No matter how big or small your company is, career progression is a difficult topic for HR teams and people managers. While HR teams need to ensure it is always kept up to date and engaging, people managers need to be adequately equipped to have those conversations with their teams. Keeping the right balance of fairness, performance, and the reality of things can be hard to do.
It’s not only that jobs and organisational needs change over time, but that some career paths become redundant due to that change. So how can we make career progression more agile and self-determined? It helps to make it a priority for everyone.
Here are a couple of things you can do to decentralise your career progression framework, pulling it away from just HR and making it everyone’s responsibility.
Evaluating employees based on what they believe are the best competencies for the job
Top-5 skills activity
Why don’t we ask employees directly what skills they think would make them most successful in their jobs? After all, career progression should be a meaningful tool for employees, not just a strategic retention mechanism for employers.
The "Top 5 skills activity" is a technique from my former colleague: Caroline Fournier, LSSGB (Director of Operations at TransPerfect). It helps you put your people managers and their teams in the driver seat of defining what successful career progression looks like.
This was something we did when I worked in Employee Experience at TransPerfect. We sat down with each Department Head to get their advice on how to differentiate employee skills from one level to another. It also helped us identify skill gaps, rewrite some of the roles and job descriptions, as well as redefine career progression for each of the teams.
For this activity, it would help to start with your most senior leaders. Get them to lead by example and cascade that behaviour down the organisation. For the sake of this exercise, let’s think about what makes a great People Manager.
Step 1 – Ask your Senior Leaders to collect five ideas on what they believe makes a great People Manager at your company (skill + definition). You can simply do this via email or your business communication platform (i.e. Slack or Microsoft Teams). We have a downloadable template for this activity that you can circulate.
Depending on the activity’s context, you can translate it into a more specific role, such as Customer Success Executive or Software Engineer.
Once every Senior Leader has submitted their top 5 ideas, you (or the person in charge of this project) will need to consolidate that information into a document (or a Notion page!).
Step 2 – Set up a meeting to review the consolidated ideas. Brainstorm and agree on the best five ideas and start building a general definition from the meeting’s suggestions.
Step 3 – You (or someone in charge of this project) narrows it down to 2-3 sentences.
Step 4 – Take the time to present it back to the Senior Leaders and agree on the final version, which is then sent to each of them as a reference for their subsequent development conversations.
That final version then serves as a feedback form to discuss performance and career progression with People Managers in 1-on-1 meetings. The feedback should automatically become more meaningful since the person being evaluated will have been part of defining these performance criteria, rather than being solely prescribed by the HR department and the industry standards.
You can repeat this exercise every 3, 6 or 12 months depending on how fast your organisation is changing or growing and whenever someone seeks career advice.
Breaking down the core skills into a progression framework
Once you have identified the core competencies from the Top-5 skills activity, you can take the exercise a step further and classify them into ODEs: Optimal, Desired and Essential skills.
The nuances between each competency and how it links to professional progression might be quite blurry sometimes. Therefore it is even more important to have them clearly defined within the career ladder.
The ODE framework is something we used when I worked at Peakon. We did not apply it in the context of career progression but rather for our departmental and organisational objectives: what are our essential, desirable and optimal goals for the quarter? This application made it easier for us to break down each of the objectives.
Below is an example chart which can help you see how ODEs can be applied to a career progression context.
The “essential” communication skills would refer to the Customer Success Executive level, the “desired” skills to the Customer Success Manager (CSM) level, and “optimal” skills to the Senior CSM level.
Similar to the Top-5 Skills activity, having a definition for each skill (2-3 sentences) will help create consistency and alignment across the team members.
This is a great system to use with your recruiting efforts as well. You can easily evaluate your candidates against the ODE ladder to understand their seniority level within a particular function. Managing expectations on career progression often starts during the hiring process. Having a clear progression framework will help your candidates understand what type of career they can expect to have within your organisation and if it's the right job for them.
