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Promoting Fast and Slow

Some flowers require a perfectly comfortable environment to thrive, others will only grow strong in harsh environments.

Employees are like flowers.

Promotions are a powerful way of changing their environment and an effective way to lose great employees:

  • Promoting too slowly slows down the growth of an employee. They will promote themselves by finding a new job

  • Promoting too fast puts the employee in a tough environment. They will crash and burn beyond repair

Both are tragic because a single mistimed promotion can ruin what otherwise would’ve been a thriving lasting fit. I carry regrets for losing good people by getting promotions wrong both ways.

Like flowers, what makes this hard is that promotion timing highly depends on the particular employee. Any generic approach will be too comfortable for some employees and too harsh for others.

The right approach starts with understanding two types of flowers, I mean, people.

Petunias and Orchids

Disclaimer: I know nothing about flowers.

Petunia is an employee. The one sentence that describes Petunia is that she always wants more. She thrives in ambiguity, embraces a challenge, and gets bored when things go too smoothly for too long. Overachiever is how her friends describe her.

Orchid is another employee. He wants to do a great job and succeed. He learns best when he does great work. He needs time to fully recover from failure. He prefers swimming into the deep waters, not jumping straight into them. He will take the safer path to his destination, and will reach it with determination and patience.

It’s tempting to think that Petunia is going to be a better employee than Orchid. After all, she’s an overachiever who’s scared of nothing. This is a misconception that I used to hold myself. In practice, these are just different personalities and both can be equally effective or useless in the workplace. It all depends on the particular individual.

Why are these two types important? Because they respond very differently to different promotion paths.

Facebook vs Peter Thiel

Facebook employs a slow promotion strategy that I call Promote to Success. In a nutshell, you get promoted to the next level only after operating at that next level for at least 6 months.

The philosophy behind Promote to Success is that, well, it sets people up for success. You are almost guaranteed to do well at the next level because you’re already operating at that level. The risk of underperforming at the next level and getting fired is minimal.

Peter Thiel – the founder of PayPal and Palantir – employs the opposite approach in his startups. I call it Promote to the Challenge. In a nutshell, put people into tough situations and let them struggle their way to success. Hopefully, they come out of the other end alive.

The philosophy behind Promote to the Challenge is that this is how you grow talented people fast and weed out people who can’t keep up.

Both schools of thought have major pitfalls:

  • The pitfall of Promote to the Challenge is that many people don’t grow in this way. They need a controlled and gradual environment to become their best selves without falling apart

  • The pitfall of Promote to Success is that many people get bored with it. It’s partly the reason that I decided to leave Facebook, I wanted to experience the challenge of management and it was taking forever to get there

Here’s the easiest riddle ever: which school of thought is best suited for Orchid and which for Petunia?

Promoting Your Flowers

There’s a way to avoid the pitfalls of both schools of thought:

  1. Optimizing solely for employee growth, and then

  2. Seeing the human

Optimizing for growth means that, just like a flower, your goal is to maximize the employees’ growth. Do not optimize for what the company needs right now, don’t optimize for what the employee wants right now, and don’t follow some generic career ladder. A flower that grows fast and strong is all you will ever need.

Seeing the human means understanding each individual employee fully. Are they a petunia, an orchid, or somewhere in the middle? If you can’t answer this you will fail at maximizing their growth.

Following #1 and #2 is hard work, you will get it wrong sometimes. And while it’s tempting to look for some generic promotion framework, that would be equivalent to growing Petunias and Orchids the same way – one or both will end up dead.

A word of caution - being tailored with promotions opens the door to bias and racism – Petunia is more like me so I promote her faster. The way to mitigate this is to think of promotions in two phases. Phase 1 (generic) - is the employee eligible for a promotion based on objective performance measures? Phase 2 (tailored) - what’s the best promotion timing and scope to maximize the growth of this employee without burning them?

Management is hard because great management is tailored for each employee. It’s about growing your flowers strong by caring for each individually, and knowing that each can thrive, but only in the right environment.

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