How career ladders provide clarity, focus, and purpose

4 min read
Jeff Hardison,
Todd Zaki Warfel
  •  Apr 19, 2018
Link copied to clipboard

This post was inspired by the topic of our upcoming webinar series, DesignTalks: Careers. Be sure to save your spot here to join Todd and other design leaders, as they share their personal tips and advice for advancing your career.

I recently attended dinner with a few dozen leaders across the design community. The group included a mix of women and men from different industries, backgrounds, and experience levels.

While some had newly moved into leadership, others had been in leadership almost as long as the youngest person in the room. Their companies ranged in size from a few dozen people to an 80,000+ person enterprise corporation.

Top Stories
Loading interface...

At one point, someone asked, “Why is our field so hung up on titles?” The proverbial Pandora’s box was opened. Over the next 45 minutes, the room filled with stories and theories. For all their differences, they shared a few common themes—the need for meaning, purpose, and ownership. This was further underscored when one attendee shared:

“As a self-proclaimed Millennial, I think it’s important for us to understand that we are a generation that owns nothing. Our music is on Spotify. Our hotels are Airbnb. Our cars are Lyft and Uber. We own nothing.”

For the older generations in the room, titles seemed to cement their place at the table, that they had arrived. For the younger generations, titles seemed to provide a rare opportunity to actually own something.

The importance of a clear path

A recent Gallup poll (opens PDF) found that 51 percent of people are actively looking for new opportunities due to poor leadership and management. The same study showed that 45 percent of Millennials and 31 percent of Gen Xers say a job that accelerates career development is very important, compared to just 18 percent of Baby Boomers.

Leadership is a privilege, not a position.Twitter Logo It’s not for everyone. We are in the business of winning hearts and minds. We have a responsibility to inspire, nurture, develop, and empower those who have been placed under our care.

One of the ways to develop and nurture those in our care is through a career ladder.

“51 percent of people are actively looking for new opportunities due to poor leadership and management.”

Career ladders

A career ladder is the progression, or development path, for an individual within a company. The presence of a career ladder creates clarity, structure, and direction. It can provide purpose, meaning, and a sense of ownership.

A study for the upcoming Design Career Index report (anticipated publication: mid-2018) recently found that nearly 70 percent of companies either didn’t have a documented career ladder for design, or employees lacked awareness of its existence. Of those who did have a documented design career ladder, 34 percent require individual contributors to go into management to advance.

That same study identified the following five top reasons people left their previous role or company: poor leadership/management, lack of career ladder/opportunity, lack of meaning/purpose, stopped learning, and better pay/opportunity.

Individual contributors (ICs) want to know that there is a clear, achievable path ahead. Additionally, ICs want to know they have a path for advancement that doesn’t require management. Managers need career ladders to recruit, develop, retain, and reward their people.

Given the obvious need and value, why don’t more companies have well-defined career ladders?

The case of the missing ladder

Having studied the topic of career ladders since 2012, I’ve found a number reasons companies don’t have them:

  • They don’t have a reference
  • They take a lot of time and effort to develop
  • They’re focused on short-term goals and shareholder value
  • They don’t think they’re big enough to need one
  • They believe a list of titles with pay grades is enough

And then it happens. They hit a growth spurt. They go from one or a few designers to a sizable team. Before they know it, they have 10, 50, or 250 designers without proper leadership, organizational structure, or a development path. Individuals don’t see a clear path for their future at the company. Managers don’t have an objective way to evaluate, develop, and reward their people. The result is always the same—people start leaving. En Masse.

“Leadership is a privilege, not a position.”

Twitter Logo

By the time a company realizes what’s going on, it’s too late. They’ve lost some of their best talent. They go into damage control or crisis mode.

If you’re in leadership, developing a career ladder is one of the best investments you can make in your team and for your company. If you’re an IC, working with your leadership and HR to develop a career ladder is one of the best personal growth investments you can make.

