The Best Recruits Demand Career Advancement Opportunities

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She’s sharp. She’s motivated. She’s excited. She’s exactly the kind of employee you’d been hoping to find.

Then she hits you with the question:

“What’s the path for advancement? What can I expect to move into next if I do well with this position?”

It’s a great question. In fact, it’s exactly the kind of question you like to get from an applicant. It’s so much better than “How much paid vacation do you offer?”

But instead of answering her, you stumble, stutter, and search for a response. The mediocre applicants don’t ask tough questions. They simply want to know how long the lunch break is and whether you’ll let them have their third week off for a pre-planned family trip with mom and dad.

The applicant sitting in front of you is exactly the kind of person you want on your team.

Great employees are going places. They see this job as a stepping stone to the next job. They want to know what they’re going to learn, and how that knowledge and experience will lead them to something better.

They want to know if joining up with you will lead to bigger and better places down the road. The wrong answer to this tough question makes it likely that your applicant will accept an offer from another employer. You need to get this answer right if you’re going to bring on the best talent.

Do the people you want to hire want more for themselves?

You may not be able to offer the bigger and the better–that’s the state of affairs in most small law firms. In general, small firms stay small. For many of us, that’s a feature, not a bug.

My dad was a successful solo. He did well. But that doesn’t mean he had (or needed to have) a big team to make a decent living, buy a house, and send his kids (me and my brother) to school. He shared an office with one other attorney, and the two of them had a pair of staff members. Thelma and Meg were able to handle everything that needed doing.

Sure, Thelma and Meg learned new things, took on greater responsibilities, and earned more money over time, but they still had to answer the phones, greet clients, produce documents, file documents, and deal with the accounting. They didn’t soar from working the front desk to becoming CEO. There simply wasn’t a pathway to advancement in my dad’s tiny firm.

There are lots of reasons you may not offer career advancement. You might have deliberately decided to stay small. You might not be growing as fast as the skills of your team. It might be that you’re maxed out on advancement opportunities because you’ve got a great team in place and don’t see big changes coming over the near term.

Get real–what do you have to offer for their future?

You want to be honest with applicants, even when they ask tough questions. If there’s room for advancement, tell them. If, however, this is a dead-end job, then you’ve got to explain that as well. But you’ve got to find a hopeful, optimistic, positive way to say “dead-end,” without using those exact words.

Obviously, you’re good with a smooth response. Being good with words is our stock in trade. It’s true that growth happens in every role in our law firm. We teach people and they get better, grow into greater responsibility, and know that they are important to the success of the business. But it’s also true that many folks hit a wall in their growth. There may simply be limits to what’s possible in our small business.

If you can’t offer advancement to the candidate who is seeking advancement, don’t expect your offer to be accepted. You need a solid answer to this tough question.

Here’s the best answer to that very tough question

There is a pathway for the advancement of the employee we’re discussing. Let’s roll the calendar forward a few years. She’s getting the job done–she’s fantastic. She’s a learning machine. She takes what you give her and does more than you ask. You’re going to hate to lose her.

But you’ve got to lose her. Your needs aren’t keeping up with her skills. She needs more responsibility. She has an amazing future ahead of her, but she needs a place to keep learning, growing, and taking on bigger challenges. She needs to leave.

She’ll be tough to replace, but holding her back, to serve your purposes, hurts everyone involved. Sometimes we’ve got to let our best people move on, and it’s in our interests to be ahead of the curve.

Before she’s ready to go, you’ll want to have helped make the transition easier. Use your professional network to open doors for her. Be her secret headhunter before she even realizes it’s time to move on. Create opportunities for her so that, when the time comes, she has those opportunities waiting.

The answer to her question is this:

“I hope we’ll have a place for you to keep growing here. But if not, then I’ll use my network of connections to help you find what’s next. I’ll tell folks how talented, dedicated, and productive you’ve been for me. I’ll let them know how hard it is for me to lose you and I’ll express how fortunate they’d be to get you. I’ll spend as much, or more, energy finding you the next role as I did finding you for this role.”

Why her next job matters to you: win/win/win

Accept reality–she’s leaving one day. There’s not much you can do to keep your superstar employee when she outgrows the business. If she’s leaving anyway, there’s only upside in making the best of it.

Here’s how you win from her departure.

1. More referrals

When you promote your successful employee to one of your professional contacts you help them do well in their business. Helping others win is always good for you. They add another player to their team, which helps them move their business forward. You’ll have an I owe you one relationship that benefits you in the future in the form of additional referrals or other favors.

2. Bigger alumni network

The alumni network you build, by placing former employees in the right places, grows your business by growing goodwill. Having a former employee with a service provider you use gets you better service. Having a former employee advancing professionally grows their reach to refer back to you. Having your former employee out in the business world growing their network has the effect of growing your network as well. It’s all a win, for you and for the former employee.

3. Expanded recruitment pipeline

Being able to deliver on the promise of career advancement builds your reputation as an employer. Employees are attracted to jobs that offer training, growth, and the opportunity to move on to something more challenging and lucrative. Your alumni network becomes a living advertisement for the value of working in your firm.

If she’s leaving anyway, stay ahead of the situation. You win from a good run with a strong performer. She wins because she learns, grows, and achieves her goals. The new employer wins because they get a well-trained employee with promise. The win/win/win cycle continues when she refers future employees and clients back to you, and the relationships you build continue to pay off in unexpected ways.

The answer to her tough question

When she asks that tough question:

“What’s the path for advancement? What can I expect to move into next if I do well with this position?”

Tell her the truth. Don’t hesitate. Don’t fumble. Don’t make it up as you go along.

Tell her that you’re going to help her grow. Tell her that you’ll train her, that you’ll give her the chance to take risks, tell her that you’ll give her the opportunity and space to learn.

Let her know that you can tell she’ll hit the wall with you. Tell her you know that her skills, talents, and abilities will, one day, exceed the limits of your firm to keep her challenged.

Tell her that when that happens, she can count on you to reach out, to use your extensive network of business and law firm contacts, to find her the next role that allows her to continue to learn, to grow, and to evolve.

Tell her you’ll meet with her each week. You’ll listen as she helps you understand what she wants next; you’ll get clarity about what she needs to learn to achieve her goals. Tell her that you’ll take her needs to heart and make sure to feed her the assignments that encourage the depth and breadth of her experiences.

Then, when the time comes, follow through for her. Reach out and find her the next job. Know that she’s an outstanding candidate, because you put everything you’ve got into her growth. Know that any of your clients, referral sources, contacts or connections who need an employee would be lucky to have her.

You’re building something more than an employer/employee relationship with this candidate. You’re building a long term professional relationship. You’re making promises and keeping promises. So is she. The pathway you offer to outstanding employees might seem short right now, but with some focus, attention, and reframing it becomes a road to an amazing career. That’s what she gets when she accepts the offer of employment at your law firm. That’s how you’ll answer her question.

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