Building Career Progression Plans

James Scicluna
Aug 26 · 6 min read

As a people manager, nothing gives me more fulfillment than seeing team members grow and progress in their lives and careers. While I cannot force this process on any of them, I certainly feel responsible to enable it. This is a challenging task. Career progression plans are tools that can guide such growth. At a minimum, they help individuals think about their future and structure a plan towards making that future a reality. That in itself is already a big step forward. In this article, we discuss a format for such a plan and how to guide your team members to build it.

Scope

This work started by researching some templates for career development plans. A lot of the material was targeted towards a complete career switch rather than a progression in the current career line. This article focuses on the latter. The examples are based on a software engineering career and looks at the very next step of the individual’s progression. For example, from Senior Software Engineer to Principal Engineer. It considers a short to medium term timeline. Depending on your organization and how expectations are set for different roles, this could be anywhere from 3–36 months.

Structure

A core goal for the career plan was to keep it as concise and clear as possible. We aimed to have it designed in a one-pager. We didn’t quite get there and still attained a concise format. Here is the high level structure:

  • Goal(s)

Goal(s)

This should not be longer than two or three lines in the spirit of keeping it practical and straightforward. For example, “Become a Principal Engineer” for an individual who is a Senior Software Engineer. The jumps between levels and expectations thereof are very company specific, but it does set a clear direction. Some engineers opted to add supporting goals such as “Solve hard platform problems” or “Become a SQL expert”. These goal additions were helpful to narrow down the interests of the individual and support designing appropriate strategies and key results.

Self Assessment

The self assessment has two questions that need to be answered by the team member.

Keeping in mind my goals:

  • What skills and qualities do I possess?

Growth starts with self-awareness. If your organization already has a set of expectations for the target role, share them with your team member. If such expectations do not exist, there is generally a “feel” of what the next role entails. It is your job — together with your management team — to turn that feeling into expectations. This will allow the individual to discern more effectively.

Identifying the skills that are already at one’s disposal helps to retain those skills and also leverage them as strengths. It may also come as a surprise to both parties concerned to discover some strengths that the individual or manager is not aware of.

The second question is probably where most of the discussions will be carried out. The areas of growth gives the individual an opportunity to think about — or perhaps admit to— those areas that need attention. These could be technical skills (e.g. SQL knowledge, architecture design, infrastructure knowledge, etc.) as well as soft skills (effective communication, leadership, mentoring, etc.).

Manager Assessment

This is a critical part which is typically not found in plans focusing on a complete career switch. You, as the manager, need to answer the same assessment questions for your team member. One’s own perceptions are different from others’. Moreover, your perception of your team member might also be different from those outside the team. Ask for feedback from a few people who worked closely with the individual. This will help to surface “blind spots”. By definition, blind spots are something that an individual is unaware of and thus require care in how the feedback is communicated. These can be difficult conversations to navigate. Take some training for managing difficult conversations if needed. This is your chance as a manager to also elevate your skills.

On the other hand, you as the manager might well discover that the individual already covers a substantial amount of — if not all — skills required for the next role. In that case, you might want to consider them for a promotion already.

Strategies for Growth

One might be tempted to immediately jump into key results immediately. The challenge with the latter is that key results depend on the work at hand. For example, let’s consider a gap in SQL expertise. A project that would have given the individual the opportunity to narrow that gap has been reprioritized. Now what? It would be easy to lose sight of that gap unless we don’t immediately tie it to another specific piece of work already. With a high level strategy in place, the corresponding key result might be lost but the direction is not; one just needs to find another key result.

For example, “Design and lead the implementation of stories that require a good knowledge of SQL”. This strategy is clear enough to make both you — the manager — and your team member to seek work that gives the opportunity to learn more about SQL. It is also high level enough for it to be flexible and associate it with key results as needed.

One could argue that a strategy is the “O” in OKRs (Objectives and Key Results). Possibly so. Whatever model you may want to adopt, what’s important is to keep these concepts distinct.

Key Results

Key Results implement a strategy. You could use SMART goals instead, which have the same intention. For us, the Key Results model maps nicely to the company’s OKR system so we stuck with it. But what are they? They are specific pieces of work that are clearly defined, quantified and time-bound. Continuing on the SQL strategy example from above, we can extract two KRs:

  • “Identify and optimize three slow SQL queries by the end of the sprint.”

Some learning points

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking of a career progression plan as a checklist. That is not how it works. There are more variables that come into play: opportunities, perceptions, company changes, personal matters etc. The plan needs to be presented with a mindset of growth, not that of a shopping list. Otherwise, resentment and disappointment are inevitable.

As the manager, you might also be tempted to prescribe the whole career progression plan for the individual. I strongly recommend against that approach. This is a conversation that will span over multiple weeks, possibly months. Your team member needs to be guided and presented with opportunities but not prescribed a path. It is their path, not yours. As much as you know them, they need to be in the driver’s seat. Your role is that of an enabler, nothing else. You will be way more effective with that approach, and your team members will be much more likely to be successful with it as they have chosen the path themselves.

Conclusion

We have covered the basic building blocks of a career progression plan. Goals set the direction; Assessments make a team member aware where they stand against those goals; Strategies define a high-level plan to achieve those goals; Key Results execute on the strategies.

Now what? Once set up, keep the progression plan as a regular conversation point in your 1:1s. Ideally, your team members bring them up on their own. If they don’t, nudge them once in a while. Remember, you are an enabler, and your team members need to take responsibility for their own growth.

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