Internal applicants: why are they overlooked?

Christian Harper

The focus of this article will be more around everyday issues such as applying for jobs, navigating the recruitment industry, sharpening up your resume, understanding the challenges associated with hiring people and so on.

To kick things off, I thought I would share with you some common experiences I am having when interviewing people who are applying for internal promotions. I am frequently invited to recruit for our customers and one of the first questions I ask is: “where are your internal applicants?”

The most common response to that question is that “we don’t have any”. This always raises my curiosity. Many businesses actually do have the right candidate under their nose but the candidate is not speaking up or is being overlooked for some reason.

So what are the possible reasons as to why a business cannot fill a position from its existing workforce?

1. The business may require a completely new skill set that the organisation does not currently have.

2. The business may require a fresh new approach and new ideas and sees the existing choices as stale or lacking in innovation.

3. The hiring manager may perceive the internal choices as lacking in the necessary skills or competencies in some way (this may or may not be a well informed perception).

4. The suitable internal applicant/s do not want the new position.

5. Internal applicants have applied and have failed to impress.

6. The internal applicant may be suffering from some ‘bad press’ within the business. Perhaps they have put in a poor performance in some way through their work history and this perception has stayed with them.

7. The business is growing and has had insufficient time to develop the workforce or has insufficient numbers of people to get the job done, or perhaps they have already promoted as many staff as they can and have simply run out of people to promote and need to employ more talent.

Whatever the reason, there are a number of risks associated with promoting employees internally, however, from where I sit these issues are frequently less risky than recruiting a completely unknown person who is external to the business.

So what can you do to maximise your chances for internal promotion? Firstly let’s get clear about the kind of movement I am talking about:

Consider this simple organisational chart and let us imagine that you are currently in purchasing or warehousing and distribution or inventory. You are operating at a level of responsibility that suggests that you are a candidate for the supply chain manager’s position if and when it becomes available. What can you do to prepare yourself for this opportunity?

Let’s break this down into three key areas:

• Skills, experience and knowledge

• Competencies

• Values

Within reason, most operations people are highly skilled and experienced in doing their job, in fact they are often better at it than their boss. Having said this, how much do you know about the jobs of the other departments that you work with?

Clue number one: make sure you are developing your knowledge of the other departments and the detailed aspects of what they do. It may be a good idea to spend time in these other areas and multi-skill yourself. Look for opportunities when one of your peers goes on holidays to step into their role and handle their position for a while. Look for projects that may expose you to what the other departments routinely do.

This instantly raises another question: “who will do my job if I am doing that?” Exactly! is my answer.

Clue number two: train somebody to succeed you so you are ready to take on learning assignments and to be promoted.

Clue number three: talk this through with your manager and discuss a personal development plan. Seek feedback from your manager on projects that may assist you and your development.

Generally speaking, the tougher and more challenging areas of development involve competencies, and in supply chain there are a few key competencies that every supply chain manager needs to master, such as:

• Ability to drive change.

• Ability to improve processes and efficiency.

• Ability to manage multiple projects.

• Ability to manage and develop people.

• Ability to influence – the staff they manage, cross-functionally, and upwardly.

• Ability and evidence of improving KPIs within the business.

• Commercial awareness and overall business acumen.

• Ability to adapt personal management style to meet the needs of others.

• Ability to plan effectively and to implement those plans

The key to your success will be your ability to solicit feedback and be humble enough to take on the necessary learning and experience to advance your ability. So here come some soul-searching questions:

• What gaps do you have in these essential competencies?

• Are you managing people right now? If yes what have you done to develop them? How do you ensure they are achieving what they need to be achieving? What are you doing to retain them and ensure they are motivated and engaged?

• What experience have you had in managing projects and meeting deadlines?

• What evidence do you have on your ability to contain or reduce operating costs?

• What experience have you had in driving change and process improvement in the business?

• What experiences have you had in influencing a group of people to take a course of action that you believed needed to be taken?

• Have you presented ideas to the business and convinced management to take on these suggestions?

• What skills and competencies must the position of supply chain manager have in order to succeed in the company, now and into the future? How do you line up against these areas and where must you develop?

Let’s assume that you have the bulk of what is needed for the job, a vacancy becomes available and you are ready to apply for the job. Firstly if you have done all of these things then you will probably be asked to apply, but if you haven’t been, don’t be concerned.

You have the home advantage of working in the business. You have at your disposal critical information on what needs to be addressed in order to succeed in the job. An external applicant does not have this knowledge. You need to use that information to your advantage.

If you do not know what the business needs are then you have to make it your mission to find out because that will drive the hiring process.

With this knowledge and some research, you can prepare and present a strategy document that you would execute if you secured the role.

Prepare for the interview by having clear and concise examples that demonstrate your achievements in the competencies that will be critical to being successful in the new position. If you have some gaps in your skills or your competencies, prepare an action plan on how you would deal with the gaps and develop while you were in the job.

Be prepared to accept feedback and be prepared to broaden your perspective on what you do and how you do it. For example, managing a team of managers and supervisors requires a different set of skills to managing a small team of workers.

The one thing that separates a successful career person from a less successful person is the ability to openly and honestly reflect on your skills and competencies and to continue to refine what you do so that you constantly improve and so you more frequently experience the joy of enjoying what you do.

Christian Harper is the founder and principal of CareerBuilders, a specialist career coaching consultancy. Contact Christian on (02) 8908 9000, email or visit

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