David Bianconi thought he was doing the right thing when he saw an employee doing well and rewarded the individual effort with a promotion. But in a number of cases, he ended up ruining the person’s ability to help Progressive Medical Inc.
“I saw people flourish at one level, and when we tried to move them to another level, they would fall apart,” says Bianconi, founder and CEO at the provider of managed care services.
“I have ruined a couple people and I blame myself for that. I put them in a position not to succeed but to fail. I understand it now, but unfortunately, it was at their expense. It took me several episodes to realize that being loyal to people does not necessarily mean promoting them. There are other ways to be loyal.”
There are also other ways to put your people in a position to move up in your organization. One of the most important lessons Bianconi learned was that just because you can promote someone today doesn’t mean you should do it today.
“If there is a hole to fill, there are options of how you can fill that hole,” Bianconi says. “You may not need to go out and hire someone and fill that hole with an external person today. Or you may not need to promote someone internally to fill that position today. Another option may be to take someone you think might be a good candidate for that position and allow them to go into that position and visit there for several months and see how they do. If they don’t perform, the act of moving them back to where they were is much easier if you’ve never consecrated them with some title that says they own this domain.”
This philosophy of patience with moving employees up the ladder has paid dividends for the $188 million company. It’s reduced the number of promotion mishaps by making sure employees are ready to move up. It also provided a framework for Bianconi to anoint Kevin Banion as the company’s president and chief operating officer in January.
“When I named him president, I told him, ‘Kevin, I need to make you the president. You’ve been running the company; you just haven’t had the title,’” Bianconi says. “Kevin had already been doing it. The only thing that changed was his title and he got a little boost in pay. He had been doing the things he needed to do and I have a great person who is very talented and proven in that position.”
Here’s how Bianconi eased the pressure of advancing in the company of nearly 500 employees by slowing down the process to make sure employees are ready to move up.
Don’t tell, show
Bianconi actually developed his new approach to employee growth by accident.
“There were a couple situations where we weren’t sure that we wanted to put a certain person in a position, but we didn’t have anybody else to put in the position,” Bianconi says. “So we told the person, ‘Hey, until we can fill this position, we’d like you to handle these duties.’ All of a sudden, they did a great job, and we ended up promoting them. It became pretty obvious to me that was the missing link. Having that procedure in place made life much easier for everyone. It’s very easy to promote and announce you’re assigning someone a position and a title. But it’s very difficult to take that away.”
Bianconi began selling his team on this new approach of an interim period before a promotion by laying out the facts.
“I would go in and say, ‘You know what, we’ve just gone through a situation where we’ve promoted several people and we’ve not had good success,” Bianconi says. “These people have failed. They did great in the previous position with the company, but we promoted them and, for whatever reason, they failed in those positions. We need to figure out a way to do this.’”
But what followed was not Bianconi talking about his idea to create a transition period before issuing promotions. Instead, he began to ask questions.
“If you want to communicate an idea that you have, the best way to do it is not to tell people what the idea is,” Bianconi says. “Let them figure it out. The way I do that is by asking questions. You ask the people in the room, ‘What is your opinion?’ That’s a very valid question. People typically have great solutions and great comments. Instead, what happens too many times is leaders get into a room and they think their solution is the only one and the best one and they are not interested in hearing other people’s opinions and comments.
“You have to be open-minded at all levels to understand that your idea may be a good one, but it may not be the best one.”
In this case, Bianconi believed that his idea was the best one. But you can’t go into a meeting with your team with an attitude that it’s your way or the highway.
“I’ve always used the premise that you have to start with the fact that (your people) think logically and they are intelligent,” Bianconi says. “If I can’t convince you it’s a good idea, then maybe it’s not and vice versa. We both have to agree that whatever thing we’re going to move forward on is a good idea.”
Bianconi got the buy-in he needed by making an analogy to airline pilots.
“We started off hiring crop dusters and we elevated to single-engine planes and dual-engine planes and then mini jets and now we’re flying jumbo jets,” Bianconi says. “But along that progression, you need to constantly redefine and hone those skill sets and positions. The person that flies a single-engine plane, they may be able to fly a dual-engine plane. But that’s not what they are really trained for. It’s not where their comfort level is. If you have people up there flying these planes, sooner or later, the likelihood of them crashing is greater.”
