how can I develop employees who can’t be promoted?

A reader asks: 

I work at a relatively small organization (40-50 employees) that recently expanded from having two levels of management (executive director and department managers) to adding a third level of project managers.  Our project managers were all internal hires, but some of our employees who have more years with the organization were not promoted because they were not the right fit for these positions. The positions involved more people/project managing, and though these employees are very good at their jobs, they had never shown any interest nor strengths in more traditional management skills and thus those areas had not been developed with them.

At this point, I have a few employees looking for “their promotions” because they feel they have been with the organization a long time and want to see opportunities for movement for themselves. We are not that big of an organization — there is only so much vertical movement that can occur and keep it healthy and well structured.  Frankly, I am dealing with problems from two directions.  From the staff, I am trying to figure out how to develop employees and maintain their job satisfaction when there are few opportunities for upward movement. But I also want to make sure they are developing in a way that they are ready to move up when and if opportunities arise as the organization continues to grow.  From above, I have pressure to retain employees at all costs, even if that would mean promoting them into some random position I would have to create.

I personally don’t have a problem with employees deciding they need to move on to meet their professional goals.  While I don’t want to lose them, I can completely understand that someone might need to make that decision.  I just (a) don’t want to end up having to destroy my department because of forced restructuring in order to retain employees and (b) don’t want people to move on because I wasn’t doing my job in trying to develop them as best I could within their current positions.

You can read my answer to this letter over at the FastTrack blog by Intuit Quickbase today.

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