The Importance of Career Laddering

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Sarah Drasner on (Updated on )

Learn Development at Frontend Masters

The title of this article is misleading. It’s not actually very important for an Engineering Manager to use career laddering, per se, or my process. It is, however, very important that an Engineering Manager is clear with their employees about what their expectations and direction, not to mention where they are in terms of a raise and promotion.

I’ve personally found that career laddering can help with this, but is only one small supportive piece of a whole. You can have formalized career laddering in place and still mislead your staff, so it’s critical that career laddering docs are just one tool embedded in a deeper process.

What is a career ladder?

Before we dive any further, let’s clarify first what we mean by a career ladder. Career laddering is typically a system used to show what expectations are at different levels of a role, a purpose of which is defining how one might be promoted. This can have different forms, but tends to be an internal document that states the expectations of a staff member at any given stage of their career.

Here is a microsite where I open sourced all of my career ladders >

As you can see in the site, it outlines each of the different levels of the job, as well as the roles and responsibilities expected at that level. In this particular example, there is a basic concept that ties the whole thing together:

  • To get to Senior, you’re the best “you” you can be — you perform your role exceedingly well and you’ve reached a high potential for your own output.
  • To get to Staff, your focus is really to expand beyond yourself. You start teaching people the great things you learned and help serve their needs.
  • To get to Principal, you’re creating systems that scale beyond yourself. You’re no longer helping folks be like you — you’re helping them where they are. A lot of your activities are enabling the success of everyone around you.

What I like about this system is that the job of the most advanced folks becomes helping support and grow other people or system in such a way that benefits everyone. Principal-level folks don’t lord knowledge over others; they work to put the knowledge into practice in a way that’s truly helpful.

Again, it’s not important that you use my exact system, but I want to show that having clarity about the roles and expectations of each team member can really go a long way. Why? Let’s dive in.

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Clarity

“You can’t call yourself a leader by coming into a situation that is by nature uncertain, ambiguous — and create confusion. You have to create clarity where none exists.”

— Satya Nadella

I have never seen employees more demoralized than when they’re unsure where their career is headed and whether their title/compensation is fair. It’s frustrating, exhausting, and can lead to burnout. It’s also incredibly distracting — who can get their job done when they have no clue if what they’re doing is valued?

Some may ask about intrinsic motivation. You can have an employee that cares intrinsically about their work and still feels misaligned with the overall impact that the company sees in it. That’s often when the disconnect feels the most hurtful. If you have an employee who is working extremely hard and doing absolutely everything they can, the feeling of being undervalued can be heartbreaking.

Clarity with people about their level and being explicit about what they should be working on is critical. Transparency around timing for such a promotion cycle if you know it can help as well.

There’s a bit about trust in here, too. If you are working with someone on their growth path and trust that you will honor it, you enter into a sort of partnership.

Personally, I love it when the qualities you’re working on are things that would serve them anywhere, not just the company. These should be things that expand their skill set. These types of tasks typically take some long term work, but it can be very rewarding to work together on because there’s a larger purpose.

One thing is critical: if you guide employees on this journey, you need to give them the promotion at the end. The promotion is a change in title and compensation, of course, you break the bond of that partnership if you don’t follow through. Always give the promotion if that person has earned it on their end.

Putting career laddering to work

I mentioned that a career laddering document alone will not help drive a team, and I also mentioned the importance of clarity. So, let’s tie this all together and talk through how to use this in practice.

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Step one: The big picture

I am one of those annoying managers who asks people where they’d like to be in five years. I call it “annoying” because it’s a lot to think about. But I still ask it, not because I’m not looking for a perfect answer, but because it gives them an opportunity to consider their future and, usually, they tell me something I should know.

Here are some examples:

  • I don’t really know what I want to be doing but I know that I don’t want to still be focused on build systems in five years.
  • I’m not really sure because I think I might want to be a manager, even though I haven’t tried it yet.
  • I want to be able to go camping whenever I feel like it, take my family with me, and work on the road.
  • I want to be sure that fellow developers in Africa have every opportunity they want.

Notice that these are not a formal outline for the next five years. But you can already get a sense of people’s values, their boundaries, and what we may want to incorporate as part of their working environment.

Step two: Career laddering review

If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else. 

