotion and the comparison to external candidates. It is fair to say that it raised quite a bit of debate at the time and a range of differing views. If you don’t have the time, or the inclination, to read the original post, my point was essentially that internal candidates should be given more benefit of doubt when being compared to external candidates.

One of the main challenges that internal candidates have is that their limitations and areas for growth most likely already known. Which, whilst some would argue is a benefit, can often be a reason to look beyond them. So does that mean that as an ambitious internal candidate you have to move on and look externally? Well obviously sometimes that’s the right thing to do, but before doing that, how about trying to address some of those gaps?

Every HR person and recruiting manager is different and of course I only speak for myself here, but when I’m interviewing or assessing an internal candidate I’m quite happy for there to be gaps between the role and the individual, it is only to be expected. But I want the candidate to be aware of that too. And that is particularly true if the role that you’re applying for is a promotion.

To put it more bluntly, no-one applying for a promotion should have nothing to learn. In fact it is entirely counter intuitive to believe that could be the case. Whilst there are always financial and other considerations, and I don’t mean in any way to belittle these, my experience is that the deciding factor for most people is that they want to pick something new up – more responsibility, a different team, a different department or function, a different business area.

Yet the moment you put them in the assessment process, the justification of worth can start and completely overshadow the very thing that I want to see. I want to know the individual has understood the requirements of the role, has assessed themselves against them, has made an appraisal of the areas that they can and can’t currently demonstrate and are willing and able to work on the gaps. I want them to have identified the very best person doing a similar job and asked themselves the questions, “how do I get to be that good?” not, “how do I persuade them I’m good enough?”

Being an internal candidate is hard – for all the reasons that I’ve mentioned in the previous post. No matter how we assess external candidates, they will always have the ability to add more spin and positioning than we will ever fully see through until they’re in post. But at the same time, internal candidates have a whole host of data, information and connections that they can use to their advantage. They just need to make sure that they absolutely do.

The myth of the external candidate

I’m always slightly nervous when it comes to comparing internal and external candidates. In many ways it is like moving house. On one hand you have you have the wonderful description of a potential property and beautifully taken photos and on the other, you have your current abode, lived in and known.  You can take a few visits, have a look around, you can even get a surveyor’s report, but it will never amount to the knowledge and experience you have from years lived within, learning the good the bad and the indifferent.

Of course there are ways you can be more objective about the comparison, you can run aptitude tests, profiling and be as structured in the assessment as possible. But I’m not sure you can ever completely counterbalance the opportunity of being unknown. Let’s take something like stakeholder management. An external candidate will give you examples of where they’ve been successful, how they’ve managed competing demands and ultimately you can only assume this to be true. The internal candidate may tell you the same, but you’ll also have the feedback from the stakeholders themselves.

The only way I’ve found to approach this situation is to add in the equivalent of a balancing number. On one hand assume that the external candidate will be 15-20% less good than you assess them to be. On the other add a factor for growth to the internal candidate, based on your knowledge of their current performance.  Then look at the two adjusted performances and try to make a comparison based on this revised approach.

Ultimately, if an internal candidate can get within distance of the external candidate based on this assessment it feels like the right thing to do to allow them to develop and grow. It’s not the most scientific approach, I grant you, but in the absence of anything genuinely more objective, I’ll be sticking to my old school ways.