Getting Promoted: How Can KPIs Help
30 May, 2020
At our company, we perform annual performance reviews at which we discuss the past performances and future expectations of our employees regarding their career development. One of my senior engineers approached me and told me that he thought he should step up to the next level. While I was glad that he was upfront about his plans I was also keen to learn more about his motivation and see how his aspirations matched the company’s needs. In the end, I found it challenging to develop a clear path and precise KPIs that would measure his performance and result in the promotion.
When considering someone’s promotion, assessing his/her personal motivation is critically important. I believe that people, when it comes to their career progression, are driven by three main motives: increasing total compensation, building reputation, and professional recognition, and personal growth. The latter driver is the most preferred since if you focus on it, compensation and recognition will eventually follow.
We have a career ladder that for the engineering track has five levels and each level has its own matrix of expectations that consists of four areas: expertise, impact, accountability, and leadership/communication. By the time my senior engineer approached me, he was already outperforming in some areas. I proposed to him that we review his current performance together and compare it with the next-level requirements. You should perform at the next level across the board in order to get promoted. After completing the review we identified several areas at which he needed to improve.
At that time we had already worked together for three or four years and I was familiar with his strengths and weaknesses. His greatest disadvantage was his social skills; I recalled him telling me once how he disliked managing and interacting with people. The principal engineer role is equivalent to an engineering manager in my organization in a way. It is still a technical one but it demands solid organizational and communication skills that means you need to become a people person to some degree. I tried to pinpoint his weaknesses related to that
area. I drafted potential action items and encouraged him to think them through before we moved on.
Like most engineers, he was very metrics- and facts-oriented. I was fairly against setting KPIs to measure his performance since a person is far more complex and hugely differs from a product or project and needs to work his/her habits out. I would rather find cross-functional areas where a person could perform as a force multiplier applying his/her own capabilities and leading larger initiatives.
Two main challenges I identified were:
- Finding clear and precise KPIs.
My goal was to achieve a synergy of all parties, namely him and the company. At that time, we were extending our team in a new location and as the most senior engineer, he seemed like the best choice to lead that initiative. However, entering the new market requires a heavy presence on the ground and we came up with a KPI that matched this requirement -- he would deliver a presentation at one of the largest conferences in that city in front of a very large crowd. We had a one-on-one to preview his speech and his overall presentation there, particularly focusing on talking to and attracting other engineers. His speech was entirely focused on the technical aspects, barely mentioning our culture or our business. I used this prep process to grow him into a principal engineer role. A principal engineer must be able to explain why we are building something, what are our use cases, what problems we are trying to solve, etc.
- Finding the balance between hard and soft skills. As you move up the career ladder soft skills requirements become prevalent, but technically-minded people could easily be discouraged by being asked to focus only on soft skills. They also need to keep up to date with technical challenges.
The other KPI was about making him a force multiplier. Back then his team consisted of 5 to 6 engineers and whenever a production issue emerged he was the first to solve it. What we, as the company needed, was to spread his knowledge across the team in order to enable them to solve production issues on their own. Part of the challenge was to explain why there is a need for him to disseminate the knowledge across the team and how this would also free up some of his time to work on larger and more complex projects. Again, this KPI was fairly vague and he insisted on precise numbers (80 percent of incidents are solved by the team). He started having one-on-ones with his peers and doing workshops. The benefit was mutual -- the team became more self-sufficient in terms of troubleshooting and he also learned how to instruct and coach people.
Finally, there was an additional challenge. To know when to stop. He clearly reached the level he was expected. We reviewed our career ladder together, comparing all the action items against the requirements and we agreed that he had met most of the requirements. He finally got his promotion!
- Personal motivation plays a central role in any promotion. If increased financial compensation or professional recognition is a driving force, people will not last since the promotion is a process that takes time.
- Finding the right balance between hard and soft skills is always challenging. One of the ways to deal with it is to mix them together -- on the surface, it may look like a technical skill, but beneath it is about the soft skills (for example, how to explain a technical problem to a non-technical person).
- You need to have a reference point. Career ladders -- formal or informal -- are your reference point. Action items reflect the stipulated requirements which make the whole process fairly objective.
- Don’t come up with too many fine-grained action items and numbers-oriented KPIs. Instead, identify high-level goals that will incorporate those fine-grained action items.
- Every action item or KPI can involve a certain amount of ambiguity and both parties should think it through together to avoid misinterpretation. For example, you can easily measure if ten one-on-ones took place or not, but enabling the team to be more self-sufficient is much harder to measure.
- All action items should emerge as an outcome of a (series of) discussion and shouldn’t be imposed top-down. This is particularly true for senior positions -- more senior they are it should be a more of a two-way street process.
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