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Yellow fire hydrant symbolising the workplace topic

Are we taking too many firefighters out of the fire?

Many people spend their entire careers working hard, developing skills and getting promoted because they are good at their jobs… only to land in a management role where they don’t get to do any of the things that made them shine in the first place.

The hierarchical structure of many workplaces, and agencies are usually no exception, means that eventually when you are promoted not only do you get the pay rise but new responsibilities too.

Managing staff, growing people capability and having to suddenly manage billing and financial forecasting can be daunting for the newly promoted (especially if there is no training to go with the new responsibilities). Often it leaves people with less time to spend on the things they are great at that earned them the promotion.

I have seen countless people rise to these new challenges and thrive. But I am also aware of the consequences when high achievers experience feelings of ‘failure’ in their new roles – and it’s often as a result of being pushed up the ladder too early. It can have an impact on both self-confidence and day to day delivery – not a great start for the employee or employer.  Sometimes it’s the result of their own ambition which leads to their feeling of ‘not being good enough’.  I’ve seen too many talented people become disillusioned because they believe they should be promoted now, or they see someone younger than themselves is further up the ladder without any of the context as to why that may be the case. Just these feelings alone could demonstrate the exact reason why they may not be quite ready to take the next step.

Even as a young PR account director myself, accepting the promotion and stepping up for the first time many years ago was a steep learning curve.  I was so excited at the prospect of tackling my new role but once I got there, I realised that I had learning to do, and a lot of that was about how to manage people.  My first few months were pretty tough because I hadn’t quite figured out how to give feedback in a constructive way or how to let go of certain tasks, trusting someone else to complete them in just the same way I would. It also hit me quite suddenly when I realised that I was the person who everyone was looking to for advice and coupled with figuring out how I could manage my own workload while prioritising what the team needed from me was quite overwhelming at times. I remember more than once, doubting whether I was cut out for the job at hand.

Stacks of fire hoses in red, green and yellow,reflecting the workplace and management topic as a metaphore

I can’t help but wonder – is the way we promote our staff failing them? Are we taking too many firefighters out of the fire?

We are conditioned to look for progression, to aspire to success. I think this is especially in agencies where the hierarchy of roles from account executive to account director clearly defines the next step. The most ambitious of us always looks ahead and strives to earn the new title and reach that next milestone.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge advocate of helping our employees to grow and seeing them progress. We have a long history of developing staff and I am proud to say that in some cases this has been all the way from intern to account director. I also like to think that we work hard to help people gain the skills they need at every step. But is promoting people up the ladder in a way that takes them away from what they are good at the best approach? Are we too fixated on the job title and what that represents, as opposed to the type of work we do, what level of responsibility we have across the account and if the work we do fills our tank?

Perhaps we should flip the model on its head. Rather than progression into management being a given, perhaps pay rises and promotions don’t need to mean taking on an entirely new set of skills.

Interestingly, this was something that came up at an IPREX conference where I took every opportunity to peek over the desk into my colleagues’ agencies to gain valuable insight. It turns out, I am not the only one asking these questions. Several partners at the conference pointed out that they were experiencing similar challenges. They are also asking: how do you keep up with the pace of demand for promotions and increases, keep your ambitious staff happy and keep your best people doing what they do best?

In practice, however, making changes that address these questions isn’t clear. We discussed a lot of different ideas at the conference and while they were great food for thought, I’m not sure many of us are ready to dive headfirst into implementing them.

We talked about things like introducing new people management type roles that would help us keep our best and brightest on the forefront of delivering client work (and no I’m not just talking about a lone HR advisor). Or tying pay rises to KPIs in existing roles rather than tying them so closely to job titles. I think the concept of doing away with job titles altogether came up too (as it usually does in discussions around organisational structure).

These radical ideas seem exciting and sensible in theory, but they aren’t without their own challenges either. They would also take a lot of work to implement, not just from a practicality standpoint but culturally – and probably at a level well beyond our organisation alone. To not only remove the rung that someone on your team was reaching for but the entire ladder wouldn’t just be unfair, but completely disorienting. You could say that this is the reality of company restructures in general, but in an industry where job hierarchy has long been a part of the territory, the impact for an agency I predict would be much bigger.

In all honesty, we would need to change the agency model entirely, find new ways of working and adapt the way we view career progression. These things aren’t inherently bad, and, in the future, they might be hugely beneficial for our team members and clients.

As an agency, we are incredibly lucky to have the best and the brightest in our teams and are incredibly proud of the way we grow as individuals and a team every day. But these discussions are important not just for agencies, but for all leaders to be having. We need to think bigger and with the future in mind.  I think there is a real need for businesses to re-evaluate how they review performance, how incentives are determined and how they can embrace collaborative working more openly. 

Our people are our most valuable asset and that is not about to change. Perhaps It will be one of the few constants in the agency of the future.

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