The power within Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2009

You’d probably think Tom Vadnais’ search for successors means that he’s ready to retire and usher in his replacement. Right?

Wrong. It’s just always been one of his priorities to propel employees up their career paths. In fact, it was one of the earliest tasks he tackled when he became CEO at ValueClick Inc. in May 2007.

“One of the first things I do in any company is learn who are the top performers in that business,” he says. “I try to develop them so they’ll be ready to take my job when I move to something else.”

Vadnais joined ValueClick when it acquired Mediaplex, where he was president and CEO, in October 2001. He stayed on as the general manager of the subsidiary. He later took a similar role to integrate another acquisition into the online marketing company — but not before promoting one of his employees to replace him. When he moved on from that division, he bumped another employee into that lead role, as well.

But if his commitment to internal promotion ended there, the successful chain of replacements would fizzle out. Instead, by cascading his philosophy down to his managers, Vadnais makes his focus on employee development part of the culture at ValueClick. It creates an environment where employees are driven to set goals and motivated to constantly improve.

Some leaders might take that as a threat. Some would look cautiously over their shoulder, anxious about someone sneaking up on their title.

“You just can’t worry about that,” Vadnais says. “If you’re worried about that, you’re too insecure to do the job well.”

Instead, he focuses on honing his employees’ leadership skills to make ValueClick better and position it to keep getting better in the future.

“Everybody knows pretty well that the way I function is promotion from within,” he says. “It’s our job to be developing people so they’re ready for these jobs.”

Find potential leaders

First, you have to know who your top performers are so you can prepare them for advancement. To get an accurate picture of your employees’ performance and capabilities, you have to measure them on various scales and from multiple perspectives.

“You try to have a blend of both quantitative objectives and the more subjective sorts of judgments and roll all those together to determine the overall performance level,” Vadnais says.

You want to evaluate employees’ current leadership abilities to deduce their future capabilities. For Vadnais, this starts with an evaluation of their problem-solving skills.

Consider how often employees ask for assistance in their current role. If they need frequent oversight to make decisions for 15 people, they’re probably not ready to handle 50. Your future leaders, however, can work independently and confidently without hand-holding.

Knowing how important communication is in his role, Vadnais also evaluates employees’ communication skills by watching how comfortable they are delivering messages.

“You may ask them to give a speech at the next company meeting about the new product that they just announced,” Vadnais says. “You see how they perform there: Were they effective? Were they convincing? Did the audience buy in to what they were doing?”

You should also look for employees who are highly motivated to advance. Sometimes, the search becomes a two-way street because these people may approach you.

“Those are the people that many times come to you and say, ‘Hey, what do I have to do to get ahead here?’” Vadnais says. “If they’re motivated to get ahead, then they become good students, good listeners, good learners of the skills necessary to do that.”

But you can’t base decisions solely on your opinion of people’s traits. When Vadnais examines managers, he also turns to their employees, gathering input through anonymous surveys that ask them to evaluate their leaders. Sure, those ratings are still subjective, but they’re more measurable than your independent appraisal.

“You’re always finding something that you can look at to try to assess what that performance is, as opposed to just being totally subjective,” he says. “You always want to try to find some metrics that give you some support to that.”

The results of an employee’s department are a good starting point to measure their performance objectively. But unless a position is specifically tied to achieving certain revenue, for example, you usually can’t hold one person responsible for the business results.

You also have to understand the context of those metrics by weighing results against the rest of the company and the marketplace. You have to know what employees are up against, because especially in this economy, financial downtrends shouldn’t automatically infer poor leadership.

“Everybody can do well when the environment is good,” Vadnais says. “But when the environment is not so good, you sometimes find out who your best leaders are because they’re the people who make the best out of a not particularly good situation.”

Prepare employees for leadership

It doesn’t do much good if you just identify your top performers and then sit on the sidelines. The next step is polishing their skills to prepare them for leadership positions down the road.

First, of course, you need to let them know they’re on your radar. Acknowledge their potential and find out what they want to achieve so you can help them achieve it. Although this goal setting is a mutual process, you can’t set career goals for someone else. It has to start with the employees, so begin by asking what they would like to be doing in three, five and 10 years.

