I really don’t like the terms ‘senior’ and ‘junior’ and I especially disagree with the term ‘semi-senior’, which I think makes very little sense, but let’s say we go along with that naming set for now. A more pressing problem, in my opinion, is the criteria that is used to determine where someone is on that scale.
Some propose we take the amount of years of experience as a reference, and then use that to device a scale, like so:
- Junior: less than 2 years of experience.
- Semi-senior: 2 to 6 years of experience.
- Senior: more than 6 years of experience.
This is way, way too linear. Having an amount of years of experience is a very relative thing: maybe you were a science teacher for ten years, but what does that say about your proficiency in history or biology? Very little. Professional fields are getting increasingly wider and deeper, with much subdivision and specialization taking place, and a preset amount of years working in a given field doesn’t guarantee that a person has a good grip on every specialty within that field: you wouldn’t expect a cardiologist to be up to date on neurology or pneumonology, even if they have 15 years of experience practicing medicine. What is it, then? Are they a senior cardiologist or a junior neurologist? Both? And how would that translate to their medical career as a whole? Do we just average it out? Maybe take the highest seniority achieved and hide the rest under the rug? Or do we level it down and consider them a junior regardless of their 15 years in their field? Are they an adult in child’s clothing?
To circumvent this unpleasant play on numbers, others propose that, in order to determine a person’s seniority, we should consider their level of autonomy, which is a way to say their ability to make decisions about their work. In this paradigm, ‘juniors’ are those who need someone else to tell them what to do and, though they don’t get to make many, every single decision they do make requires supervision. A little higher along the scale, and therefore a little more autonomous, ‘semi-seniors’ are those who know what to do, and are allowed to make certain decisions, but still need supervision on important decisions. Last but (certainly) not least, ‘seniors’ are those who know what to do and do not require any supervision. This makes a bit more sense, but it still feels kind of far from reality. The rungs in this ladder are too far apart, which may have been an acceptable level of granularity for 1960s corporate world, but is not comprehensive enough for the 21st century.
Even if you try and overlap these two criteria, you still don’t get an acceptable measure for the elusive quality of seniority. If anything, it makes matters more confusing. Let’s say a person has been doing a job for 18 months: it would be safe to assume that they know what to do by now, but they are still 6 months away from qualifying for semi-seniority if we measure by the first criteria and, if we accept criteria #2 and therefore they cannot make decisions due to their “juniority”, then what kind of guarantee can we have that they will be able to do so in 6 months?
Isn’t there a better way?
I think we can do much better than this. First and foremost, I beg you to stop trying to make arrays of people on a scale. I guess we could say it made sense to use that approach in the 19th & 20th century, when things needed mass scale and personalization was too expensive. Nowadays, personalization is the name of the game, so there is really no excuse to try and accommodate all of humanity on 3 categories, based on arbitrary measures. But even with the tremendous computation capacity that humanity has developed, it still makes no sense to try and measure better. Instead, it’s about time we realized that we’ve been measuring the wrong thing.
Ask better questions
The first thing that we ought to fix is understanding who are the questions intended for. This is probably not what you were expecting. That’s generally a good thing. So, these questions you are asking, aloud or in your head, who should they be intended for?
The kick-off question should be What are you paying for? and it is a fundamental question, because it allows you to cut the whole thing in half: if you are hiring someone to be on your team, you will take the first path of questions; and if you’re hiring help from outside, your path of questions will be the second one. And it’s a very different one.
The first path contemplates questions such as do we share a key set of values?, does the value that this person will bring to the team justify what they will take from the team?, will they take on strategic and vision responsibilities, or will they be dedicated to a more tactical, day-to-day set of duties?, and so on. Figuring out an approximate answer to these types of questions will help you understand if you need to hire senior talent, or if you want senior talent, but could manage with a less experienced professional. Often, people fall into this trap, which I call “the needs/wants logic trap”: mixing up what you need with that which you would like, but don’t really need. Worst case scenario — they say— hiring an over-qualified professional for the job is just expensive; but actually, if that person realizes the organization’s requirements fall far below their capacities, they could leave, or they could create a toxic environment for the rest of the team; or worse, they could do both.
