A clear career ladder is vital to retain team members and ensure they are growing in their roles. They provide clarity not only for professional development but also a way to bring the vision for the team alive and play a key part in fostering the team’s culture.

Pixel art of a green weed leaf with, beautiful detailed, intricate, insanely detailed., generated with DiffusionBee
Pixel art of a green weed leaf with, beautiful detailed, intricate, insanely detailed., generated with DiffusionBee

☕ Career ladders chart a path for the team’s growth

Some of the toughest conversations I’ve had with my reports were around promotion and growth. This makes sense, as we hire people for growth, so they improve and increase their impact over time, which results in the need for clarity on how growth should happen that aligns with the overall goals of the company.

My challenge was that while as a leader I could easily see why certain team members were not on a senior level yet, it was hard to articulate why exactly. Especially as this needed to be articulated across the team to be fair for all designers. Plus there is a delicate balance between giving a checklist of things to be done and describing how behaving like a senior is more than the sum of tasks.

Clearly articulating what is expected across roles and levels needs a common basis and a strong vision, this is where having a career ladder helps.

Career ladders (sometimes called progression frameworks) are a description of what is expected for each role in the team at each level (associate, mid, senior, etc.) and provide general guidance on what is the desired growth path for team members at the organization or company. Having the expectations in writing forces clarity into otherwise vague career and promotion discussions.

Career ladders are also closely related to skill maps - a way of describing what specific skills are desired for the work the team needs to do. Having an understanding of the team’s capabilities helps in the planning of who does what and also helps in hiring new members that expand the team with new skills and not only with additional hands.

Career ladders do more than inform team members’ growth and promotion paths, they also help in job descriptions and the hiring process, they describe what are the important activities for team members, and how the designers fit into the outcomes the org aims to deliver. They are also a way to bring the vision of the design team to life - if the leader aims for designers to increase their impact, the career ladder can clarify this to team members, expanding what the team would be capable of. Plus, career ladders are key to creating a culture of growth and development within the design team.

This first version of a career ladder usually comes up once there are a few members in the team and questions emerge around how to increase the impact, how the designers should grow to support business goals, and specifically how promotions should happen in the teams. At this point, a short description might be enough, but as the team grows, the career ladder should also evolve and get more nuanced.

These are the steps I’ve used recently to create a more detailed career ladder:

  1. Align with the HR / People team. they are the partners for people questions. There might be already frameworks in place to align with, and they can help to align the career ladder to the promotion process and compensation policy.
  2. Set goals. It’s a good idea to have clarity with the team about what the career ladder should achieve, and how it fits with the team’s vision, mission, and goals. Workshops and discussions help here.
  3. Analyze company values and business goals. The career ladder should support business goals and align with the organization’s values, and ideally those values should be imbued into the level descriptions - so the ladder is specific to the team, rather than generic.
  4. Architect skills. Collect an inventory of desired knowledge, behaviors, competencies, and activities for team members and group them into skill groups. In this step, I got skills like “UI design” and “Communication”. This was the messiest step as team vision needed to be blended with a wide range of brainstormed and desired behaviors from team members and stakeholders.
  5. Articulate role level differences. There should be a clear difference for example between a mid-level and senior designer both in skills and expectations. These differences shouldn’t be insurmountable or too small to be meaningful. Just like people’s growth the progression shouldn’t be linear, but exponential, higher levels need more to reach. This also needs to be pragmatic, while having seniors is generally desirable, the org might not need multiple lead or staff designers. Career ladders should be both aspirational and connected to reality on the ground.
  6. Write up-skill differences between levels. For each level, the skills should be detailed to form the substance of the ladder, to describe how progression looks like.
  7. Iterate, get feedback, iterate, and finalize. Similar to all design projects, feedback is desirable and iterations are needed. Team members should have the chance to ask questions and give feedback to make each sentence and word clearer. While career ladders should get better over time, once they are finalized, they should remain relatively stable to be useful as a growth guidance.
  8. Launch and use. Having templates and additional guidance helps team members to use the ladder.