— Yogi Berra

In this step, we go through the career laddering doc. What I typically do is have an employee read out every list item in their current role to me, then self-assess the progress they’ve made on each item. I sound off a bit on it. We generally align; people tend to be fair and honest. I personally think it’s important that they read their list to me instead of the other way around, there’s a sense of ownership that way.

We also go over the next stage in their career and the list items for it. At the end of the process, we break down any common themes. For example:

You’re solidly a Senior, and doing quite well in your role. To get to Staff, you need to be helping others a bit more. Let’s make sure you have the time to be available for more PR reviews and pairing in the next few weeks. Let’s also talk about getting that internal tool you were building over the line, that would likely help the team move faster

Step three: 30/60/90

The next step I do is called a 30/60/90. The concept is that you break down the work you want to be doing in 30, 60, and 90 days. 

I tend to do this with a bit of a twist: We start with 90 days and ask: what would you like to accomplish here within the next three months? Since the career laddering is fresh in their minds, there’s already some guidance on what their focus should include. It’s safe at this point to let them drive, and tell you what they should be doing instead of the other way around. 

Sometimes this can be quantifiable: 

  • Engineering: I would like to close five issues each week, ideally with at least two PRs.
  • Docs: I would like to address content gaps on two features.
  • Anyone: I would like to pair with at least two people.

It can be expressed as a metric:

  • I would like to help increase adoption of our npm package by 10%.

Or it can be less measurable:

  • I would like to try to understand our component library a little more as a newcomer.
  • I would like to try to interrupt other people less in meetings.

All of these are valid.

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

Now that we’ve taken the time to define the 90 day plan, we figure out what’s doable in a 30-day period. Again, it’s up to them what they think they can accomplish in this time. I only chime in if I think they’re being too ambitious, or they are missing something that the company needs.

It can also be helpful to state that things change, and nothing in this plan is set in stone — other things may come up that need attention. We’ll adjust, it’s no big deal. I honestly don’t find the 60-day piece to be very useful because a lot changes in a month. I usually skip it, but you can absolutely use it if you find it helpful!

We also get to talk through what they shouldn’t be doing. If you find that something they are spending time on is not useful for the employee or the company, you may be able to remove the task and clarify this to other stakeholders. The employees themselves may not be able to have that conversation.

This can be incredibly useful for someone who may be an over-performer, but are burning out. It helps us align on the tasks that are overextending them so that they can properly prioritize and focus. It’s tempting to think that over-performers need less guidance but I’ve found that they tend to need more clarity, not less, so that we can define scope and help them set a good direction.

I’ve also seen under-performers turn around after the career laddering process. What one might see as a lazy quality in that person might actually be a symptom of being misaligned with the purpose of the tasks. A career ladder helps them recognize what, when, why and how the things they’re working on fit into the bigger picture.

Iteration and reflection

From here, it’s probably pretty clear what you do — keep revisiting the list! I try to set a reminder in our one-on-one doc to revisit the 30/90 plan in about a month. When we check in, we see how far they’ve come on each task, putting little checkmarks next to what’s done. I’ll sometimes put a celebration emoji on something they did particularly well — I believe it’s important to celebrate those as successes, even if it makes me sound like Mr. Rogers. Show folks that you appreciate their work and how far they’ve come.

From there, you can carve out another block for the 90, so they have direction for the next 30 days. If they didn’t finish something, carry it over to the next month.

Every few months, we’ll go back and do the career laddering exercise again, but this time denoting the progress that’s been made in every area. When they’ve filled their end of the deal of the things you asked them to work on, it’s time to promote them! 🎉 Don’t forget to celebrate that as well!

Wrapping up

This is not the only way to provide direction and clarity in a person’s work — the sky’s the limit. Anything that provides clarity for your staff can be helpful.

What I’ve liked about the career laddering process is that there are no surprises: people know where they are, and what it will take to get to the next level. There are no surprises in 360 reviews as far as what stage they’re at and what they should be working on between now and the next check in. The progress is a tangible thing that becomes a partnership between the both of you, and the work is just a unit within something measurable on that path.

It can be clarifying for everyone around: they know the system — there should be no surprises why a person is getting promoted at a given time. Hopefully that alleviates any tension in the process. 

Our collective aim as managers should be taking the careers of our employees as seriously as we do the team’s technical processes. Promotions ideally come exactly when and how everyone thinks it will. The goal is to set your team up for success: everyone has a good path forward and they can focus on doing work that is both impactful and rewarding.