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Association Career Pathing: Should You Promote from Within?

Written by Christina Green | on August 9, 2016 at 8:30 AM

Should your association promote from within or hire externally?

Your employees are smart. They're driven, educated, and passionate about your mission. After all, according to ASAE's Association Career Headquarters, workers often enter the association field because a job is a good fit, but they stay for your mission and your culture.

But will they stay? Mission and culture are only part of what you need to keep employees satisfied. A retention report conducted by employee engagement firm, TINYpulse, found that employees are more likely to leave organizations with poor management and a lack of professional growth or career advancement opportunities.

It's simple then, right? The key to recruiting and retaining good employees is employing great managers and providing staff with ways to advance their own careers. But how do you do that, exactly? Nobody intentionally hires someone thinking they'll be a bad manager, and fostering career growth is easier said than done.

Fortunately, great managers and career advancement often go hand-in-hand. Your best employee could advance their career by becoming your best manager, for instance, solving both your problems. So is internal promotion the holy grail for hiring and retention?

There's no easy answer to that question. Internal promotions have advantages and disadvantages, and it's up to you to determine what is best for your association.

The Dark Side of Promoting from Within

The way most organizations are structured is that you start off in an entry-level position. Then, upon proving your worth and abilities, you acquire additional responsibilities such as coordinating processes. Once you master that level, you're promoted to overseeing people. This is where the problem with internal promotion begins.

People who are great at mastering projects don't always make effective managers or member engagement supervisors. A "people person" is a unique set of qualities and research from Gallup found that only one in 10 people had the talent necessary to be a good manager. Never promote someone just because it's the next rung to achievement. Place your people where they fit best.

Bringing in a new person can help fill positions where your internal employees don't fit. You can hire for the skills you need versus training them or working with employees who are out of their area of expertise. External hires also bring in a different approach and a new way of seeing things, which could help bring innovation to your organization.

While this is good advice, for an employee who is not self-aware, the need for outside hires can be difficult to understand. Why does she get the job over me? I've been here for years. It's up to you to explain the reason behind your decision and help employees find the right career path.

The Benefits of Promoting from Within

While there are times when an external hire is the best choice for your association, you should not forget your current employees. As we discussed earlier, promoting from within can be hugely beneficial for your association and its staff.

According to an Entrepreneur article by Paul Spiegelman, "A culture of advancement encourages team members to work harder, which boosts productivity, fosters innovation, cultivates loyalty and keeps employees focused on business goals. In addition, numerous studies show that internal promotions have a lower failure rate than external hires."

When you promote from within, you give your employees something to strive for. They know they have opportunities within your association, and that knowledge often encourages them to stick with you instead of searching for opportunities elsewhere. Internal promotions may also cut down on training needs since current employees already understand your association's mission, policies, and members.

These benefits shouldn't be overlooked. Your association, your employees, and your members will all benefit when the right employees have the opportunities to move up that they deserve. Create a culture of advancement to help make those opportunities a reality.

How to Create a Culture of Advancement at Your Association

In associations this is trickier to manage than in the corporate world. The amount of opportunities for moving up are typically more widely spaced in an association than in a corporate job. There simply aren't the same number of titles and departments available to association professionals.

That doesn't mean you can't create a culture of advancement within your association, however, it just means that your advancement culture will be different from that in the corporate world. Here are a few tips that take advantage of your employees' skills and desire to learn that will help you create a culture of advancement.

Best Practice #1) Switch Your Focus

Since there are fewer positions and job titles in associations, you need to switch the focus from traditional advancement to professional development. To do this, the conversation needs to happen early and often. It begins in the interview, carries through during onboarding, and into employment maturity. It's not a conversation you have once a year during one-on-one reviews, but something you visit on a consistent basis.

It's as important to know your employees' current skills as it is to know what they have an interest in developing. Association professionals wear many hats and knowing more about what your employees look to do will help you place them in satisfactory roles. Discuss your employees' goals on a continuing basis, and help them get the training and experience they need to learn.

Best Practice #2) Promote When Appropriate

Your employees are smart, educated, and experienced professionals. That, along with a culture of continuing professional development, should set many staff members on a path to higher positions. When a job opens up that fits one of your employee's skill sets, promote them.

By promoting from within, you'll not only gain an experienced manager that already knows your association, its technology, and its members, you'll also improve your reputation. Employees and outside hires will see you as an organization that helps with career growth, and thus as a more desirable place to work.

Best Practice #3) Don't Promise

Even with a culture of advancement, there will be times you need to hire from elsewhere, particularly if you need the skills faster than someone can acquire them or you need rapid innovation. Never promise your team that you will only promote from within. This may not be possible at all times. If you do promise, and then go outside to hire, you'll lose a lot of credibility.

Keep an open line of communication about your hiring processes. When you choose to hire an outside expert, explain the new skills that person is bringing to your association and how current employees can learn from them. Your employees will likely feel more comfortable with the situation when they understand your motivations and how they can benefit.

Best Practice #4) Never Promote Solely to Retain

Millennials are self-proclaimed job hoppers. They have no intention of working for an employer until they receive a nice pension and a gold watch. Those days are over. While you want to talk about advancement with them and challenge them with positions of growth, promoting someone just to keep them from leaving is like buying a bouquet for the person who just had you served with divorce papers. Don't try.

You can, however, keep your best employees, millennials included, interested in your association by offering mentoring opportunities and giving your mission the attention it deserves. Millennials love to be a part of something larger than themselves.

Hiring and Promoting in Associations Takeaway

When you're considering whether you need to hire from within or look externally, think about the skills you need and whether your associates currently have them. If you have the time and your current employees have the passion for your association and its members, you can always train them. If, however, you need the skills right away and are looking for the innovation you lack, hiring from outside may be your best bet.

Either way, it's time to develop a culture of advancement. It could be one of your biggest selling points to working for your association and help you retain top talent.

Your Turn

At your organization, how do you weigh hiring from outside vs promoting from within? Let me know in the comments below.

 The most successful membership managers practice these 11 habits.

Topics: Associations, Marketing Automation, Online Community

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