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There really is no need for dead man's shoes

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Written by John Berry on 14th November 2017. Revised 16th November 2020.

6 min read

Relaxed managerThere’s a very basic problem in SMEs concerning staff succession and promotion. It’s that there’s apparently nowhere to go – everyone is in a job and no one is about to move over to allow ‘promotion’ of those below. It’s ‘dead man’s shoes’.

But is that true? Is such a simple problem really insurmountable? And is progress just about promotion?

Certainly as argued here, failing to enable progress is not an option.

To get an answer we have to look at what people want from work. And we have to look at what we mean by progress. Ultimately, the solution lies in membership requirements and continuous professional development requirements of the professional institutions. These champions of career progress have a ready-made solution. We just have to hitch a ride.

In search of increasing meaningfulness

People lead active lives in search of meaning. Work is part of this quest. One has only to look at someone who is out of work to see the negative impact on them and the poor life outcomes such as mental and physical illness that result. Humans are wired to strive and when there’s nothing to strive for, or when that striving is blocked, that brings problems.

Indeed, most lottery, pools and premium bond winners of significant prizes report that despite their fortunes, they do, in the end, return to work.

So work is an important part of life.

In addition to a general striving, many people have high growth needs. If they have no opportunity for personal development at work, they’ll find it in their private lives. They’ll volunteer, build their family and even build a house.

Work gives meaningfulness. Employees need to feel important and know the work they do is significant. And progress at work satisfies the human need to grow.

In search of a growth system

No organisation is static. Organisations change. And some people ride that change to their own benefit. It’s just that often those who progress are the skilled ‘operators’ who take advantage of the lack of opportunity for others. Unless a deliberate system for progress is implemented and managed for all, only a select few benefit. Only a select few get what everyone craves.

People seek fair treatment from management. On the one hand they expect that management will give them fair division of the resources considering the effort they put in compared to their colleagues. On the other hand, they expect fair treatment – they expect that the system for dividing the resources will itself be fair. They expect that if they put more effort in, management will see this and reward them accordingly.

In simple terms, people expect their share and they demand that the process of dishing out reward will be just. And if either of these is breached – if the amount or the method is deemed unfair - feelings of injustice grow.

Injustice degrades commitment to the organisation. Commitment enables all manner of management action. It’s a major problem for managers if someone is not committed.

So within a firm there must be a system for progression. Progression must not be left to the whim of management, invoking conscious and unconscious bias. Those shouting loudest should not be the only ones benefitting. Progress must be for all, not just for the few.

Progress is upwards

In creating a structure for progress, there are two simple concepts – hierarchical progress and lateral movement. This blog centres on hierarchical progress.

Hierarchical progress assumes that everyone enters their job as a trainee and that they have the scope to progress over time through intermediate stages to expert.

Progress is not inextricably linked to promotion. Of course, rewards such as salary should reflect the increased contribution that progress suggests. With personal progress comes more profits for the firm and it’s only reasonable that those creating extra profit should be rewarded. But it must be possible to make progress without restructure – without a vacancy. If we link progress and promotion, we’re back where we started, with an insurmountable problem.

The clue to progress is in the professions.

Most professions have a hierarchical system of membership and firms can easily hitch a ride on their structures. An example is the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET). The IET also recognises and parallels the Engineering Council registration system and the two work together.

The IET recognises four levels of membership:

  • Student (including apprentices)
  • Technician Member
  • Member
  • Fellow

The intention is that someone enters the profession as a Student and progresses by gaining qualifications, competencies and experience.

The Engineering Council has three levels of registration:

  • Engineering Technician or ICT Technician
  • Incorporated Engineer
  • Chartered Engineer

Depending on the job and qualifications studied during their career, a person can join as a Student member of the IET, working towards Member with registration as either an Incorporated Engineer or a Chartered Engineer. Ultimately a Member can work to become a Fellow. Since Chartered Engineer and Fellow of the IET take significant dedication, this pathway takes most of a person’s working life.

The citation for Fellow suggests that he or she shall have ‘demonstrated superior individual responsibility, sustained achievement and significant professionalism’. It’s an objective level independent of position. It’s a long-term goal with huge significance and meaning.

The structure accommodates electricians, ICT technicians, designers and consultants. Not all will strive for Fellow, but all can progress.

This is one example. There are thousands of such pathways in thousands of occupations.

With a bit of planning

So to summarise.

It’s essential that management in all firms understand that the people they employ want to progress. Some will want to achieve great things. Others will have more modest expectations. Either way, their needs must be accommodated.

Failure to accommodate progress – thereby leaving things to chance and whim - will damage staff commitment. And that has serious consequences for business outcomes. There are alternatives to personal progress for all – replacing staff with new competencies or sliding backwards, allowing the competitive environment to swamp the firm – and neither is palatable.

Progress must be managed. Leaving progress to chance and favouring a few has dire consequences.

There’s a simple solution: hitch a ride on the various professional institution registration systems. Seek out those most relevant to the various functions in your company.

With a bit of planning, all can progress and ‘dead man’s shoes’ will be a thing of the past. And of course, both firm and staff benefit.