I haven’t written any blog posts for a while. For me, writing rarely receives the same priority as a mountain of other things on my to-do list. But in the past year, I had also spent quite some time working on a levels framework for the UX team. So I thought I would share it out and hopefully someone will find it useful.
At this point, you probably wonder why I dedicated my time working on a levels framework. As the UX team at Galvanize has grown quite rapidly in the recent years, we needed a plan for our team members’ career growth. We needed a way to objectively evaluate individuals skills and clearly communicate their role’s expectations.
Reading through this blog post you will find answers to the following questions:
- What is a levels framework?
- Why do I need one?
- What are the components of a framework?
- How do I develop one for my team?
- What else to consider when I develop a levels framework?
In addition, you will get to see what the tools I have built for skills assessments look like.
There are a few notes before we dive in further:
- For simplicity, in this writing I use the word “managers” loosely to include directors, managers, leaders, or wannabe leaders.
- Although this blog post is primarily intended for managers, individual contributors can also use what I share to keep track of your development over time.
- The framework I have developed is specific to the UX team of Galvanize but it can be adapted to any team’s needs.
What is a levels framework?
Have you ever been approached by someone on your team about their promotion? The question could be something along the line, “What’s the next step for me?” Regardless of the specific question, the approach is a natural step when people have grown out of their current role’s responsibilities.
As a manager, we want to have a plan in place or have a solid answer when someone asks the question. When you manage a growing team, planning for people’s career development is an important task, and planning for how your team grows is another equally important one. A levels framework is a system to help you accomplish both. Having a levels framework will help you fairly plan and evaluate individuals for their promotions.
Why do I need a levels framework?
The short answer is you may not. If you manage a team with only two to three direct reports, a framework is not necessary because developing a framework takes a lot of time. When you have around four or five direct reports, it is a good idea to establish a framework.
Back to the question “What’s the next step for me?” If you were asked, what were your responses? I remembered my thought started with, “I feel…” But that wasn’t right. When someone is asking you for a promotion, they are putting themselves in an awkward and vulnerable position. As a manager, you would want to eliminate your own bias and feelings; to be supportive; to have a system to address their ask. Ideally, you want to be proactive so that you are the one approaching your team members for their career growth.
Having a levels framework in place, you can use it as:
- The guidance for career development of your team members. Communicate your expectations with clarity while being objective.
- A tool for your team members to plan for acquiring new skills that benefit themselves and the team.
- The blueprint for identifying gaps and acquiring strategic skills for your team. This allows you to plan for how you want to grow your team in order to address the organization’s needs.
What are the components of a levels framework?
As mentioned previously, once you understand the framework’s key ingredients, you can easily develop a framework for your team.
The key components of a levels framework are:
- The levels definitions: Usually there aren’t many variations of the levels definitions. Some people may go with Roman or Latin numeral levels I, II, 1, 2, etc. For us we went with associate, intermediate, senior, lead, principal for IC roles; We also went with the obvious choices manager and director for management roles.
- The competency matrix: This is the matrix that describes the skills competency required for each level.
- The level requirements: For each level, you will need a set of requirements. Think of those as the job descriptions. The requirements are used to discuss with the team members your expectations. They can also be used in recruitment.
- The skills assessment: In addition to the three essential components above, you will need a skills assessment template so you can fairly evaluate and place individuals on their level.
How do I develop a levels framework?
Now that you have determined your team needs a levels framework, where do you begin?
In this section I will outline the process for creating a levels framework. I will also highlight the areas that will take more effort than others so you will have an idea for where to focus. After all, developing a levels framework is not a small task.
As you set out to develop a framework, the first two components you want to get out of your way are:
- The levels definitions. As I mentioned previously, it is relatively easy because there aren’t many variations. Some of the choices are: Roman or Latin numeral I, II, 1, 2 etc. or Junior or associate, intermediate, senior, lead or staff, principal, etc.
- The competency matrix. This is not an easy task per se, but because of the awesome work by Peter Merholz and Kristin Skinner have already done in their book “Org Design for Design Orgs,” you can likely just use what I have copied (see the competency table above).
