Case Study - is she "promotable"?

Many people who have been promoted would have been better off if they'd stayed where they were. In this blog, leadership coach John M McKee shares a real life case study on the issue.

 A client called me this week to discuss one of his PMs. The issue on the table was whether or not she was promotable.

This Project Manager has been with the company for about 10 years, which is before he arrived. In her late 40's or early 50's, she's competent in her current role. He's certain that she's got the experience and understanding to take on more responsibility at a higher level, but her style causes him to be cautious. She tends to be very quiet in his staff meetings, even though he knows from earlier conversations that she has strong opinions that he'd like brought into the dialog. He feels this will be an issue if she moves into a more senior role because the team she'd be managing is full of strong and opinionated players.

"I'm concerned that she's going to be run over by some of those individuals. If she can't open up in my staff meetings, how can I expect her to ride herd over a group comprised of young and assertive people who are, by the way, pretty full of themselves?"

On the other hand, he values her depth and thoughtful approach:

"Unlike some of my younger leaders, "I know she's not going to overreact to the 'crisis du jour'. I want to have that seasoned perspective at the my leadership table."

He's tried to coax her participation in group discussions by making comments such as, "Well, I know Susie (not her real name, obviously) has some ideas about this. What do you have to say about it, Susie?"

And then: deafening silence. At best she may offer something like, "I think we've covered all the bases on this subject."

When he's followed up with her afterwards, she always sticks to her earlier comment; perhaps with the addition of something like, "No use wasting other people's time just rehashing the same stuff over and over."

So - is she promotable or not? Should he add her to his leadership team to get some balance in style even if it means that she may have trouble overseeing an assertive group?

My client admitted he had not asked Susie if she'd like to move up the ladder. That wasn't totally surprising, by the way. I find it's very common approach in many companies and organizations. Although incorrect, many managers simply presume that everyone has the same goals and aspirations. So, asking is always a good starting point.

Often, people accept more responsibility for money or status, and other, less-clear reasons such as believing it's the right thing to do. Afterward, they might state that they were satisfied with their previous job but didn't want to hurt their chances at the company by turning down a promotion or job broadening opportunity. Consequently, many organizations have people in leadership positions who'd have preferred to remain where they were. It goes without saying that these folks are not usually the best leaders, and they rarely provide inspiration and motivation.

Given that Susie seems to hold back in team environments, hasn't asked for a promotion directly - what would you do if you were her boss? Is it better to leave her where she is or give her a nudge and let her realize her potential?

My client feels like it's his responsibility to encourage Susie to move ahead and to help her be all that she can be. Additionally, he likes the idea of adding a woman to his leadership team because it's all all-male group currently. And lastly, he believes that if she doesn't get a move at this time, she may never have the opportunity in the future when he moves on which he feels will take place in the next year or two.

As a coach, I resist making decisions for clients. I think the old adage of giving one a fish to eat or helping them to learn how to fish is applicable when it comes to leadership coaching. Additionally, it's important to understand a client's motivators. After all, this issue might be driven by his own issues and not just because he is an enlightened supervisor.

This is an actual, ongoing issue for a real client.

What is your advice for him?


Leadership Coach


John M. McKee is the founder and CEO of, an international consulting and coaching practice with subscribers in 43 countries. One of the founding senior executives of DIRECTV, his hands-on experience includes leading billion d...

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