It’s useful to try to align with the rest of the industry. For most companies, using weird roles names and different expectations for roles will hurt hiring (not getting the right people for certain roles) and retention (team members will look for roles at other companies if they see their skills misaligned with roles titles at other teams). In the past, I’ve tried to shoot upwards meaning that if you were a senior in my team, that would be senior in 90%+ of other companies too. This can be adjusted based on how one’s company compares to the broader market.

When setting goals, keeping in mind the team vision is what makes the ladder a useful part of the broader design strategy. The ladder brings the team vision alive by clarifying how the team should operate (is collaboration rewarded? which design skills are the most important for which roles?) and builds a culture of growth within the team.

Just having the career ladder in place is not enough, it’s just part of fostering the team’s growth culture together with regular 1:1s, feedback, coaching, opportunities for professional development, experimentation, and exploration. With the career ladder in place, people managers can provide more useful feedback to team members on what areas to work on and where to go next.

🥤 To recap

  • Career ladders provide clarity on growth and promotion paths for designers in a company, and they help in creating a culture of growth and development within the design team.
  • Besides progression, career ladders also help in other people-related processes, for example, job descriptions and hiring.
  • Creating a career ladder involves analyzing company values, architecting skills, and articulating role-level differences.
  • Career ladders should be aligned with the rest of the industry to ensure retention and attraction of the right talent.
  • The ladder should be part of the broader design strategy and vision, and bring the team vision alive by clarifying how the team should operate.

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🍪 Things to snack on

A great resource to get inspiration from is https://progression.fyi/. There are a bunch of role descriptions, templates, and frameworks to either learn from or get started with. These also offer a rare peek into these companies’ design culture, as what gets highlighted in these descriptions also relates to what the teams value and understand as key to their mission.

Mia Blume writes about how levels broadly support the design team in Developing levels on a design team. One of the important points is that the ladder doesn’t need to be a star-destroyer-level thing, a simple one-pager with a mission and key concepts to get the team there is already a good first step. She also gives some other good tips and principles for preparing such a document.

A cool case study from the Figma team by Sara Culver is How the Figma design team level set on career leveling (with bonus FigJam template and Skill Chart widget). Their process started from the need to define what craft means for them (a central question for most design teams), which was part of the existing ladder description. The iterative process they did to get to a place where the ladder is part of the regular career conversations is especially nice.

Levelling up the Design Org is a great case study by Matthew Godfrey about iterating on their design ladder. There is always a trade-off on how much guidance the ladder provides (on how to grow) vs how simple is it to understand and apply - there is a good example here of how they’ve iterated on it.

While having a ladder as a general concept is easy enough to understand, the real struggle is to define the key differences between levels, to highlight the changing expectations and progression. I found Taking your product design career to the next level by Paul Murphy of Intercom a very useful resource to chart these differences, what more senior team members on higher levels should focus on. The article shows the recipe for growth as a designer as Behaviors x Results = Performance. Also, seven behaviors are listed: Be goal-oriented, Optimize for continuous progression, Be organized, Be an opportunist, Be a communicator, Be a collaborator, and Live your values.

Researchers are sometimes an afterthought when design orgs define their career ladder, so How to Level Up Your User Research Career by Nikki Anderson is useful to get a head start. The article explains a level structure for researchers (starting with the research coordinator up until the head of research) according to the operational, organizational, and strategic impact they have on the company. I found the included skill descriptions as a quite good basis for customizing to a larger org’s needs. Finally, there are also a few tips for researchers on leveling up.

Leadership roles in design might be even more confusing than contributor job titles, and in a lot of organizations, they depend on wider definitions. Still, it’s worth understanding how one’s director title relates to a wider landscape, and Matthew Diamanti’s framework in Demystifying Design Leadership Levels helps in this. It describes the different levels as a function of behavior, and on what the role focuses on (who, what, how, why). The roles on different levels also should be clear about what activities they are concentrating on (relating more to the “real” level, independently of the exact title).