Bianconi felt like the company could continue going about the promotions the way it had. If the company was lucky, there wouldn’t be any problems in sales or IT or accounting and it would keep plugging away. But Bianconi had no desire to run his company on a hunch.
“I tell people that our organizational chart is flipped on its end,” Bianconi says. “The people on the top, they are the leaves on the tree that are out there growing the company. I need to be the one offering the support and to make sure I’m providing them with the right tools.”
It was up to the leaders to do better and put a process in place that would better prepare employees for their jobs and the growth opportunities they might provide.
The lack of a new title was one of the first but also most important ways Bianconi could ease the pressure on employees who were being eyed for a promotion. They would experience the position and learn the ins and outs of how to do it, but they would still hold their current title.
“Before we give them the title and complete responsibility of that area, we give them a lot of the roles and duties that they need to perform,” Bianconi says.
“We first give them a test and see how they do. This has proven to be very valuable and effective for us. It ensures that, ultimately, when the decision is made, instead of making them an interim manager, they become a permanent manager. We know they have already done the tasks and proven they can ha
ndle the situation.”
If they aren’t able to handle the new job, little has been lost and no demotion is necessary. The employee simply continues with what he or she had been doing.
The removal of that risk and pressure is one of the keys to helping employees get over the hump of an advancement.
“People are going to make mistakes,” Bianconi says. “I always talk about good mistakes and bad mistakes. Good mistakes are actions that have undesirable outcomes, but given the same information you had, anyone in the normal state of mind would have made that same decision. That’s a good mistake. You learn from that. You never go out of business by making good mistakes. Bad mistakes on the other hand are actions that people take that are done without any kind of good intent or knowledge base. It’s just kind of like throwing darts. Those are bad mistakes, and we certainly don’t want those to happen.”
The idea that you are working for your employees and are available to provide them with support and the tools they need to succeed is one that Bianconi says cannot be delivered too many times.
“You have to start by giving people the freedom to take risks, risks without retribution,” Bianconi says. “I’m going to take a risk and put myself in a position to make good mistakes and learn from that. That’s a first step. Part of that has to do with delegating and making people feel that they make a difference. I don’t make a difference, you make a difference, and we collectively can do something that is very good.”
So when you approach your employees about taking on a new position, make it clear that it’s an opportunity that you’re just as curious and excited about as the employee.
“First, you want to ask the person, ‘Are you interested? We’re interested in you. Are you interested in this?’” Bianconi says. “‘Here are the game rules, and here’s what we’re trying to do. We want to give you an opportunity to go in there and try this. Tell me what you think.’”
As the employee begins to learn about the new position, don’t feel as if you need to throw him or her curveballs to see how the employee might respond. The regular business world will probably provide plenty of those.
“We don’t want to make life any more difficult,” Bianconi says. “You might ruin a perfectly good person by throwing stuff at them. It’s all about fundamentals. If they can’t handle the fundamentals, all those specialty things, they aren’t going to matter.”
And when you’re assessing the employee’s performance, don’t just study the individual. Look at the people he or she is working with and see how they respond.
“Look at who it is they are leading,” Bianconi says. “You can get a good grasp on how these people are responding to this person in this new capacity.”
Just because you’re not giving the person a new title in their audition for a new job, that doesn’t mean you keep it secret. You want to be clear with everyone about what they are doing so they can offer their support.
You also want the promotion candidate to know that either you or their direct supervisor is there to offer support whenever it’s needed.
“People want to know, ‘How am I doing? Am I doing what I’m supposed to do?’” Bianconi says. “Many companies don’t tell people what they are supposed to do, they just presume people know. And they don’t tell them how they are doing so they don’t even know what they are supposed to do.
“You don’t just sit down and talk to people when they are doing something wrong; you talk to them when they are doing things right. That way, when they are doing something wrong, I don’t get intimidated by the fact that you’re sitting down with me and telling me I’m doing something wrong. … If the only time I sat down with somebody was when they did something wrong, they’re going to think they do everything wrong. It’s a process. You have to mentor and lead them through the process.”
How to reach: Progressive Medical Inc., (614) 794-3300 or www.progressive-medical.com