Monthly Leveling for the Win
How and why I do monthly leveling with my design team
Does this conversation sound familiar?
Employee: “I’d like a promotion. Here’s where I see myself…”
Manager: “I hear you. And I see solid progress. I don’t see you at that level yet and here’s why…”
Conversations about promotions and seniority are super challenging. When there’s little to no agreement, the discussion can be fraught with tension, disappointment, resentment, and may become one of the reasons someone chooses to leave a team or company. As a designer and design manager, I’ve been on both sides of these hard conversations.
Two of my goals as a design leader are to help my team experience giving and receiving regular feedback in a safe space and for them to feel they have someone helping to advance their career. With those goals in mind, I came up with, and continue to iterate on, a process and tool for feedback and goal-tracking called monthly leveling.
Let’s level up!
Start with levels
To start monthly leveling, a company or organization will need to have defined levels for their employees. If your company doesn’t have levels, here are examples of levels to help start the work. For this article, I won’t go into how some companies combine levels and roles and others separate them. I also won’t go into how some companies or teams don’t make levels visible to their teams. What I will share is how I run monthly leveling based on a leveling document that is visible to all team members.
Level-set on areas of growth
The first step is to review what level a direct report sees themselves. I like to give new hires two to three months to settle into their role and for me to observe them before I begin monthly leveling. When I’ve joined a team as a new manager, I’ve also used this tool to learn what experiences they’ve had that I haven’t yet witnessed.
1. Mark up the leveling document
I start by placing a hard copy of the design team’s leveling document in front of both of us. I give us 15–20 minutes to mark up our copies with four types of marks that reflect the amount of experience they have next to each skill or attribute at their level. This is important because experience isn’t either “I know how to do this” or “I don’t know how to do this”; there are degrees of experience. That said, experience should be something they can successfully complete on their own.
I also make sure to mention that either one of us may go into adjacent levels and mark that the direct report is doing work below or above their level.
Use a check, dash, dot and tilde to mark each attribute on the document:
(✓) = Demonstrated experience. “I’ve done this well multiple times throughout the year. I’ve asked for feedback and have made improvements on my approach and process every time.”
( — ) = Some experience. “I’ve done this a few times and I want to get better at this.”
( · ) = Little experience. “I haven’t done this (much) at our company and I want to do more of this.”
(~) = Below expectations. “I’ve done this. I want and need to improve on this.” A tilde should be noted if the attributes are below a level’s expectations. Examples include: inconsistent quality of demonstration, lack of follow-through, or requires additional support and guidance to complete tasks at their level.
These prompts are also important because they frame this discussion as a moment for curiosity and growth. I appreciate working with someone that is self-aware about where they can grow and wants to get better at what they do. I tell them that this is our time to identify areas of growth and for them to share or come up with additional goals to improve and grow. And I let them know that it’s not about what they don’t know or haven’t yet achieved; it’s about figuring out together how to take solid steps to practice and improve.
2. Compare and discuss
I spend the next 20 minutes with them to compare and discuss overlap and differences in how attributes have been marked. When there are differences, I listen closely to their reasoning and respond by clarifying expectations for the attributes and level. And I give them a chance to share evidence of past experience that I haven’t yet observed. For example, I once said to a direct report that I didn’t see them perform much user research and they were able to point to research they did before I became their manager. If I hadn’t said anything, I would have made an incorrect assumption of their skills.
If someone sees themselves as working above their level, I may agree with them and will highlight the attributes in the next level as their areas of growth. The quarterly goals and work they do become a growing body of evidence that I can use to make a case for a promotion.
If someone is working below their level, this is a hard and necessary conversation to give them feedback, clarify expectations and identify the key areas of performance improvement.
3. Agree on areas of growth
For the remaining part of the hour, I focus on the tilda, dots and dashes, of which we prioritize five to six to be their areas of growth for the next six to nine months. I also ask if they have any other goals they want to focus on for the next six months.
Finally, I enter these areas of growth into a confidential spreadsheet, which becomes our monthly leveling document.
Here is a public version of my monthly leveling template (including instructions).
Co-create the first quarter’s goals
This second step is important for two reasons. One, as a direct report, they need to own these goals and feel invested in their own growth. Two, as a manager, it’s my responsibility to help them identify opportunities to grow. With all that in mind, I spend an hour with them coming up with a reasonable quarterly goal for each area of growth. I also encourage them to revise or come up with goals on their own and then get feedback from me.
Set up a cadence for monthly leveling
I use one of our weekly one-on-ones for the month to support monthly leveling. Here’s my monthly cadence:
First week of the month
I use this week’s one-on-one for us to review the spreadsheet and go over this quarter’s goals and evidence for the past month. I try to give both positive and critical feedback on what I’ve observed in their work or how they’ve worked with others.
Last week of the month
I remind all direct reports to spend time on their own to enter evidence from the previous month for the goal.
Sunset areas of growth when goals are realized
Depending on the scope of the goals, I like to take a look at six and nine months because there have been two to three quarters of goals, which is a strong demonstration of consistency and growth. If and when they’ve hit their goals, I like to sunset the area of growth by graying out the rows in the leveling doc.
I’ve been running this practice for over a year. I have loved seeing our team members engaged and focused on goal-setting and reflecting on their growth.
I’ve also enjoyed how monthly leveling means there shouldn’t be surprises during performance reviews. The leveling document is the single source of truth for myself and the direct report to reference and summarize a year’s worth of goals and evidence. And the regular feedback gives a direct report ample opportunities to grow and achieve their goals throughout the year.
Lastly, I feel good knowing that if and when a direct report moves to another manager or team, this file is a rich story to help their new manager learn about their goals, ambitions and areas of growth.
As a manager, how have you coached your team members to grow?
As a designer, how do you like to be supported in your career growth?