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 three of a 3-part series where I cover what you need to know to create an inclusive and effective career path.
You've done the prep work. You know what your goals are. You have examples of other career paths and role expectations that you like. And you've taken time to think about the high-level considerations for your career path. Let's get started making those changes!
First, how do you want to organize your expectations? There are many ways to organize your criteria so choose what feels right for your team. In the past, I've seen organizing by career level or in subcategories within each level, including
- Skill types (technical vs communication vs leadership, etc.)
- Competency (software design, debugging, security, etc.)
- Company values
Start with a simple organization before adding complexity, e.g. career levels and one other categorization. If your team and organization need more complexity, adjust your career path to fit your needs. No one knows your team better than you do.
Then write a short description explaining how the document is organized so your audience can follow along. Remember, this document is used more often than during promotion conversations :)
I often see companies forget to set fundamental expectations in their career path. We all share expectations of our team members regardless of what level or role they hold. Unclear expectations are unkind. Be sure to outline the expectations that you expect every member of your team to uphold. Some examples include
Demonstrates company core values in interactions with team members
Provides thoughtful feedback to their team members in performance reviews, retros, and day-to-day conversations
Actively participates in the hiring process, including code reviews and interviews
Also, call out when expectations are cumulative through levels in your introduction.
Consider your levels
Speaking of levels, make sure that the titles and number of levels match your expectations.
Are you still using "Junior Developer" as a job title? Now is a good time to rename that role.
Do you find that one of your levels has significantly more expectations attached to it than others? That could be a sign that there's a steep jump from one level to the next. You may want to add a role to support more gradual growth.
A general rule of thumb is that someone should be able to grow and be promoted every 18 months to 2 years (though this tends to increase as you advance through the levels). If it feels like people need 4 years to get from a level 3 to 4, that may show that your level 4 should be levels 4 & 5.
Do you find that you have a level that has significantly fewer expectations than the ones below it? That might mean that you have too much hierarchy and you can collapse your titles a bit.
If you choose to do more than rename your titles, be sure to proactively communicate with all people affected by this change.
While you're defining your expectations, be as specific as possible. Define vague words. In tech, we have many overloaded words. And many words mean different things to different people. Some examples include 'complex', 'quality', 'testing', and 'proficient.' Defining what those mean to your team and career path makes sure that everyone shares the same understanding.
Effectively debugs medium complexity issues in the code using a systematic approach. Medium complexity issues are those where the remediation steps need more investigation but do not need large refactors or multi-level system changes.
In some cases, the definition might be quite long or regularly evolving. A good example is your team's definition of "software quality." Don't be afraid to link to other company documents or community blog posts where it makes sense.
Your career path should be a living document that serves your needs. You don't need to limit yourself to what you can fit in a PDF.
Models empathetic communication
Using progressions of metrics to track growth through the levels is often a good way to show growing seniority. Find consistent modifiers to help define this progression. Some examples include
- Complexity: Low complexity > medium complexity > high complexity
- Responsibility: With coaching or support from team members > independently
- Scope of influence: Self > Team > Cross-team > Organization
When you're using a progression-based approach, examples are helpful. They help the reader understand how the modifiers change the expectation.
Executes low complexity refactors, such as those that touch multiple components within a single layer of an application
Executes medium complexity refactors, such as those that touch multiple components within many layers of the application
Executes high complexity refactors, such as those that change the contracts between integrations
When trying to pick what your progression between levels will be, behaviors are a better indicator than skills. But impact may be an even better indicator (responsibility, influence, scope, complexity). Demonstrating an expanding scope of influence is easy to define. And it's easy to measure during interviews and performance reviews.
Requirement for promotion
When you've defined your expectations for each role, it's time to decide what your requirement for promotion is. The clearer you can define what success looks like, the more fair your promotion process will be. It will also be easier for your managers to navigate.
A clear benchmark for promotion leads to more productive goal-setting and performance conversations. It removes much of the ambiguity from the decision.
I've seen companies use proficiency as a measure for promotion. I.e. if the employee is consistently demonstrating proficiency at their level, they have earned a promotion to the next level. This requires a very clear definition of "proficient" included in the career path.
I've also seen some companies choose a percentage-based approach. I.e. when an employee is consistently exhibiting 90% of the behaviors for their current level and 60% of the behaviors of the next level, they have earned a promotion.
Whatever system you choose, the more explicit you define it, the easier and more equitable your promotion process will be.
As of January 2021, Colorado's Equal Pay for Equal Work Act took effect. It requires all employers with at least one employee in Colorado to share the compensation range and benefits for advertised job openings. Other states may soon follow suit.
Include compensation benchmarks in your career path to show your commitment to equity and inclusion, attract a diverse talent pool, and stay ahead of the legal curve. This small act is a huge differentiator in the competitive job market for employers.
Finally, when you've done all the work to make sure your expectations are:
- Align with your company values
- Reflect the culture you want to nurture
-Show how to grow from one level to the next
It's time to make it pretty 🎀
A spreadsheet is a common way to distribute a career path. But a document with table formatting or a small HTML page (hosting on Github pages is free!) might be a better option. Too many columns can be challenging to read. Utilizing whitespace and having a bit more control over layout can help.
If you're ambitious, you can enlist the help of your design or marketing team to publish your career paths publicly. That's what one company I worked with, Tandem, did when we finished updating our career paths.
Readability, accessibility, and ease of maintenance are the most important factors to consider for formatting. A career path doesn't need to be flashy to be useful.
A career path is a foundational document for your company culture. It shapes many conversations and decisions that your employees and managers will make.
The single most important thing you can do to ensure your career path is a more effective and inclusive tool is to make it specific and explicit. Unclear expectations are unkind and don't serve your team or your company mission long-term.