Career ladder for individual contributors: a labor-intensive but worth-it investment

Do you dread writing performance reviews because you don’t know what standard to compare your reports’ performance to? Do you sometimes not know how to answer your team’s questions about why they are not getting promoted? Are you worried about treating your reports fairly, regardless of how similar in MBTI type or professional experience you are to them? I know I’ve been there. If these apply to you, keep reading!

The case for career ladders

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Imagine you’re onboarding a new person to your team. In the onboarding doc, in addition to a list of people for them to get coffee with and the most commonly used custom emoji, you include a clear performance evaluation and promotion framework that gives them a sense of what good looks like.

The only thing between you and this nirvana is a career ladder. And you can make one!

A career ladder, a.k.a. competency map, is a document that outlines expected scope, impact and behaviors for a given role across levels.

It’s very easy for a manager to build a shitty career ladder “because HR made me.” You don’t want to do that because you’ll miss the benefits of a good one, confuse your people and feel like a fraud.

A good career ladder accomplishes the following:

  • It sets clear expectations for your team about what’s expected of them at their current level. When used in structured periodic check-ins, it takes the guesswork out of what people need to do to receive a good grade.
  • It gets everyone on the team the same information about what they need to showcase to be considered for promotion. Similarly, it lets people decide if growing in their current role matches their career aspirations.
  • As a result, it sets a level playing field in your team and builds trust that things are run fairly.
  • It makes you look like you have your shit together with candidates. Whenever a candidate asks me about how we evaluate or promote people, I whip out the spreadsheet and show them. People get invariably and inordinately impressed. They later cite this and other frameworks I’d developed as one of the reasons for wanting to join.
  • It takes the guesswork out of performance conversations with your team.

How I built a career ladder I’m proud of

When my BizOps team at Segment grew to 2-3-4 people, I felt it was the right time to invest in a career ladder. I’d already thought through the high-level buckets of skills required for the job when I’d written our job req, so I took those as a baseline. They were: getting shit done, analytical and structured thinking, stakeholder management and project management.

I also asked a few friends in BizOps at other companies for their versions. At some point though, I found myself staring at a screen with a few motherhood-and-apple-pie sounding behaviors like “Exhibits structured thinking.” It dawned on me that now would be a good time to get a second pair of eyes on it. I recruited Josh Galland on my team to help with the task, and he graciously agreed. Things immediately started looking up once we could talk through things. A few iterations later, we had something that looked like the real thing.

In the next BizOps team meeting, we presented the framework for comments. After incorporating the comments that made sense, we published the doc and started using it in our structured check-ins, which were monthly at the time. In a few cycles of those, we calibrated on the meaning behind the words and made them real through application in real life.

About a year after that first official version, we updated it with new information and currently important emphases. For example, project management and stakeholder management, we’d found, had enough overlap that we merged them into the Execution bucket. We structured the competencies even further, adding themes across levels (column B below).

I’m very happy with two facets of our application of the ladder: that we used it in check-ins and thus tested it against reality and calibrated on it, and that we found it in ourselves to update it to our changing needs. I highly recommend doing both of these. In fact, if you’re not going to do these, you’ll likely be better off not investing into a career ladder.

I have a strong opinion that it’s the manager’s, not HR’s, job to create their team’s career ladder. People Teams can be helpful in organizing everyone to get started and providing templates, but it’s bizarre to expect them to be experts in the skillsets required by every role at every level. Things like career ladders is what they pay you as the manager the big bucks for; just do it.

What a good career ladder looks like

Our resulting BizOps career ladder (the version 1.5 years in) is as good as I’ve seen. Here it is:

A few notes:

  • This ladder is for individual contributors. To learn about manager career ladders, go here.
  • The ladder has only three levels because that’s how many levels we had in BizOps (out of six theoretically possible in the company). We weren’t hiring folks straight out of college because we didn’t have enough resources to train them. On the other end of the ladder, I didn’t see a need for an L5 or L6 BizOps person – such folks in our circumstances should move out into the business because they’d be able to have a lot more impact there.
  • You’ll notice that most of the wording in this ladder describes behaviors, not outcomes. Outcomes matter, of course, but they are extremely hard to write down into a repeatable ladder applicable to many people and situations. (It’s possible to do on one-off basis (useful for an executive’s “contract” with their boss!) This is why the desired behaviors evaluation using the career ladder needs to be supplemented with an OKR/goals review in performance evaluation and promotion decisions.
  • The ladder doesn’t and can’t list all the possible behaviors in the world that we’d want people to do or stay away from. Its job is not to present an exhaustive list of possibilities; the shorter it is, the better. We assume that things like “speak the truth” and “don’t steal from the company” are understood.
  • The nature of most of the ladder’s content is highly personal to one team in one company at one point in time. For your career ladder, use this as inspiration but come up with your own buckets, themes and cell contents. They need to sound like you speak and reflect what’s important to you as a leader and to your team.
  • I’ll estimate that coming up with the first usable iteration of this ladder took on the order of dozens of (wo)man hours. It’s creative, deep work that shouldn’t be rushed. Allow yourself the time and mental space to really get into it for best results.

Here’s a video walkthrough of what the career ladder consists of and how to use it in three applications: 1) for performance evaluation and calibration, 2) when getting your reports ready for promotion, and 3) in recruiting.

Good luck to you with your career ladder creation! Ping me if you’d like to talk through it!

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