Don't Try To Step-Function Everyone All At Once

When it comes to career growth, managers and companies often make the mistake of trying to focus on everyone, all at the same time.

This error usually happens when a manager or company goes through a revamp of their career growth framework. It looks like this:

  • Something catalyzes a push for career growth. This can be feedback from the team, or the introduction of a new manager or a new leader in HR.
  • The mandate: everyone needs a career plan.
  • With that goal, there’s a rush to get everyone something. Plans are built, and most of the plans are what the kids would call mid.
  • Then life happens. Managers don’t regularly follow up on those career plans. You have 6 reports, each with 3 things to focus on. Are you really ready to regularly check up on 18 things?
  • However, the box is checked. People are told “look, we did career growth.”
  • As the manager or HR leader moves on to new goals, those growth plans are never followed up on, slowly get antiquated, and then over the course of a few years the same feedback on career growth arises and the cycle starts all over again.

Don’t do this. There is a better way.

The main problem with the above approach is that it attempts to do the impossible - you can’t create big upgrades in career plans for everyone all at once. This is because good career plans and follow through take a lot of work. They require extremely thoughtful goal setting, and then regular, disciplined follow-up. It’s simply too much to try and do this all at once beyond 2-3 direct reports.

Empirically - out there in the world, almost no manager out there is doing 3+ person thorough career planning and followup, so that might be some evidence of its impossibility.

Further, not everyone is ready for intense career upleveling. Some people either just have to keep doing what they’re doing and get some more mileage; some people might have other things going on.

But then, if you can’t make good career plans for everyone all at once, what do you do?

The better way is for managers to intensely focus on career growth for 2-3 people at a time, periodically working on a new cohort every 6 months until repeating the original cohort 18-24 months later. You should start by working with the cohort that has the highest need for career growth - usually some combination of high performers, low performers, eager people, and unsatisfied people.

This is hard to do because you have to explicitly decide to not focus equally on everyone all at once. But the reality is that you’re never actually equally focusing on all of your direct reports - you react to needs, which change over time - so you shouldn’t feel icky about it.

In any case, you must have the maturity to have your focus be concentrated and cyclical. This isn’t a bad thing for everyone else - you can do lightweight career growth planning for everyone not getting the full treatment. Remember, not everyone is ready for intense growth focus at the same time.

So, get your first cohort of folks together. Then explicitly ask them to opt-in to your process. Then create a plan.

When you create these grown plans, they should consist of:

  • Brief, long-term goals to help align direction
  • Specific goals for the next 6 months that you will work with people on

So you might say:

  • Bob wants to become a Staff engineer and tech lead. His goal is in the next 3 years to be the lead of a team.
  • Here are the 4 ways in which in the next 6 months we will focus intensely on his growth.

When you create the goals for the next 6 months, be specific, and create ways to monitor:

  • Don’t just say “you should show more ownership”. Say “you’ll start owning X feature area. You should have a monthly update on progress and quarterly goals.” Then make sure those updates and goal setting happen.
  • Don’t just say “communicate better” and then 6 months later when it doesn’t happen, say aw shucks. Say “I need you to collaborate more effectively and we’ll check each month to look for an example of you proactively helping someone on the team who asks a question in Slack.”
  • Remember that growth should be via work, not extracurriculars.

The final thing you must do is actually follow through on your career planning for the people you’re focusing on. Do monthly checkins. Never miss these checkins. Remember, growth plans without follow through are just fairy tales.

If you do this well, you’re giving a batch of your team a career jolt every 6 months. This is a much, much better outcome than the standard “we made a bunch of career plans, didn’t follow up, and I guess some people got better of their own doing” approach. You’re being intensely focused on upleveling a few people, and then you move on to the next cohort. By being mature enough to not try to do everything all at once, you can meaningfully improve your team.

The process in brief is:

  • Identify a cohort to improve
  • Make specific goals for the next 6 months
  • Follow up on a regular cadence to ensure they are completed
  • Repeat with new cohort

Post Launch Update

After shipping this post I realized that this advice is actually the exact same advice for getting IC’s to train other people. Often you’ll have a subject matter expert who has unique knowledge and key person risk, and you want them to get others to their level of skill. That IC will then run a few trainings for the whole team, they won’t stick, and you’re still stuck with a very spiky skill topology in your team.

Again, the right path is to uplevel a smaller cohort with intense focus.

Instead of trying to get the whole team to deeply understand the Kafka infrastructure, pick one or two people and intensely focus on getting them up to speed, with specific goals, responsibilities, and recurring partnership.

If you do this, at the end of 6 months, you might only haver one more person who really knows this stuff, but if you tried to train everyone you likely would have had none. Once you have two SMEs, they can each train one other person, and now you’re growing critical skill sets exponentially.