The second path involves a different set of questions, that revolve around the issue of compatibility in terms of values and trust: Is this person someone I can trust to deliver in a timely manner? Do they have the empathy to understand my organization, and why the thing we commend them is important? Do they have enough bandwidth (practical and emotional) to incorporate my organization as a client and deliver accordingly?, and so on. Figuring these out will give you a clearer picture of how likely it is that your provider and your organization will click and, most importantly, these questions are a way for you to see past the portfolio, the “previous clients” section of their website, the recommendations and the blurbs, which are all ways to stare into the past, and instead focus on making an educated guess about the future of your work relationship.
The first scenario reveals a path of human connection, where the negotiated terms are external constraints among which a human relationship is to exist. The second path is a contractual one, a path of terms and conditions, and the thing to be negotiated is the human connection that sustains and enables those terms and conditions to be met by both parties. On the first scenario, a team is growing, a connection is born, and contracting is merely scaffolding: two separate entities become one; on the second one, a project becomes the responsibility of two separate entities that may or may not know each other, but agree to collaborate and see the project to concretion, and contracting is a placeholder for the trust that isn’t yet there.
It may seem like we got too far into the woods, and we lost the thread of the seniority question. Worry not. The whole point is that what you are used to understanding as seniority is the wrong thing to consider. Here’s why:
There is a difference, a crucial and critical difference, between knowing what you do (what your job is, what is your expertise, what you are proficient at, your job description), and knowing what’s to be done (what to do with the task at hand, what to do while the project is in motion, what to do in order to tackle this present issue). You don’t need to tell a senior what they do; they know. You need only tell them what’s to be done, and they’ll know what to do.
There is a world of distance between explaining to someone what’s to be done and explaining to them what it is that they do. This is the kernel of seniority.
I love Nancy Duarte and her entire body of work for many reasons, but this quote definitely hits the nail right in the head.
Seniority is the measure of having a point of view, of owning a point of view.
Not having a point of view means that you follow on someone else’s footsteps. That is not a bad thing: it is how “juniors” learn and how “semi-seniors” grow. We all start out not knowing what to do, and we begin our learning process by doing; then we get to a point where we know what to do because we’ve done it before, a few times, and we got the hang of it, we feel comfortable, we can do it by heart; but then we get to a point where there are no more instructions and no one to tell us what to do. What we are used to calling ‘seniority’, in truth, means that we make our own decisions. It means that we have put in our time, and used that time to learn what to do, how to do it and why. And, having learnt all those things, we now can make decisions, and teach others what to do, how to do it and why; and eventually, we’ll reach a point where we no longer can tell them how to decide on things. They will have to make that last haul on their own. The last mile of any career path is one that we must walk alone.
Having a point of view is the result of walking that last mile. It’s the fruit of our experience. Data, information, instructions, it’s all a railing, and it helps you walk the majority of the way. But there comes a point where there railing stops and we have to walk unaided. Each of us walks that walk in a different way, in our own personal way, and that’s why it makes absolutely no sense to measure two people against each other.
So, as I said at the beginning, I really don’t like any of these terms, and I also don’t have anything good to say about the criteria that is commonly used to determine where someone is on the imaginary scale of seniority. I think the whole thing makes very little sense, and what is worse, it’s most frequently used as an excuse to divide people, to avoid taking the time to actually learn about them, to make clusters that allow for mass action or description, to make the so-called ‘seniors’ feel better about themselves and the so-called ‘semi-seniors’ and ‘juniors’ feel worse about themselves, and to justify that people get payed differently without having to explain much. None of those are good things, and we should start thinking hard about getting rid of them.
Still, the world has to keep on turning, and businesses all around it still have to hire employees for some things and hire outside help for some others. And if years of experience, a measure of autonomy, the ability to make decisions, or a mix of all those things is not enough to make a good call on a hire, then what? Well, you can look for people’s point of view.
Will that help you arrange people on a scale? Absolutely not, but that’s kind of the beauty of it. This is an invitation to step away from a quantitative mindset and smell the fresh air of looking at people through a qualitative prism. Your life is not a collection of dates, numbers and scores. Nobody else’s is, either. And what’s worse: ranking them, scoring them and comparing them is always a measure about the past, and it may make you feel safe, but it doesn’t help you understand what they can do for you. Their point of view does. So there you have it, listen to Nancy’s words of wisdom, and next time you have to hire a professional, ask for their point of view.