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Designing a Leveling Rubric for a Small Company

Handling Promotion
Fairness
Career Path

17 June, 2021

Tushar Dadlani

Tushar Dadlani

Principal Product Manager at Walmart

Tushar Dadlani, Director of Engineering at Standard Cognition, came to the conclusion that the most effective way to set employees up for success is by setting clear expectations for what success means to the company as a whole.

Problem

One of the most exciting challenges that I’ve been faced with was developing a new leveling rubric for a small company. In a start-up, nobody really knows how to promote or how to hire after scaling to a certain size. If you want to advance, there is generally no process or clear structure.

A lot of my juniors shared with me that the process didn’t feel fair or clear to them. As a manager, even I was like, I don’t know how to get promoted here, either. I spoke to peers outside of the company, asking about what they knew about promoting. How do you set up expectations with your engineers?

The only metrics that we all had was the work that needed to be done and whether or not they had done it. Miscommunication was a frequent problem. Most of our managers were fairly new to managing themselves and did not have the context of previous experience to fall back upon. We had no framework with which to provide feedback.

Actions taken

We set out to really narrow down our values internally. We sought to merge them with what, ideally, an effective engineering ladder looks like. Diversity and fairness in compensation was brought up frequently during these conversations. Pay became the first thing on my list of things to fix within the company.

After drafting everything out, there was some pushback from the stakeholders on things like the language used and how the company was being represented through the rubric. One of the big hurdles was getting the buy-in of the other engineering leaders. Once we were able to come to a consensus together, we collaborated with HR, who spearheaded the effort in order to see it to fruition.

Last year, we actually did a leveling exercise with our junior engineers as a result of all of this. Going through the entire process appeared to have an equalizing effect on the company as a whole. Surveyed employees reported that they felt that everything was much more fair since implementing our changes. Now, people were giving each other a lot more direct feedback. Underperformers were now receiving that critical feedback needed to improve. Overperformers were now appreciated and acknowledged appropriately.

Lessons learned

  • With a relatively inexperienced mid-level management team, you need some sort of framework or process that their reports can follow in order to advance themselves.
  • Having clear expectations made our engineers much more self-aware. They were able to focus more intently on what was important instead of trying to boil the entire ocean as an IC.
  • In a new start-up, the margin for error is very low. A leveling rubric clearly defines what is important to the company to everybody who is a part of it.

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