Career Ladders: Setting your team up for success

by Griffin Caprio
February 11, 2016

Helping Your Employees Succeed

When your team begins to grow to a certain size (20+), it’s crucial to provide both a path for career advancement and a clear set of expectations for your employees. Most companies address this by creating what are called “ladders.” Ladders are typically a simple matrix of roles and dimensions with expectations and responsibilities defined for each combination. This brings structure to an organization where none previously existed. For example:

 

 

Role 1

Role 2

Communication

…..

…..

Project Management

…..

…..

Accountability

…..

…..

 

Why Are Career Ladders Important?

Since ladders are meant to bring structure, some software engineering teams see them as unnecessary. Engineers tend to avoid unnecessary complexity, bureaucracy and formality. However, this initial reaction may be misguided because ladders do bring significant advantages for engineers:

●      Diversity — Ladders help create a more diverse culture. Without clear ladders, recruiting, hiring and promotions can become very subjective and fall prey to bias, both conscious and subconscious.

●      Fairness — Ladders ensure that employees are treated fairly and consistently. Employees should be able to look at their coworkers, compare their coworkers’ roles to the ladders and know why certain employees have attained certain roles. They should also be able to talk with their team to identify gaps in their own performance that need improvement.

●      Leadership — Ladders send a clear and straightforward message to your employees, saying “We care about your career advancement.” Without that, you risk losing key employees who flee to companies with better-perceived opportunities. Ladders also ensure consistency for all managers, reducing the likelihood of wildly varying scales for employee advancement.

●      ​Recruiting — Having the ability to describe the promotion path and showing them a public document reassures the employee that they’re not walking into a dead end position.

●      Clarity — Engineers like knowing the rules of whatever impacts them. Creating ladders gives a framework for answering questions like “How do I make more money?” and “What’s expected of me to get promoted?”

●      Transparency — Ladders outline the language by which success is judged — a huge benefit for engineers who enjoy finding successful solutions to problems. Even more, ladders provide clarity around expectations. Conversations about promotions and compensation become a collaboration between an employee and their manager instead of a subjective argument.

Enova Engineering Career Ladders

Knowing how important ladders are to a great team, when I joined Enova in August of 2015, one of the first items on my agenda was to update our engineering ladders. We realized that we needed to improve our engineering career ladders in three areas:

1.     Ambiguous — The existing ladders were in some ways subjective and not fully defined. This created confusion for the team on what was needed to advance and opened the door for each manager to apply them somewhat differently.

2.     Too High-Level — The individual dimensions lacked specificity and were often sparse, containing a few simple bullet points. Different roles also shared content, resulting in blurry distinctions between roles.

3.     Lacking Individual Contributor Route — Our existing ladders did not have an opportunity to promote engineers who did not want to manage other people leaving them feeling that they were either “stuck” in their role or had to choose a role they didn’t want simply because it was their only next step.

These issues, combined with our team doubling in size over 24 months, meant that the ladders were becoming a real liability to the team.

Creating the New Ladders

Creating and revising ladders is a challenging process. A little added pressure: This was part of an Enova-wide transition away from our previous old, internal HR designations and Software Engineering was to be the first. As a leadership team, we needed to articulate what we wanted the team to look like long term.  This required us to create a smoother promotion path with more opportunities for advancement than the previous classification system contained.

Our internal Talent Development team was a key partner in this effort. They provided a well thought out framework to creating these ladders and served as a sounding board that challenged the leadership team to clarify any ambiguity and bring up any oversights we may have missed. Over the course of several weeks we worked together to create a clear and well thought out next revision of our Software Engineering (SE) ladders.

The resulting ladders can be seen below. Click the thumbnail for a larger image.

Individual Contributor Track

Management Track

Rolling Out to the Team

All of this hard work paid off, as we were able to move quickly within a month of starting. We rolled out our new career ladders in November 2015. Being a team of 130, this required significant collaboration between our managers, People Resources and Talent Development. Over the course of several weeks, we announced the new ladders in a team-wide meeting. We also met with every engineer individually and took each of them through the same process:

●      First, we walked them through the new career ladders, addressing any questions they had.

●      Next, we outlined where they fit in the new ladders. For some employees this included a promotion and new title.

●      Finally, the process ended with a conversation about their career at Enova, where they wanted to go and how we could help them achieve the next level in their career.

The Outcome

No department-wide change for a team of our size is ever easy. By far the hardest part of the rollout was having all of the individual meetings with every member of the team. With over 120 people in our team, that was a busy week for our management team! Thankfully the reaction across the team was positive. Through our preparation and training, the questions we received were small clarifications. We were able to get the new ladders out in time for our year-end review process. This ensured that every discussion between manager and employee was able to include an overview of what the employee would like to accomplish in 2016 and if there was a promotion in their future.

However, we didn't want the rollout to end there. Check out our followup post on the Enova blog for an exciting announcement about open sourcing our hard work.

- Griffin Caprio, Director of Software Engineering and Lauren Ratcliff, Talent Development Associate, Talent Development

 

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