What makes a good career ladder

A good career ladder promotes the progression and development of people within the company. It goes beyond a list of titles and pay scales. It brings clarity and structure to career paths for people. It should be openly available to both ICs and managers.

A career ladder should include:

  • Dedicated paths for ICs and managers
  • A development path for ICs that doesn’t require going into management
  • A set of established norms
  • A rubric for evaluation

While there should be some way to effectively evaluate each level, the model should support more than one way to achieve that score. For instance if craft is one of the desired skill sets required for design, consider multiple skills within craft. A good career ladder should represent and encourage that rich diversity.
It’s not a hard and fast checklist.

“Developing a career ladder is one of the best investments you can make in your team and for your company.”

The benefits of a career ladder for ICs

You can go to school to learn how to design, but that doesn’t make you a designer. The same can be said for research, product management, engineering, sales, or just about any other field. Applied experience—that magic 10,000 hours—is what elevates you from someone merely learning a craft to becoming a master of the craft.

Once you understand what it means to be a designer, researcher, or content strategist at a company and what’s required to progress over time, you and your leadership can actively work on a development plan.

The ability to apply that experience along an intentional development path is how you take ownership of designing your own career. Furthermore, it helps you understand the differences between continuing along the IC path, or transitioning into management.

The benefits of a career ladder for management

As mentioned earlier, managers need career ladders to recruit, develop, retain, and reward their people.

On the recruiting front, career ladders help candidates envision their future at your company. When you’re in a highly competitive market, you’ll need every advantage you can get. According to the Design Career Index (anticipated publication: mid-2018), compensation was rated as the fifth-highest reason people leave a company. The top four are related to leadership and career growth—something a career ladder can address.

As for development and retention, a career ladder gives you and your people clarity on what a potential future at the company looks like. With a career ladder, you can create a clear development plan for each person in your organization. This improves conversations about performance and progress, which should be taking place regularly, not just during the annual review cycle. When the annual review cycle does occur, career ladders help make the process faster, easier, and more objective. The same can be said for rewards and recognition.

As a manager, rewards and recognition is a key part of retention. Career ladders help reduce bias—perceived or real.Twitter Logo If you’ve ever been part of an annual review and promotion cycle, you’ve probably felt frustrated. There’s a limited number of spots. You do everything you can to get those well-deserved promotions for your team. Some make it. Some don’t. It seems more dark arts than science. A well documented career ladder brings objectively and sanity back to the process.

Remember, management isn’t for everyone

Have you ever asked, “How did this person find their way into management?” The reality is that a lot of people find their way into management. Some are great leaders—it seems like they were born for leadership. Others, unfortunately, not so much. The latter aren’t bad people. In fact, most of them are great people who are brilliant at their craft. Management and leadership, however, require an entirely different set of skills.

To be an effective leader, you have to learn an entirely new set of skills and unlearn what made you a great individual contributor.

As an executive leadership coach, I commonly work with three types of people:

  • Those who want to move into management
  • Those who have recently started their management journey
  • Those who have been on the journey for years and want to develop into more effective, purpose-driven leaders

A career ladder should establish a clear development path for management, just as it does for ICs. It’s a great tool for communicating that management isn’t about position—it’s about responsibility.Twitter Logo

If you’re considering management for prestige, title, or position—don’t.

If you want to take on responsibility for the people who have been placed under your care, for developing them, for helping them live into their full potential, for taking none of the credit for success, but all of the blame when things go wrong, then you might just make a great manager.

Final thoughts

A well-defined career ladder will help create meaning, purpose, and ownership for ICs and management at all levels. It sets clear expectations, making conversations around performance and promotions more objective.

Your career ladder should have dedicated tracks for ICs and managers. It shouldn’t require ICs to go into management to continue their progression.

When developing your career ladder, include a clear set of definable and measurable skills—a list of titles with pay scales is not enough.

Consider working with your HR department. They’ll be grateful. And so will your team.

Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard