Providing Actionable Advice to an Employee Who Wishes to Advance

Sebastien Cuendet

Sr. Director of Engineering at dbt Labs



A Senior Engineer approached me, wanting to be promoted to Staff. This person had been a Software Engineer for over ten years, including two at our current company.

I presented this person with the way that promotions were dealt with in our company. Upper-level management needed to be in on the approval process. There were some specific requirements that were needed to reach the Staff level. In particular, you needed to show that you had had an impact on the whole department, outside of your direct team.

This person had been doing really good work with their team in the two years that they had spent with our company. I could see that they were deserving of this promotion based on performance and experience alone. I empathized with their position and wanted to see them succeed.

The reality of our company, however, was that being a top performer on one’s team was not necessarily enough to be promoted. You needed to be able to demonstrate that you’ve had a positive impact outside of your team, as well.

Actions taken

I was very transparent with them about this. I reassured them that their work was excellent; performance was not the problem at all. I told them that we needed to find a way for them to do work outside of their direct engineering team and to show a bigger impact on the department. Were they interested in branching out in this way? Staying in their lane, in this case, would not get them the promotion that they wanted.

Being really open about that was all that I could do. Some problems are “gravity problems” – problems that you just can’t solve. In this case, there wasn’t anything that either of us had the power to change immediately to make this promotion happen.

When one of my engineers wants to be promoted, I sit down with them and walk them through what the job that they want actually entails. We look at the level that they wish to achieve for themselves and assess the gap between that level and where they are currently. We talk about what they can work on in anticipation of the promotion that they are aiming for. We make a plan together using scorecards with mission statements and a set of desired outcomes on them.

In this case, the choice for this engineer was to accept the situation and to work toward having an impact beyond their team or to give up on the promotion entirely. Once they had decided to work toward the promotion, I worked with them to seek out a project outside of their team that matched his skills and interests. They did some awesome work and got promoted with everyone’s blessing eight months later.

Lessons learned

  • As a leader, I could have hemmed and hawed when this engineer came to me with their ambition to advance within our company. Instead, I gave them candid, actionable advice that was in alignment with the reality of how our leadership allocated higher-level positions. This was a hard conversation but it was worth it. Never give an employee advice that is vague, ineffective, or patronizing. I told them the truth, even though it was not necessarily what they wanted to hear at the time.
  • When advising an employee on what they should do to advance themselves, really try to hone in on where their aptitude lies and what they are consciously making an effort to develop. With every engineer on my team, I make a point to identify each one’s “superpower”. I try not to focus on the weaknesses any longer than necessary; you bring your people up to a level where they’re not hurting, and then you move on to where they excel. Have a vision of where they could be if they continue to refine their skills.

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Sebastien Cuendet

Sr. Director of Engineering at dbt Labs

Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyPerformance MetricsPerformance ReviewsFeedback TechniquesCareer GrowthCareer ProgressionSkill DevelopmentIndividual Contributor Roles

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