Promoting People

James Lim
4 min readApr 4, 2020


If only career ladders were upright and obvious — Photo by Max Ostrozhinskiy on Unsplash

Promotions and compensation adjustments are some of the most important functions of management. By electing to recognize (or not recognize) individuals and their contributions, we construct a system of incentives that encourage and reward certain behaviors. This shapes the culture of the company and is an important aspect of talent development.

Am I going to get promoted this quarter? — Everyone.

When adjusting the dual levers of promotions and raises, we want to:

  1. grow people into roles where they can continue to learn and succeed, and
  2. identify role models for other aspiring individuals.

Together, these create virtuous cycles of learning and growth.

However, I have noticed that these goals can get lost in the mechanics of calibration cycles, and our tendency to focus on impact and project delivery is often counter-productive.

About Impact

Impact is the obvious and most common justification managers use to support a promotion. It is fun to reminisce last year’s biggest hits, and battle stories can be exciting to narrate. Here is a common scenario: a unit’s managers huddle around a conference desk and scrutinize a spreadsheet of promotion candidates. One by one, each manager takes their turn to tout their candidate’s projects and results. Depending on the perceived impact and the speaker’s showmanship, the room may be compelled to approve the promotion, or obliged to question the success of the project.

The results speak for themselves. — Some manager at the table.

Purely impact-based evaluations and promotions downplays and undervalues other areas, such as communication skills and risk management skills. For example, during the early days of a fast-growing startup, high impact projects are readily available. These projects can also be completed quickly without much coordination effort. However, as the company matures, such projects will get harder to identify and define. Also, as various departments grow and develop complex functions and dependencies, the people who succeeded earlier may not have developed the requisite organizational skills to further that success.

Impact can also vary greatly depending on the leverage that exists in an assigned task. This depends on project allocation, which involves a fair amount of luck and is subject to bias. Neither of these can be relied upon as predictors of success in subsequent endeavors — some readers might recognize this as a form of the Peter Principle.

A system that only recognizes impact, or rewards impact over everything else, will also quickly strip resources from maintenance tasks that have low leverage today but are important to the long term sustainability of the company. Examples of such work include:

  • upgrading critical libraries to their next major versions, or
  • completely sunsetting a deprecated feature by persuading customers to migrate and upgrade.

A common cousin is recognizing project delivery (“shipping”) over everything else, and that pattern exists even in the biggest, most successful companies.

About Qualities & Skills

The stories that we share about our teams’ superhuman efforts and extraordinary successes can certainly be motivating. However, I think it is far more valuable to go beyond the perceived impact and calibrate each candidate on the qualities and skills that they demonstrated, in both success and failure. This can be demonstrating grit in the face of failure, adapting plans to shifting requirements or market conditions, or even having the courage to cut a doomed project early.

First, this approach enables a longer-term view and reduces the effects of skewed project allocation. Qualities and skills tend to be durable and can be made consistent with practice. When assembled into a team, the composition of qualities and skills become a foundation that the organization can rely on to tackle challenge after challenge.

Second, qualities and skills are coachable and can be learned and polished. The best of these can be evolved into processes and systems, and in some cases enforced with automation. For example, if a Tech Lead has consistently demonstrated extraordinary skill at controlling the risks of introducing new technology, their practices can be studied and taught as best practices, or encoded into a standard evaluation process.

Finally, promoting people based on qualities and skills encourages experimentation and innovation. It allows for and even rewards failure. For instance, individuals could feel motivated to work on a large rewrite that is crucial for long term security but could have no demonstrable impact in the short term. They can rest assured that they would be recognized for thoroughness, patience, and that persuasive presentation that convinced others to pitch in.

When promoting a person, we are recognizing that they are ready for a bigger scope and more responsibility. This usually means that they are expected to take on projects that have bigger surface area and affect more product areas and departments. The best predictor of success, hence, is rarely the impact of their past projects; instead, we often need to look at the abilities they have demonstrated thus far, ask if these are applicable in the next role, or highlight the additional growth that they need.

On the other hand, discrete forms of recognition and acknowledgement (such as bonuses) are great rewards for contributions to high impact projects that were delivered in a high-pressure setting and served some very visible purpose. It is a reward that matches its expectations: bonuses are not expected to be consistent year after year, and these heroic feats cannot be expected to be consistently repeated either. This also has the pleasant side-effect of not overstating and over-elevating heroic efforts, which are usually not sustainable.

Promotions are a different lever. Perhaps, when we say, “X did a great job in these impactful projects and should be promoted to a tech lead”, we mean to say,

X has accumulated sufficient context via Project Zetta and Project H, and has demonstrated the ability to communicate complex technical decisions to stakeholders. X has also decomposed risky projects into smaller bite-size chunks that can be delegated. They are ready for a leadership role where they can further hone these skills with deliberate practice.



James Lim

Engineering@Modern Treasury (ex-Affirm, ex-Samsara) -