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What makes a great competency-based growth framework

When it comes to growth frameworks, I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. My “why” for building these frameworks always came from the need to create a clear career development structure for folks on my teams, and equity within the organization. Read below for an exclusive offer from Pando for TroopHR members.

Barbra Gago
CEO and Founder, Pando
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Jan 06, 2023
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Last updated on Nov 30, 2022

Strong career frameworks, when done correctly, can have a major impact on the employees and organizations that leverage them. But building these frameworks is similar to building a house—the structure needs to be strong to achieve the desired result.   

My “why” for building these frameworks always came from the want and need to create a clear career development structure for folks on my teams. Looking at it more broadly, these rubrics play a crucial role in creating equity within an organization—they ensure that people are evaluated and developed within a clear, fair, and structured system.  

When it comes to growth frameworks, I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of them. Let’s take a look at what makes a great career framework and to look out for or avoid. 

What makes a good career framework  

Start with levels and use them strategically.

A strong career rubric starts with levels. These define the seniority and expectations of a role. It’s important for the leveling framework to be consistent across the organization. This ensures that the scope of each role and the impact required for each role at a certain level is consistent. Even if the roles aren’t open, maintaining that calibration is essential as employees are hired and as they grow within the company. 

Create multiple progression steps within the same title.

A leveling tactic we support at Pando is having progression steps built into the leveling structure. With this, each level isn’t necessarily tied to a title change. This helps to de-emphasize titles and orient employees around level progression—so the focus is on upleveling their skills rather than chasing a title. This structure also helps organizations understand the differences between levels and prevents them from unnecessarily hiring by title. 

Make sure you have multiple steps for managers and subject experts.

You want to make sure there are enough steps in your leveling structure for all employees to move up. And it’s crucial to create parallel paths between ICs and managers to ensure equitable opportunity for both tracks. 

Competencies mapped to and defined by level.

The next piece of the framework is competencies. These are the behaviors, attributes, skills, and knowledge required to successfully perform a particular role. Competencies can be structured in many different ways—you can include company values, domain-specific skills, etc. I recommend having a consistent definition for each competency across all rubrics within the organization. Then, within each level, there’s a progression in what that competency looks like. This creates equity and alignment in how people are measured against competencies and clear progression within each level. 

With competencies, it’s important to balance the result that’s expected of employees and the way someone gets those results. This way, there’s alignment with not just what people do but how they do it including behaviors and example tasks or projects folks could work on.

The intersection of competencies and levels plays a significant role in career rubrics—it’s also where many rubrics often fall short. Competencies need to progress with levels. There needs to be a distinction between what a competency looks like from one level to the next; otherwise, it’s not actionable for employees. Plus, without these distinctions, it’s difficult for managers to make objective decisions about how to evaluate someone.

Additions for an even better rubric

Values-based competencies.

Once the basics of career frameworks are set, there are some nice-to-haves that can make them even stronger. I recommend adding a handful of competencies that are consistent across all teams. These can help employees stay aligned on specific company values. This also helps employees and managers understand how the values listed on the company website translate into their day-to-day. 

Balancing hard and soft skills.

Incorporating a mix of hard and soft skills is another effective way to ensure that employees are developing holistically. Regardless of function, every job requires hard and soft skills so including them both in your rubric offers further support for employee progression. 

Pitfalls to avoid

Having seen a countless array of rubrics, there are a few common areas where companies trip up. These are the big ones we see most:

  • Basing levels on compensation data. These datasets can skew your leveling framework because they typically provide only data for a limited number of levels. I suggest thinking about leveling independent of compensation and mapping compensation bands only after you’ve developed a clear leveling framework.
  • Not creating enough levels to support employees throughout their career at your company. Without enough levels, you’re essentially putting a cap on how far an employee can progress within your organization. Think about an engineering org that only has 4 or 6 levels. Even if you pay your engineers more after positive performance reviews, you are stifling their progression by not creating space for them to also level up. Plus as soon as you up-level a L3 to L4, the L4 engineers who have been in that role for a while will feel it’s unfair as they will see themselves as more senior, which is probably the case.
  • Requiring a title change at each level. This approach emphasizes titles over skill progression and also keeps focus on the wrong things. A leveling framework with multiple levels within the same title will put greater emphasis on level progression and upskilling than it does on “achieving” a certain title. This will also help you hire to the right level vs. hiring based on a title. 

  • Stacking your leveling framework in a way that forces ICs onto the management track. Not only is this not equitable, but it also limits the opportunity for ICs to contribute at a high level. There’s a phenomenon known as the Peter Principle which explains the failings of a system that reinforces the assumption that your best individual contributors will be the best managers. If you don’t have true parallel paths, you’ll end up hurting your business by promoting your best IC performers into manager roles where in most cases they do more harm than good.
  • Creating different leveling frameworks for different teams. This is a recipe for inequity because some teams may have more room to progress than others or some teams have much higher standards than others. We need to create frameworks that are both flexible for team and role specific criteria, while still being standardized across the company for fairness and scalability. 
  • Not sharing leveling frameworks and structures. Keeping employees in the dark doesn’t help their progression and, therefore, can negatively impact business goals. New legislation is also forcing companies to be more transparent about pay which aligns to having more thoughtful leveling frameworks and approaches to how employees can level up once hired.

Tools for strong career frameworks

Rubrics require intentional design. I see the impact they make on my team and our customers at Pando everyday. If you’re interested to learn more about how to build your organization’s career frameworks or make them equitable, actionable, measurable we can help. Learn more here.

EXCLUSIVE OFFER FOR TROOP MEMBERS: Pando is offering a 15% discount off of their first year service fee for Troop Members. Please email us at hello@troophr.com for an intro to their team to learn more.

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