Having progression conversations with a coaching mindset
Now that you have your core competencies categorised into ODEs make sure to have regular conversions around them. You don’t want them to become a one-time thing or leave it to become a box that needs ticking at the end of the year (this The Office clip shows how not to do it). It's about creating an environment that encourages people to have open conversations about progression opportunities.
Your managers can really dread those conversations if you do not support them with the right tools. The LDT framework is one that my former Learning & Development colleague Liam McCubbin introduced to me when I was working at TransPerfect. It has proven to be an excellent tool for career progression conversations.
Here’s how it works:
- L stands for Learning – Is this person still learning this skill?
- D stands for Doing – Is this person "doing" this skill without needing any support or supervision?
- T stands for Teaching – Is this person an expert in this skill and could be teaching it to others? A good way to test this would be to ask yourself: “Would this person be able to host a lunch and learn about this?”
To set up a promising career progression framework, it’s essential to clearly define which skills they need to be at a “Doing” vs “Teaching” stage. In most cases, the “Learning” stage needs to have been overcome within a specific timeframe, but there might be some instances where the learning stage is more continuous and can be kept as part of the progression plan.
People leaders can use this method in a coaching setting where instead of evaluating their employees, they ask their employees to categorise themselves within the LDT framework: "Do you believe you are a learner, a doer or a teacher in this particular skill?". Managers can agree or disagree with the employee. It is important here that they are challenging the individual on why they rated themselves as a learner, doer or teacher for each of the skills.
It's also helpful to discuss specific learning and training opportunities that could help them move from one LDT stage to another. This could then be added to a progression plan where there is a written commitment to how the employee will achieve progress within a specific time frame and how the manager will support them.
T also stands for Time & Tenure – make sure to factor in time into your progression frameworks. You can also use this framework in the context of onboarding new joiners.
Example 1: What are the things they need to be at a “Doing” stage within their first 5-8 weeks at the company?
Seniority and experience can’t be rushed, and therefore including Tenure within your career progression frameworks will be crucial to efficiently managing expectations around the career ladder.
Example 2: To progress to the next role, we expect you to have been in this role for at least 2 years.
The LTD framework is also great for recognition, as it helps employees reflect on their work and be more conscious of their progress. After all, progression shouldn’t just be about changing job titles and getting a new salary. It’s about embracing all the steps which make up that professional development journey, regardless of how small they sometimes may seem.
Here’s a more informal example at Learnerbly: Melissa, our Content Editor, was sharing in one of our Friday Wins how amazing it was to look back and realise that a couple of months ago, she was given Webflow training (Learning stage) and now she progressed to a stage where she had to teach Webflow to someone in her team (Teaching stage). She was able to recognise and celebrate her progress with the rest of the company.
Personal career goals should not be taboo
“And it's surprisingly simple: frequent short conversations with employees about their career goals and options integrated seamlessly into the normal course of business.”
- Help them Grow or Watch Them Go, Beverly Kaye & Julie Winkle Guilioni
“Help them grow or watch them go” (book) – Just as the title of the book by Beverly Kaye & Julie Winkle Guilioni says, it’s essential that there is a culture of growth within your organisation. Companies should place their employees’ development as one of their business priorities and not be afraid to have those "where do you see yourself in five years" conversations, even if that means the next step for the employee is to leave the organisation to climb the career ladder elsewhere. People may eventually need to “graduate” from your company, and maintaining a good alumni network can be equally as powerful as keeping them in the organisation.
Helping your people understand how they want to develop on a personal level could be the best way to keep your employees happy and engaged at work. Suppose they know what their longterm plan is, what we refer to as their "Northstar". In that case, they will be more determined to acquire the necessary competencies at work and focus less on extrinsic progression drivers such as salary.
And remember, career progression should not be an HR procedure – it’s everyone’s responsibility.
Making career progression frameworks a bottom-up approach will allow your managers to have more regular and more meaningful career conversations. Including everyone in that process by using some of the techniques mentioned above can improve the perception of growth opportunities and make your company a place where people feel like they can achieve their professional career goals as well as a place they want to stay.