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 one of a 3-part series where I cover what you need to know to create an inclusive and effective career path.
To begin, we'll discuss everything you need to know to get started in this process.
I've created a more inclusive and efficient career path for multiple companies that I've worked with. In all cases, the company was mature. They had a career path that they had been using for years that was no longer serving them well. In one case, the company had a very clear culture that they were proud of but the existing career path did not show. In another case, the company's career path was at odds with the culture that they wanted to build and evolve. The most common concern I've seen is a career path that is too vague. Vague expectations do not help employees or managers navigate promotion or performance discussions.
How we use career paths
A career path is a living document. Its impact is much larger than once per year per employee during their performance review.
A carefully considered career path informs your job descriptions. Your job descriptions are your first point of contact with many potential candidates. You're selling them on your company and the job.
- Do your expectations for the role reflect a culture in which they will thrive?
- Will they enjoy advancing their career with you?
- Will they feel appropriately leveled if/when they interview with you?
- Do they get the sense that you will equitably reward their performance?
A comprehensive career path advises employees on short and long-term performance goals. What you include in the advancing levels helps them identify what direction they want to take during their time with your company.
- Do they have multiple possible strength areas they could develop to advance?
- Are there specific skills they need to build to get promoted?
- How are technical skills vs leadership skills valued?
A well-defined career path supports your managers during performance conversations. Specific expectations provide structure for your managers. They will be better equipped to give feedback and ask for behavior changes.
- What behaviors do you need to see from someone in a specific role?
- What skills do you need someone to be learning before they can be promoted?
- What types of communication skills are required as someone advances in your company?
- How is someone expected to collaborate within their team?
A thoughtful career path drives promotion discussions between your managers and employees. It gives the employees a framework to outline their accomplishments and wins. And it gives managers the information they need to know when someone has earned a promotion.
- What behaviors has the employee consistently demonstrated for their level? for the level above them?
- What successes have they had and how do they relate to the expectations for the role?
- Have they met the expectations required to be promoted to the next step on their career path?
As you can see, a career path serves many purposes. It's an important part of shaping your company culture and building your team.
When you're creating or updating a career path, start by identifying your goal(s). This will keep you focused and ensure that all your additions and changes align. Some possible goals include
- Clear and actionable role expectations
- Inclusive language
- Alignment with company values
- Expectations that reward a broader range of skills
- Show the company culture
When I've done this in the past, "Clear and actionable role expectations" and "Inclusive language" were table stakes. Then we focused on one or two other goals.
Clear and inclusive language helps remove space for bias. As Brené Brown says, "Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind." When your expectations are vague, implicit, or unspoken, there is a lot of room for bias to sneak into hiring, promotion, and performance conversations. Without clear expectations, managers and leaders tend to reward employees they perceive as more like themselves (along identity or personality axes), giving them the benefit of the doubt in terms of actual performance and potential. This is called "rater bias" and can be positive or negative. Specific performance expectations help to mitigate this bias.
After you've chosen your goals for your career path, research other companies' career paths. In the tech industry, we tend to reinvent the wheel. A lot. We think we're the first to solve a problem. But usually, we can learn from others who have come before us.
Researching career paths of other companies helps in many ways:
- Identify what you like and don't like
- Gives you useful language
- Find ideas for organizing and formatting
It's important while you're researching that you don't copy someone else's career path word-for-word. Remember what your main goals are and find inspiration that achieves those goals. You want your career path to accurately represent your company and team. Plagiarizing someone else's negates any culture you want to foster since it won't be your own.
Here are some helpful resources to kick start your research:
- progression.fyi has examples of public and open source frameworks and career paths
- Engineering Ladders is a framework for Engineering Managers
- Shawn Wang compiled a list of public career paths
- Nico Dupont also compiled a list of public career paths (there might be some overlap)
Before you begin creating a new career path, do your homework. A career path serves many purposes for many different audiences. A little intention and deliberate care go a long way. It's the first step to creating a more inclusive culture with more productive promotion and performance conversations.