The next two components are where you will spend most of your time on. You can tackle them in whichever order that works for you. I have done a chunk of the groundwork and shared it with you in this write-up.
- The skills assessment. This is the step where you will spend quite a bit of time to research and determine the skills you want your team to have. The skills assessment is a key piece of the framework. I spent more than a month working on it. Figuring out the core skills and supplementary skills is easier said than done because you need to prioritize and include only the relevant skills, and justify why they are in the “Core” vs the “Supplementary” category. It helps to think of what skills are important to your team, and where you want your team head.
As you work through the process to determine the skills, you also need to clearly define what they mean. For example, for our team we have “Surface design” and “Structure design” as the designers’ core skills. We use the spreadsheet cell’s comment to define the skills. This is particularly important as it keeps the evaluation process objective.
I describe the skills assessment template in more details in the “What do our tools look like?” section below. But if you can’t wait then skip ahead to see the template in action, in the Google Sheet.
- The level requirements. They are basically the job descriptions you have, or need to have in your system for all the positions. Perhaps, In the future I will share our job descriptions on our website, but for now you will have to use your imagination a bit here.
Whether you already have the job descriptions or not, you will likely have to write more. One job description for each level of the framework you have. The more levels you include in the framework, the more job descriptions you will need to write. This step is where you may need to spend the most time because writing job descriptions is not a piece of cake, in my experience. On the plus side, after spending so much time writing the job descriptions, you will have a solid idea for what to expect from each position.
What to look out for?
Having a framework in place is great, but keep in mind that it is not a silver bullet. You will often have to carefully review and evaluate each situation to make a decision. It is easy to only look at a team member’s skills assessment and think they are ready for a promotion. In reality, you also need to look at the level requirement to determine whether someone is ready for their next role. Two questions you will have to answer are:
- Does someone have the skills required for the position? Use the skills assessment template to answer this question.
- Has someone already performed some/most of the next level’s role responsibilities? Use the job description to answer this question
What do our tools look like?
As I mentioned earlier, in this final section I want to go over a bit more in detail what is in the skills assessment template that I have shared and how to use it.
- The first sheet, Main, is the instructions page. It also outlines the requirements and skills that your team needs. It is named Main for a reason. Changes to the skills are expected over time, and therefore you would only have to update the Main sheet. Data will be automatically copied over other sheets.
- The second sheet, Overview, is where all team members assessment data are aggregated and visualized. On the Overview sheet you can turn the assessment data into many interesting visualizations. In the template I have shared, I only used the data in two ways:
(1) To have an overview of the team skills, i.e. what are the team’s overall strengths and weaknesses.
(2) To see the skills distribution of the whole team.
- The third sheet and beyond are the individuals’ assessment templates. Each team member has their own template (more on this below). There are instructions for how to use the template on the Main sheet. But the boiled down version is:
- Individuals fill in their assessment in the self column. See the spreadsheet for detail of the five-point scale used in the assessment
- Individuals add examples to the cell’s comment to justify their assessment.
- Individuals identify the interest areas. Ideally, there should be 1–2 areas of interest for every 6–9 months period. Otherwise no one can realistically improve many skills in a short time frame.
- If there are any discrepancies, the manager fills in their assessments. Data in the last column (team member name) are automatically adjusted to include the manager’s assessments.
Final assessment data from each template will be automatically aggregated to the Overview sheet.
One final bit, as I hinted above, I included all fictional team members in just one spreadsheet document for easy sharing along with this write-up. However, when you implement the assessment for your team, you will want to keep each team member in their own document to maintain their privacy. The way I set up that process for my team is to use Google Sheet’s IMPORTRANGE function to copy data from individual documents over a team’s overview document.
That is all about developing a levels framework. I spent about 3–4 months working on it. Certainly, I have simplified the process quite a bit in this write-up but you now know what the core components of a framework are. I hope that what I have shared will give you a head start in the right direction. If you have any questions or feedback, please add a comment. Have fun and good luck with developing the levels framework for your team.
I have enclosed some invaluable resources I came across during my research.