“If I don’t know what their goals are, I can’t do that much to help them,” Vadnais says. “Once you have that feedback, then [your] job is to give them feedback on how they could achieve those goals.”

Your appraisal of employees’ leadership potential should have already signaled their strengths and weaknesses. Match those against the skills and capabilities required in the positions they’re eyeing. Then you can either discuss the areas they need to improve or suggest roles that may be a better fit. And, of course, let them know what kind of training is available.

“Once you understand those goals, it’s important then that you communicate with your employee as to what you’re doing to help them achieve those goals,” Vadnais says, adding that feedback and training are the best tools you have to develop employees.

Of course, that means you have to keep tabs on the employees to see whether they’re actively improving those skills. You have to stay in touch with them and keep measuring them with the scales you used to first identify them.

The key is staying in sync on their goals and their progress toward achieving them.

“You’ve had that kind of dialogue, so one day, you call them into your office and say, ‘Congratulations, I’m promoting you to this position,’” Vadnais says. “That shouldn’t be a big surprise.”

Encourage managers to follow suit

To support your focus on promoting from within, you need to cascade it through the company.

Start by b

eing consistent with your commitment to it. Vadnais’ track record shows proof of his preference for promoting from within, especially when it comes to management positions.

That kind of consistency will back up the message when you encourage managers to follow your lead and prepare their employees.

“It has to start with an awareness and recognition of the need to develop people,” Vadnais says. “When I talk to my general managers, for example, I will ask them, ‘How is so-and-so doing?’ Or if I don’t know their people that well, I would say, ‘Tell me who your best person is in this department or in this function.’”

Because ValueClick is part of a high-growth field, the company is frequently hiring — and moving people around internally — to fill new positions. Though the economy has slowed that cycle, the general pattern of growth necessitates that management stay aware of candidates who are ready for the next level.

When managers keep an eye on future leaders, they’ll make their jobs easier down the road. If you have candidates in mind for certain positions — and prepare them by developing their skills — you won’t have to worry about bringing future hires up to speed with the business or wonder whether they’ll perform like their resumes suggest.

“When we have a management opening, the first question I always ask is, ‘Who in your organization is the most qualified person for us to promote into that position?’” Vadnais says. “And it’s rare that I get an answer of, ‘We don’t have anybody.’”

Vadnais tries to visit ValueClick’s various offices as often as he can to interact with employees and gather both objective and subjective data about their performance. But with 1,200 employees worldwide, he can’t identify all the potential in the company by himself.

“You may have an opinion of an individual because you see them twice a year in a meeting or you talk to them once a month on the phone, but that opinion is not enough to make a key business decision on,” Vadnais says. “So if you don’t spend enough time with them to know them well, then you should be getting a lot of advice before you make a decision.”

Because your managers are closer to their employees than you may be, they’re a better judge of who’s ready for a promotion. But when you encourage managers to prepare future leaders, you also have to trust them to do so.

First, recognize that your managers may not be measuring employees against the same scales you would. They have a better idea of the skills necessary to run their division, so they may value different traits in their future replacements.

“I don’t expect them to use every tool that I use or think the way I think,” Vadnais says. “What I’m more concerned with is: Will that person be the right person for the job in that division? If the general manager is convinced, unless I have some very strong evidence to the contrary, I’m going to side with them.”

Still, you should test why the manager is making that choice. Don’t just take his or her word for it; ask the manager to explain what the employee has done that indicates superior performance and leadership potential.

If you consistently identify top performers and attentively develop their skills — and encourage your managers to do the same — you’ll not only create a domino effect of internal promotions but you’ll also foster a culture where employees strive to be those top performers and to improve themselves.

“This is part of the way that we operate,” says Vadnais, whose company reported 2008 revenue of $625.8 million. “That never changes. They know there will be goals. They know we will measure those goals. They know we will recognize the leaders who achieve their objectives at the highest level.”

How to reach: ValueClick Inc., (818) 575-4500 or www.valueclick.com