Dilemma of the Month: Saying ‘No’ to New Titles

How to tell an employee they aren't C-suite material

Back Q&A Apr 7, 2016 By Suzanne Lucas

We are a mid-sized nonprofit with a three-tiered structure. We are hiring for a new senior marketing position, and I decided to go with CMO for the title to help recruit a rock star from within our industry to potentially serve as my No 2. My director of fundraising, who I personally recruited four years ago, wants her title changed to Chief Advancement Officer for parity. She does good work but in my mind is not C-level material. I don’t want to demotivate or lose her, but I do want to be honest. I also don’t want to connect the two issues – hiring a new lead marketing director with a job title change for the development director.

I emailed this writer back and asked how much experience this director of fundraising had, hoping that the answer would be two years. Then it would be easy to explain that a C-level job requires a lot of experience and she could work up to that level over time. Unfortunately, the answer came back that she has a “solid 15 years in fundraising.”

This makes the answer much more difficult. You can’t rely on outside rules or place blame on things beyond your control. Someone with 15 years of experience certainly could be a C-level employee, which means the reason she isn’t yet is because she lacks something. Talking about where employees need to improve can be a difficult conversation. Sometimes that’s easy: When someone comes to you and says, “What can I do to improve?” — that’s easy enough. But, in this case, the person is saying, “I should be in this position!” That makes it hard. Here are some tips:

Don’t lie. This should go without saying, but so many bosses are tempted to lie in situations like this. Granted, when you’re the CEO, lying is harder. Lots of managers say things like, “I’d love to promote you, but HR says I can’t do it.” This does not help anyone, especially not the employee. Be straight up: “Jane, you’re not ready for a C-level title.“ No beating around the bush.

If it’s never going to be a possibility, say that. Don’t give false hope. Let’s say I came to you and said, “I really want to be an opera singer!” You’d be nuts to say, “Gee, Suzanne, that sounds like a great idea. Keep practicing!” I am never going to be an opera singer. I can carry a tune, but no amount of intensive training is going to bring me to the point that anyone wants to pay money to hear me sing. Most of us have a limit, and if your employee is at her limit, it’s kinder to say so.

That’s not to say that your evaluation of her is correct. She may never, ever be a C-level employee as long as she works for you, but another CEO might think differently — I don’t know. But don’t say, “Well, with a lot of hard work, you can get there!” if that’s simply not true. You can say: “Jane, you’re a great fundraising director, but you don’t have what it takes to be a Chief Advancement Officer.” What she does with that information is up to her, but leading people on does them no good.

If it is going to be possible, be clear how. Many employees can improve with clear direction. You need to evaluate where she lacks skills and address those directly. For instance, here are areas where she might be lacking:

  • Industry understanding: People in C -level jobs (and other high-level jobs) need to understand how this business (or nonprofit) fits into the whole industry. They need industry knowledge, not just specific knowledge.
  • The ability to manage and mentor people: One of the biggest jobs of an executive is managing other humans. People who are lousy managers can learn to be better ones, but when they are lousy, they don’t belong in the C-suite.
  • The ability to schmooze with the board: That sounds kind of sleazy, but it’s not. If you can’t communicate with the board members in a way that makes the board trust and understand what you’re saying, you lack this ability.
  • Polish: If you’ve got zero social skills, you may be technically great at your job, but you’re not an executive. You need to look like a leader, even before you speak up. This doesn’t mean you need a certain haircut or even a wardrobe filled with expensive suits. It means you need the confidence to hold your own and the polish to do so politely.

Whatever you do, don’t ignore her question and just hope it will go away. That’s about the worst thing you can do. Address it head on — and good luck.


Leslie McIntyre-Tavella (not verified)April 20, 2016 - 8:41am

We often comment that we feel you are seated somewhere secretively in our office as your blogs always seem to be so relevant and pertinent to all of our current issues at hand. Thank you for providing cutting edge articles that are very difficult to find elsewhere!