Monday, April 9, 2012

Is it Ever OK to Demote a Manager Back to Their Former Position?

Is it ever OK to demote a manager back to their former position? Your first, intuitive answer might be "hell, no!"

Some companies or managers won’t even allow it, under any circumstances.

But why not? It happens all the time in baseball. Major league players are “sent back to the minors” for further development, and sent back up to the majors if and when they are ready.

I’ve seen cases when moving a manager one level down in the organization has turned out to be a win-win for the manager and the organization. It's usually happened when a technical expert was promoted either before they were ready or for the wrong reason, i.e., best sales rep promoted to sales manager, best engineer promoted to engineering manager, etc…
Why in the world would you want to lose the person who used to be the best performer in the group? Why should they pay for the organization’s dumb promotion mistake?

Besides, spending even a short time in a higher level role can be a developmental experience that can be leveraged for improved performance at the level below. That manager can now “see the big picture” and has an appreciation for why and how higher level decisions get made.

However – it probably won’t work, unless the following conditions are in place:

1. The new position is legitimate and justified – no “made-up” job to allow the person to save face or avoid having to fire someone. Being pushed aside into one of these roles isn’t compassionate at all – it can be humiliating and isn’t fair to the rest of employees doing real work.

2. No one is being bumped to make room for the manager. The exception to this would be as a result of a formal restructuring, when an organization wants to keep the best talent through a ranking and placement process. Still, even in this circumstance, it’s a crappy situation to walk into.

3. The manager is well qualified for the new position, or can get back up to speed quickly.

4. The manager is willing to make the move and is committed to succeed. The manager’s not going to do it kicking and screaming and holding a grudge. Yes, maybe they are willing to do it, and they can do it, but yes, they even have to like it. This is critical – success is all about attitude, and a new team member with a chip on the shoulder can poison a team. For some managers, it's even a relief to go back to the old job they loved.

5. The manager didn’t burn too many bridges to get the support needed to be successful.

6. The manager is willing to take a cut in pay. The cut doesn’t have to come all at once – it can be gradually reduced or frozen in order to give the person a chance to adjust to the new salary.

7. Its better if the manager has the opportunity to do his/her new old job in a different group (new office, territory, division), but this isn’t always possible in smaller organizations or if relocation isn’t possible.

8. The manager should be given the opportunity to develop the skills needed to be considered for promotion again and be given the resources and support. The message isn’t “never again”, it’s “not now”.

I know there are lots of examples out there where this kind of move didn’t work – but if it didn’t, I’ll bet one or more of the conditions above were missing.

I’m thinking I might be an outlier on this question…. How about you, what’s your take on it?


John Hunter said...

I think it is perfectly fine. As you mention there are things that can create problems. Most of those things shouldn't happen in my opinion (though admittedly they do).

I do think it is best to avoid doing so just because we did a bad job of figuring out what would work before hand (I am sure most people agree). I think most organizations don't do as much as they could to assure promotions are effective. We should test out things in advance - give people opportunities to try out some of the skills needed (they and the company can learn if this is what they like and are good at).

I also don't think enough coaching is given to new managers. I also think we promote too much based on success at current job with too little focus on skills and knowledge and temperment needed in the new position. There are many thing the organization should do to give people a better chance to succeed. But it is foolish to lose good people in the event we don't make these improvements (or even if we do and still something doesn't work).

Another thing that happens when organization are unwilling to demote people that are not working out is we practice the Peter principle (promoting people until they are incompetent and then leave them alone). Obviously this isn't a good practice.

Dan McCarthy said...

Thanks, iif organizations followed your advice, they wouldn't have to deal with demotions.

Rod said...

Dan, I've worked with organizations focused on making this happen with limited success. The major determining factor in most scenarios appears to be your #4 - willing to make the move and is committed to succeed. Image and Ego appear to be such big factors in these transitions, and in my experience, can be very difficult to overcome - especially in small organizations.

Dan McCarthy said...

Rod -
Thanks, I appreciate your perspective. I guess I'd still rather give the manager the choice.

Joy said...

Such demotions are usually not accepted in good spirit. At least that's what I have observed in my country. However I liked the system one organization followed. They would place a new manager in a position of 'Manager, Understudy' and the person would work under the Manager for a specified period of time not longer than a year, before he/she would be promoted.

I think this should make demotions rare and if implemented not so painful.

Dan McCarthy said...

Joy -
Thanks! Makes sense.

Karen said...

I'm not sure I see the wisdom of deincentivising by rolling back their pay. Hard to swallow a demotion AND pay cut for what was not their sole responsibility. I'd guess you would lose them within 6 to 12 months.

Dan McCarthy said...

Thanks. Yes, you may, but it's hard to justify paying someone so much more than their peer group for the same work. Or, in the case of sales, their base may go down but they may make more thn they did as a manager in commission.

Brandon said...

Dan, I have witnessed two cases of the this one company. One was a bust, the other very successful. The bust was a demotion without much input by the employee. The boss had basically gave up on the employee and demoted in lue of termination. Once demoted the employee became a "victom" and recovery is unlikely. The second is a positive story where the employee choose to demote back into the fleet. That employee was happier being a great employee without the stress of being in supervision.

In hindsight it is tough either way slice it, but it can be succesfful depending on your employee. I agree most with not taking your best "technition" and making them management. Management in itself is its own technical task that can be tought, but sometime not enjoyed.

Dan McCarthy said...

Brandon -
Thanks. I'll bet your 50/50 experience was typical. All depends on the employee and how it's handled.

Anonymous said...

Great share Dan.
I have to deal with a former manager who I will be replacing AND managing...
It is very hard for people's self esteem to be demoted even when they hated being a manager.
I guess the trick is to give them the opportunity to win their self esteem back, by allowing them to do what they are good at (in my emploee's case, programming).