Promotions aren't only option for retaining staff

LOS ANGELES: In the halcyon days of the dot-com boom, PR firms passed out job promotions like candy, often well before employees had the experience, judgment, and leadership skills to handle the responsibilities of a higher post.

LOS ANGELES: In the halcyon days of the dot-com boom, PR firms passed out job promotions like candy, often well before employees had the experience, judgment, and leadership skills to handle the responsibilities of a higher post.

Now, as competition to retain top-notch talent again gets fierce, some firms have fallen back on this advance-before-it's-time strategy. Other agencies, however, are taking considerable steps to avoid past mistakes.

"In the late '90s, the industry did itself a disservice by promoting people too soon," says Scott Allison, president of San Francisco-based Allison & Partners. "With the economy rolling along so strong, people were afraid they [would] lose folks," he recalls. "Many people were immediately bumped to VP and nowhere near able to handle the responsibility. There were senior executives just a few years out of school."

The quick advancements may have seemed like blessings from some youth-obsessed PR deity. But "folks like that weren't prepared to survive and grow in much tougher times, with much tougher accountability," Allison says. The PR industry, he adds, is "still paying a price for that."

Now that clients demand real senior-staff support, firms strive to clarify roles and get employees back into positions suited to their qualifications. An AE, Allison says, could be in that post for 10 or 15 years before moving up to account director, for example.

To earn promotions, he notes, an employee must "demonstrate the credentials to have that position."

On the flip side, Allison explains, employees must be provided with management mentorship "every step of the way." Among other programs, he says, the firm conducts the A&P University, a two-day career-training program for SAEs and below.

"The challenge is that people can go somewhere else [and] get a promotion and higher salary," agrees Sean Fitzgerald, partner and MD at Ketchum West. But there are huge benefits for people who don't firm-hop.

"They get really solid training and progress along agency milestones," he says. And by taking part in Ketchum's skill-development programs - which cover topics from new media to management responsibilities - staffers "are convinced that we're as focused on their career as they are."

In addition to training, there are other alternatives to promotions for retaining employees. Some agencies offer flex time or on-the-job perks. At Washington-based APCO, which has built its reputation around the credentials of its senior-level team, junior employees have the opportunity to talk about "what they would do if they were me," says Margery Kraus, president and global CEO.

At half-day meetings, she says, the firm's "rising stars" receive training, support, and management guidance by the firm's executives, many of whom have high-level government and public affairs backgrounds.

While a premature promotion may equal employee retention - at least in the short term - keeping underqualified staffers in place can ultimately result in lowered productivity, lack of clarity, and management mayhem. And that's damaging to both the employee and the firm.

"We've made it very clear," says Allison. "Employees have to have a strong skill set at each of these levels, and it's not just a matter of time; it's about mastering the set to get the job done."

Key points:

Promotions should be based on credentials, not the number of years an employee has been in a position

Firms should offer employees strategic career-development opportunities

Managers should establish clear-cut job descriptions at every level

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