High-Performers Won't Wait

These days, holding back promising employees until they "pay their dues" is folly

When you have a capable person to promote in your company but that person does not have appropriate tenure, is it better to hire from outside? — Natalia Salistean, Bucharest, Romania

How emphatically can we answer no? So emphatically, we hope, that the "capable person" who prompted your letter never comes to believe that there is such a thing as "appropriate tenure." Sure, it's ideal when internal candidates have logged two or three years to prove their mettle in good times and bad. But in today's high-demand environment of the global marketplace, talented people are so hard to retain and Gen Y-ers have so little tolerance for dues-paying assignments, why would any company put a high-performer through unnecessary paces just to satisfy a bureaucratic requirement? That uncompetitive practice is a throwback to the days when an employee's time served could, and often did, trump his value added.

So, no, you should not hire someone else for your job opening. And should your bosses come at you to defend that decision, remind them of the talent wars, then mention something else they may already know. Promotion is more art than science. You can never be sure a candidate—regardless of tenure—will succeed. You can only know if he has passed two simple tests.

The first, obviously, concerns performance. Does the candidate consistently post superior results? We're not just talking numbers. Superior results also mean a person has expanded his job duties and brought insights to the team, be they about work processes, market challenges, or unseen opportunities. Basically, superior results mean a person has overdelivered—a leading indicator that he's ready for more.

The second test concerns values. Does the candidate consistently demonstrate the behaviors the company wants to see from its leaders? Is she customer-focused? Does she share ideas? Different types of companies have different values. But when it comes to promotions, the question about values is the same. Does the candidate live and breathe them?

Now, even if a short-tenure candidate passes both tests, you might want to examine one last factor. Did the candidate arrive with a "tailwind"—perhaps a backlog of orders or a high-functioning team left by his predecessor? You shouldn't hold good luck against your candidate, though it merits consideration.

In the big picture, however, your instinct should always be to promote a strong internal candidate sooner rather than later. It's good for the individual, who gets to build new skills without the nonsense of marking time. And it's good for the organization. Promoting young insiders is a fast way to attract good people to your ranks; indeed, it will help make you a talent magnet. Best of all, it keeps your top performers inside. Granted, you may not get every promotion right, but you can be sure that nudging your highfliers into the open arms of your rivals is an "appropriate tenure" policy you'll live to regret.

In your opinion, what are some of the positive traits of leaders from the Armed Forces who you've seen enter business, and what challenges do they face? — Mark McGrath, Columbus, Ohio

Positives first, because they're so plentiful, and one of us (Jack) has seen them so consistently in hiring several thousand junior military officers (JMOs) over the years. The list starts with whip-smart and tenacious. Next, most military officers have can-do, upbeat attitudes. Moreover, the majority possess the too rare quality of edge: They can make yes-or-no decisions on the spot. Their people skills are superb; they tend to be great motivators and team-builders. And finally—global companies, take noteJMOs will move anywhere. Your toughest location might be better than the best outpost they've endured.

The challenges: Too many JMOs can't seem to get the military's necessary bureaucracy out of their systems, and as a result, they tend to embrace rules and regulations that can slow them down. Second and last, some officers can lack visionary thinking. They may have risked their lives in the military, but some JMOs seem less inclined to take risks in business.

On balance, though, there is no balance. The positives win this debate hands down.

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