Building a Career Ladder for Employees at an Early Stage Company

Divya Ramachandran

Product Leader & Coach at Square Circle, Inc



"When I first started at my previous company, I managed just one employee. It came time that I wanted to give her a raise to recognize her outstanding work. However, instead of being excited about this, she was questioned why this raise did not come with a promotion to 'senior'. I knew that she was doing well, but I did not believe she met my expectations for a senior employee at this point."

Actions taken

I took time to respond to her question. Reactively, I put together a career ladder that was composed of specific traits that I expected of a senior for her position. I composed the ladder of four pillars: UX/PM skills, productivity, communication, and leadership. I specified concrete expectations under each category and rated the employee on a red, yellow, or green scale. I used tangible examples for each rating in order to be as fact-backed as possible. I went over this career ladder document with her about a week after our initial conversation. Her reaction was overall unsatisfied - it seemed to her that I was artificially creating hoops for her to jump through in order to justify my decision not to promote her. Although, my expectations hadn't changed for her, she felt as though I had not been transparent enough and ultimately was unhappy that she had to improve on these specific tasks before being promoted.

However, in the following year, my team grew significantly, and I made a point to share the ladder with each of my reports proactively, right when they joined my team and then again at every performance review. Each member of my team expressed that it was the most concrete career growth feedback that they had ever received. Even when at times I needed to provide critical feedback, the ladder served as an objective medium through which to deliver it constructively.

Lessons learned

  • "For my first report, I was too late in implementing this system for it to have the desired impact. I learned from that experience to be proactive and transparent with my expectations with all my reports from there on out."
  • "The ladder enabled employees to have it tangible career growth conversations. In fact, I had a very similar situation with another report a few years later where we were misaligned about whether she deserved a promotion. This time, we were able to refer to the ladder to objectively reflect on where she stood, and agree on her path to promotion."
  • "Specifically for roles like product management and user experience, it is important to articulate expectations around critical soft skills like leadership, communication and influence which are increasingly important as one moves up the ladder."

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Divya Ramachandran

Product Leader & Coach at Square Circle, Inc

CommunicationEngineering ManagementMentorship ProgramsPerformance ReviewsFeedback TechniquesTechnical SkillsCareer GrowthCareer LadderIndividual Contributor RolesLeadership Roles

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