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The Man or Woman in the Mirror

In my years working in distribution, I’ve been both the frustrated internal candidate who felt he was wronged by being passed over for promotion and the external candidate who was chosen for the big promotion over the internal ones. I’ve come to believe that there are reasons why this happens in both instances, and those reasons often have little to do with the abilities, or otherwise, of the candidates.

First, why are qualified internal candidates so often passed over?

The phrase “first impressions last longest” has a lot to do with it. Your leaders often have a fixed impression of you as that person they hired years ago and they fail to register all of the progress you’ve made to get yourself ready for advancement. There are ways to shatter that first impression, but it involves the hard work of learning how to get new challenges assigned to you, taking advantage of those opportunities, and getting credit for being successful. Even when it means being vocal.

As an internal candidate who didn’t get the promotion I wanted early in my career, I felt undervalued and hard done by. In reality, I was to blame for getting passed over because I really didn’t understand how to find those new challenges and grow from that experience. If you’re in the same position, it’s up to you, the person in the mirror, to change it. Start finding new challenges to show you are growing and improving. Find a mentor who can coach you on the gaps you need to close and then do what they recommend to improve your skills. Be a team player and help drive the change the organization needs.

Now, how about those external candidates? What makes them so special?

External candidates are hired for many reasons other than being the most qualified. There are, I think, three key reasons I believe they are often hired over internal candidates. 

The first is they have experience or a skill set that the distributor has identified they need but has decided they don’t have on their current team. See above for a refresher on that topic.

The second is that HR teams are more likely to get credit for finding the right outside candidate than the right internal one. If they find a perfect fit by going through resumes, calling references, and asking the right interview questions, they get recognized for doing a great job. If it’s an internal candidate they usually don’t. It’s probably not a conscious choice on the part of HR, just a human tendency to want to be rewarded for doing a great job. Like all of us, they value what they get recognized for.

The third is to drive organizational change. With all of today’s digital disruption, B2B leaders are more than ever feeling the pressure to change. Outside candidates don’t arrive with the same “We don’t do it that way” mindset that internal staff often has. They have different experiences and new perspectives. (Of course, they have their own list of “don’ts” -- they’re just from other organizations.) Organizational and cultural changes are among the most difficult for any company to make, including B2B distributors, and outside hires are often more effective at driving that change. The challenge, of course, is making it happen once the new hire begins work, which is why you often see a company bent on change running through multiple hires. Outside candidates hired as agents of change quickly grow frustrated when they run up against an entrenched culture.

None of this is particularly fair. But it is reality nonetheless. The good news, at least from the point of view of internal candidates, is that the solution is the same. If you really want the job, show your employer that you have both the skills and experience they need and the hunger for change and growth that they think is more likely to come from outside. 

As always, we’re interested in your feedback. You can post a comment below or reach me at

© 2019 Gale Media, Inc.

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