At many fast-growing companies, there is a an organizational phenomenon that takes root as the middle management ranks swell. Early on, titles are handed out with thoughtful precision. The Director title, for instance, is held by folks who have demonstrated long-term value. Over time though, the company changes. It usually starts with an outside hire or two, and they bring former colleagues in. As the number of Directors (or VPs or whatever) swells from a handful to several dozen, the talent gets somewhat diluted. And when this happens, the benchmarking begins.
I cannot tell you how many people over the years have sought my counsel, irritated that they are not being promoted as quickly as they deserve. The conversations almost all go the same way. First, there is a history lesson. The individual has typically shown loyalty beyond expectation, toiled in obscurity and without reward for some number of years, and is now looking to get what they deserve. The conversation then evolves to talk about the person’s merits – all the things this person can do that no one else can.
I actually don’t mind the beginning of these conversations. While I don’t think it is particularly healthy to keep a scoreboard of all the things that have ever been done to wrong you, I understand why people do it. And a merit-based discussion is absolutely the right one to have. But then the conversation turns in a way that is not healthy for the individual or the company.
The last part of the conversation almost always includes names. “So-and-so has whatever title and is clearly not that good!” This is benchmarking – using the performance of others to justify a position.
I don’t take exception with benchmarking in general, but when it comes to promotions, no one ever benchmarks against the best players in their roles. People always pick out the weakest performer in the bunch and then use them as an example of why they should be promoted. This is just bad business.
By picking the lowest-bar to justify a promotion, you invariably end up lowering the bar over and over until it is so low that all employees need to do is shuffle their feet over it en route to the next big title. This kind of benchmarking is a sure path to weakening the middle management ranks.
And it does nothing to help out the individual’s career either. How you get to a position will determine when you get to the one beyond it. If your path to promotion is through lame comparisons to under-performing peers, you will end up unintentionally creating a peer group of under-performers. When it is time for the next promotion, you are now associated with those at the lower end of the spectrum.
In general, as you manage your career, if you are truly upward mobile you will be constantly punching above your weight class. That is to say that your peer group will tend to always be a higher title with slightly more skill and experience. When you associate with winners, the halo effect puts you in the best possible light. And this will impact how quickly you get from one rung to the next.
More than that, the mindset of constantly aspiring to be better is a winner’s mindset. When someone is always evaluating their performance against the best in the company and seeking to improve at every step, it shows. These people not only learn faster and outperform others, but they shine while doing it. These people benchmark too, but they are benchmarking against the best and brightest. It is little surprise that with the best as their measuring stick that they rise to the top.
So as you navigate your own career, be particularly mindful of how you benchmark yourself. Are you pointing out the weakest and demanding more? Or are you looking to the all-stars and delivering more? The difference is subtle but important.