13 Creative Ways To Retain Ambitious Employees When Promotions Are Scarce

Most hardworking professionals strive to be promoted; unfortunately, promotions are not always available. It’s an uncomfortable position for a manager to be in when one of their best employees wants to advance in their career and there’s no desirable lateral or more senior position open at the moment for them to move into.

Faced with such issues, many managers have had to figure out ways to retain a valued employee before they look elsewhere for career advancement. Below, 13 members of Forbes Coaches Council discuss some creative ways to offer other types of growth and development opportunities that can keep eager employees happy while they wait for a better role to open up.

1. Create A Made-To-Measure Promotion

How about a made-to-measure promotion? You don’t have to be limited by the existing structure as a senior manager. Based on your knowledge, advise your fellow leaders on why it’s worth creating a position just for this employee and make sure you do the sums, checks and balances needed to make it a strong business case. Be clear that it’s not about promoting the person but about elevating the organization. – Chuen Chuen Yeo, ACESENCE Agile Leadership Coaching and Training Pte. Ltd.

2. Listen To How They Want To Be Recognized

The key to successful employee retention is customization. Communicate and partner with your employees to determine how they want to be recognized. While some employees desire increased compensation or a bigger title, others prefer more visibility or larger projects. You can effectively motivate and retain your employees by truly listening to their requests rather than assuming what their motivations are. – Kyle Elliott, MPA, CHES, CaffeinatedKyle.com

3. Assign Work That Utilizes Their Top Strengths

A high-visibility stretch assignment that utilizes the employee’s top strengths and aligns with their purpose is always very effective. As long as they have the space to grow and learn and bring further impact, and they know the leadership team is watching out for them, they will not only feel motivated and engaged but also become better groomed for the promotion when it’s available. – Amy Nguyen, Happiness Infinity LLC


4. Explore More Challenging Tasks For Them

Employees who are responsible for cognitive and creative tasks are not motivated by money—assuming they make enough to live well. A manager can actually motivate by exploring more challenging tasks the employee would like to take on and which skills they would like to learn. As Daniel Pink wrote, look for autonomy, mastery and purpose as motivational factors. – Kirsten Dierolf, SolutionsAcademy – Speaking! GmbH

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5. Emphatically Appreciate The Value They Bring

Management is connected to titles, but leadership is not. What exciting project is on your plate that is simply not getting enough of your attention? It may be the right assignment for a rising star to hone their skills as project lead. To retain an employee, be emphatic in expressing appreciation for the value they bring. Be loud and proud in communicating to them and others that this role is important. – Cynthia Knapek, Leadership Louisville Center

6. Recognize Their Value And Learn Their Motivators

Engage in a transparent conversation with the employee. Recognize them for the value they bring to the table and learn what motivates them. Co-create opportunities that align with their motivation. Gaining exposure from working on a global project, shadowing a senior executive or representing the company at external events are just a few of the options that could be considered. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box. – Dennis Kight, it works! LLC

7. Be Compassionate And Understanding

Be compassionate and understand that the employee may be frustrated by immobility. Engage the employee, find out what their passions and interests are. There may be an opportunity for the employee to express leadership by heading a committee or spearheading a venture that aligns with the company’s goals and interests. – Natasha Charles, Intuitive Coaching w/ Natasha Charles

8. Engage In Transparent, Creative Conversation

Be transparent and allow creative conversation. What about the promotion excites them? How does this speak to their needs and wants? What really matters to them in their career and life? Invite them to co-create their own career path. This could mean more professional development, scope or visibility, opportunities to build their brand, recognition for their efforts and a bigger-picture view. – Manisha Dhawan, MPath Coaching

9. Have Them Work With A Mentor

Have them work with a mentor who will prepare them for the role after the next one. New positions open up often, and usually unexpectedly. Even if you can’t give them the “title” yet, you can give them some of the responsibility and widen their experience—if they want it. Agree to regular and formalized reviews. Keep them informed and communicate often. Have them share what they are learning. – Antonio Garrido, Absolute Sales Development

10. Encourage Them To Double Down Where They Are

One idea is to horizontally stack your org chart. Instead of encouraging employees to move up, you might encourage them to double down where they are. Imagine a senior director I, senior director II, senior director III and so on. This allows people to grow with status and financial incentives while avoiding a top-heavy organization down the line. – Natasha Ganem, Lion Leadership

11. Offer Them More Control With A Bespoke Opportunity

A type of promotion that works well in the current environment is one that offers greater autonomy in decision making. The more control an employee feels they have in the process and the final outcome, the greater the buy-in from them to remain. Know your employee well in terms of what else will motivate them along with this, and create a bespoke opportunity for them that makes it difficult to turn down. – Arthi Rabikrisson, Prerna Advisory

12. Understand Their Career Path And Professional Interests

Fully understand your employee’s desired career path and professional interests. Support them with education, leadership opportunities in the area of their desired career path, and visibility. This includes leading meetings, task forces, think-tank type project teams, inclusion in decision-making discussions, and sending them to conferences or making presentations to management for added visibility. – Mark Samuel, IMPAQ Corporation

13. Change Their Title And Create New Incentives

Why not change their title and create a new incentive or two? Unfortunately, human resources and managers remain rigid in their thinking about rewarding someone or creating something new. At times, I have heard them say, “If we have to do it for one, we will have to do it for all.” Why? You have top talent. Find a way to be creative with temporary incentives, rewards and titles. – John M. O’Connor, Career Pro Inc.

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