I get asked a lot about how to build a welcoming and collaborative team culture. One of the most crucial but often overlooked tools for building culture is a career path. (Or career ladder/leveling guide/whatever you choose to call it).
A career path communicates an organization's expectations and outlines what behaviors will be rewarded. A thoughtful career path is a foundational element to building the type of culture you want on your team.
This is part two of a 3-part series where I cover what you need to know to create an inclusive and effective career path.
You've identified goals for your career path. And found some examples of paths or specific expectations that you like. But there are still some high-level considerations to think about before making changes.
We reward what we measure
Remember, you reward what you measure. Outline all the behaviors that you want to nurture within your organization. This includes communication, collaboration, and leadership skills.
Sometimes we get too tactical and focus on technical skills we want our team to have. But overlooking communication or mentorship skills leads to a team of "rockstar" programmers who can't work with your product team. Or a rotating team of senior engineers who can't mentor or teach any early-career hires. In both cases, you end up playing the hiring catch-up game trying to find more senior engineers.
The behaviors you look for inform the culture you build. Be sure to look for signals outside of technical skills. For example,
Actively seeks buy-in for technical direction and process decisions from members of their project team
Takes care in both verbal and nonverbal communication to make others feel welcome and engaged in conversations
100% objectivity is not possible
While we want to remove as much bias as possible from our hiring and performance reviews, it's not possible to create a 100% objective career path. First, we are humans so bias is a reality we face every day. It is better to take steps to mitigate our biases than assume we can remove them all.
Second, a fully objective rubric would be brittle. A rubric with no room for expansive interpretation would incentivize a team with homogenous skills. We want to remove interpretation from what our expectations are while allowing for interpretation of how to meet those expectations. By not being prescriptive, our employees find many ways to meet expectations. This encourages a diverse range of perspectives and skillsets.
Third, we cannot predict the skills we'll need or tasks our team will have to perform in the future. Allowing some fluidity in how someone meets our expectations helps our career path to grow and evolve with our business.
When given a less defined task, collaborates with more experienced team members to define a relevant solution
Communicates their opinions on technical matters and can explain the justifications behind their implementation decisions, appropriate to constraints of relevant requirements
Sphere of control
Every expectation outlined in your career path should be something within an employee's control. If someone is unable to take action towards an expectation, how can they be measured on it? It's unfair.
For example, an expectation I've seen on a career path was "Sought out by others for advice in their area of expertise." In this example, the employee has no control over this metric. They are completely reliant on others to reach out to them. When someone works in less high-profile areas of your codebase, they might not get publicly asked for advice very often. But, reframing this expectation from the employee's perspective gives them autonomy. Then they can take steps to meet this expectation.
Enthusiastically volunteers and answers questions for other members of the team
Related to the above point, we also need to be aware of opportunity bias when creating a career path. Opportunity bias refers to the notion that access to opportunity may encourage or hinder growth. It's important to make sure your expectations align with opportunities your company can realistically provide.
I've seen many expectations about leading projects as someone progresses in their career. If your company or team only kicks off one project per year, this is an unfair expectation. It limits the opportunity to one person per year. If your team organizes their work so there are many small projects (you should, it's more achievable 🤗), then this is a great expectation. But you still need to take care that your managers are sharing the opportunity equitably among all qualified team members.
Before you jump into updating your career path expectations, it's important to consider the scope of your expectations. We reward what we measure.