Let go of the skills obsession to humanize career progression
I remember the first time I asked my manager for a promotion while working as a Product Designer. He took out a sheet with 12 different skills and asked me to evaluate myself against those. I froze.
“Do you expect me to excel in 12 different ways”, I asked…
“That’s kind of a lot”.
We paused the conversation there.
Everyone had conversations like that during their work life. Those conversations happen often in organizations where design hasn’t matured yet. My manager in this case was having this discussion for the first time. He didn’t have any support from People Operations and did what any designer would do. He tried to solve the problem. He wrote down a set of skills that other people around him were here using to their advantage and compiled a list. But the result was like presenting a menu with 12 different navigation points to a user.
I got overwhelmed.
So what is the difference between an extensive skill matrix and an inclusive career framework?
A skill matrix/map is a tool to map skills for your design team. It is a visualization that can be used as supportive information for the team.
For example in order to
- Distribute people in the best way between projects. e.g. If you know that visual design is very important for the success of a project.
- Seek help from others. e.g. when knowing that someone has amazing animation skills, other designers can refer to them for help.
There are several examples of skills maps out there and several articles written on what is expected from people working in design. There are also a number of companies that have created software to make those visualizations less painful than an excel document. Hence, there is a certain trend lately in the design industry. To use extensive skill lists and similar visualizations as career frameworks. This, unfortunately, doesn’t scale. And a huge challenge is presented when people ladder up.
Suddenly, craft skills are not enough. Soft skills are added to the equation and on top of that, companies add expectations on delivery towards company values.
So before you know it, people in your design team end up facing a 20 parameters list in order to get a promotion.
According to a Harvard article published in 2014 and another report from Linkedin in 2019,
Men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only when they meet 100% of them.
In the same article, it is mentioned that the reason women are not applying for those jobs is the following
I didn’t think they would hire me, since I didn’t meet the qualifications, and I didn’t want to waste my time and energy.
Basically what this statement implies is that when women see a job ad with 10 bullet points they will most probably apply only when they fulfill all 10 of those. When men see the same job ad they tend to apply when they check 6 out of those 10 bullet points.
Whether women are hesitant because of being strategic or scared we cannot be sure. Still, there is a certain behavioral tendency that cannot be ignored.
So what does this info say about extensive skill maps with 10+ skill parameters for our design teams? Are they providing equal opportunities for all people in the team to apply or reach for a promotion?
There is no perfect answer. Every career framework needs a couple of iterations and lots of feedback from your team. Still, there are a couple of things to consider as guidelines.
1. Soft skills matter as much as craft skills. Yet one cannot do everything.
Making the jumps from Associate, to Professional, and to Senior positions is fairly straightforward for a lot. As time passes, you can clearly see craft skills grow, manage more complex problems, and maybe even have developed a preference or expertise towards a specific skill such as e.g. visual design, user research, animation, or prototyping.
However, the hard conversations happen when some of your craft skills have peaked. Would then adding more craft skills to your portfolio allow you to improve your ROI?
Let’s take an example; Joi is an excellent visual designer working for a company of more than 50 designers. She is also quite skillful in UX design, prototyping, interaction design, and managing complex problems. Joi is a Senior Product Designer. How does she grow in her career in the way that is most beneficial for her and the company?
In most companies, soft skills will be added at this stage as expectations towards Joi. E.g. Storytelling, strategic communication, leading others, or stakeholder management. However, Joi and any other Joi out there cannot continue performing on everything they did before and also grow their new skills.
To help designers increase ROI, we need to let go of the craft skills obsession and give space for soft skills to grow when laddering up.
2. Be precise, laconic, and watch your language.
That leads us to the second point. People that are going to use your career framework need to be able to remember what they are striving for.
In the UX world, “The Magic Number 7 Plus Or Minus 2” is commonly used when designing UIs. Yet, further studies have shown that people can remember about 3–4 things most of the time.
And that applies to career frameworks too. Choose 3 to 4 parameters that are important for the company and team. Then be laconic and precise when describing them.
For example, if you are looking at stakeholders’ management
- You’ve repeatedly proven yourself able to work closely with stakeholders.
Is a bit different to…
- You are able to build consensus amongst stakeholders.
The second phrase actually creates a clear expectation of what you should be doing. It describes a behavior.
On top of that, the wording does matter.
There are words that are more masculine coded and others that are more feminine coded. There is a simple experimental tool to check job ads that could maybe be reused for health checks in career frameworks too.
At the end of the day, your goal is simple.
When someone asks “Based on what criteria do people get a promotion in your Design Org?” you need to be able to answer in one phrase. Not with a list.
3. Do not look at skills, look at the impact.
This one is by far my favorite. In one of the discussions, I had with HR during my career I got a great quote.
No matter what skills a designer has if they are not using them to create impact what’s the point?
Quite harsh but truthful.
How many writers have only created an impact on the world only after they got published? Would their work be the same, when left in a drawer to dust?
The same applies to the work of people in your teams. The more they increase their influence and exposure, the more they create impact. Maybe there are different types of impact (e.g. on business goals, on developing others) but still a career framework should communicate the outcomes expected that would lead to creating impact.
4. Embrace the people and allow them to focus
Career frameworks are built for people. And they are just that… frameworks.
When they are too rigid, they don’t fulfill their purpose. When they are too complicated, they scare people away.
As managers, it’s our job to create clarity. To have regular 1–1s and help people identify their strengths. To help them visualize what change would look like. To form together plans on how to succeed. To ask “How can I support you?”.
So pick one goal to focus on. According to your employees’ strengths, values, and wants. Change your career ladders to fit your team.