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Building and Formalizing a Career Ladder in a Startup

Career Path

13 March, 2021

Vladimir Baranov
Vladimir Baranov

CIO/COO at Scout Inc

Vladimir Baranov, CTO at AdvisorEngine Inc., shares how to build a career ladder in a startup emphasizing the difference between a career ladder in a startup and a large company.

Problem

Most engineers dream of continuously growing and expanding their skills and competencies, but not always do they know how to. Small startups typically lack career ladders which curtail their growth. While essential -- due to the small size of their teams -- startups shouldn’t consider formalizing their career ladders if they have less than 30 employees. Furthermore, replicating models developed by larger companies is rarely helpful because they are tailored to meet the needs of bigger teams and because, in most cases, they add too much overhead. Not everyone is destined to be a manager, but it is usually perceived that is the only way to grow.

Actions taken

I have strongly borrowed examples of career management from Buffer Career Framework -- https://buffer.com/resources/career-framework/. The initial goal of the career conversation is to figure out which way the individual would like to go forward and if they prefer to pursue a manager or an individual contributor path. It is difficult to wear both hats, and you have to help your employee choose the one most fitting to their aspirations. With ICs, my approach is pretty straightforward; I would identify the skill set a person lacks and then line up appropriate training and track their improvement along that track. If necessary, I would align salary or bonus expectations along with the growth curve to make sure that there is an incentive for them to continue progressing. Needless to say, the expectations should be aligned with the business value creation.

With the management track, it is a bit more difficult given the smaller number of engineers on startup teams. But progress is still possible, and they should be able to acquire the skill set that would allow them to transition to a manager role. In order to lead others, one has to start leading themselves. As a manager, you can line up function, task, client, and project management responsibilities for an engineer to master before taking on human management. It is highly advisable for both tracks to line up an inventory of soft skills and training courses that would help organize and structure your employee’s progress. Clear communication and empathy-driven leadership are key skills that the general engineering population lacks and which would have the most decisive impact on the cohesion and productivity of the teams they would be managing.

Lessons learned

  • Every person is an individual and requires an individual approach. It takes a good amount of time to understand how a person works before, as a manager, you can start assigning them growth training. Training has to walk a fine line with what engineers want to learn and what benefits the business and your team overall.
  • When training fails, or you realize that the person is not a good fit for the position, be prepared to let them go. Not everyone can be trained to fit your needs for that position.

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