Dealing with a ‘horizontal’ promotion comes with many takeaways

This article appeared originally in Gulf News: link to original article

For a selectively social person, I have become fond of the personal aspect that comes with managing people.

Being in a managerial position was never something that I aspired to or wanted to get. My main focus was always to be left to my own devices – as I do what I am actually good at, and to obviously be paid for it. In my case, this would have been horizontal promotions that would add a grandiose word next to ‘economist’ in order to reflect seniority, with the word ‘chief’ being the ultimate goal in most institutions.

This can only happen, however, if the career cycle in the institution allows for horizontal specialisation and growth, and not just a vertical one.

Since only the latter was available, I was fortunate enough to be promoted to a managerial position and to be in charge of tens of careers and not just that of my own. Being head of one unit or the other tested my people management skills to the limit. Here is what I have learnt so far.

Be empathetic, patient, and a good listener

I sat down through bouts of venting, complaints about the dysfunctionality of a support unit, frustrations regarding a delayed promotion, and aspirations to this position or the other. In most cases, I just had to listen without the need to provide individuals with empty promises.

When I did promise something, I made sure that I am able to deliver or went out of my way to deliver on it. I would like to think that, until now, I have delivered on all of my career-related promises.

Those that I couldn’t deliver on were deferred to a post-pandemic time in tandem with a speedy economic recovery that many non-economists are counting on. I genuinely hope that the non-economists will be proven right.

Punctuality matters more than attendance

Punctuality means discipline in time management and in delivering on tasks when they are expected, not when it suits someone to deliver on them. It also means that you respect the other person’s time as you would expect them to respect yours.

This means showing up on time and concluding meetings on time so that everyone else can go about their normal business.

Loyalty is not more important than competency

In fact, loyalty at the expense of competency can be damaging to the manager’s standing in the institution. I have realised that one must strike a balance between how loyal and how competent a person is in the workplace.

For such a balance to be maintained, loyal individuals must be provided with opportunities to grow and improve their competencies. Meanwhile, competent individuals can only be loyal to an institution that respects them and channels their competencies towards meaningful purposes.

In the absence of that, loyalty becomes to the manager and not to the institution. Loyalty, in such a case, dissipates as soon as the manager leaves or is moved to another position.

Be loyal yourself

The worst thing that a manager can do is to make individuals feel left out. One of the toughest things that I had to deal with when I was moved horizontally from one managerial position to another.

A limited number of individuals were allowed to move with me, and that was left to my own discretion. To manage it, I was honest and upfront as I told everyone that I can only move X number of individuals with me.

And that it will be based on whomever expresses interest first, subject to having basic knowledge of the sector that I was moving to. It worked.

Never accept a job with a clear mandate and real authorisation to deliver

This has always been my main condition before accepting a new role. Mandate and expected deliverables must be clear as daylight, along with the budget required to deliver.

This is even more important if the assigned job has nothing to do with core business, more so as bureaucracies have lives of their own and decisions can get entangled in a complex web of overlapping mandates.

In a nutshell, managing people requires empathy to relate to other’s issues and aspirations. Loyalty is not more important than competency, and a manager’s loyalty is in upholding promises and ensuring that competent individuals feel appreciated.

Also, never accept a job without a clear mandate, budget and real authorisation to deliver on it.

The last thought that I want to leave you with: How can horizontal career advancement be best managed in government?