Building a career progression framework – a practical journey (+ free template)
“If your people aren’t growing, they’re leaving.” This is a favourite expression of Ben Gateley, our CEO at CharlieHR. Everyone at Charlie has probably heard it over a hundred times, including me.
Yet, when I started my role as Chief of Staff, the way towards supporting our team’s growth and career progression didn’t look straightforward, and building a career progression framework wasn’t a priority.
In this guide, I’ll walk you through how we handled career progression at Charlie by building a framework that would work for all of our team – along with some exclusive tips. Read on to find out more.
- What is career progression for your team members?
- The four pillars of career development
- What is a career progression framework?
- What did career progression use to look like at Charlie?
- Our method for putting together a career progression framework
- A few tips for your own career progression framework
Or if you don’t have time, download our career progression framework below.
For employees, career progression means knowing how they can evolve within the company and how you, as an employer, are going to help them get there.
Special attention to career progression is essential to attract and retain the best talent, so although it might be tempting to dismiss it when you’re a small business or startup, it would be a big mistake – at Charlie, we’re all here to tell the tale of people leaving because of the lack of progression.
So remember, when it comes to climbing up the career ladder, all your team members want from you is:
- To understand when they can be promoted and what standards they need to meet by getting clear career goals and development opportunities
- To have regular conversations scheduled around progression provided with proper mentoring
- To get a budget and have initiatives in place to improve and learn new skills
As an employer, career progression is about making sure your team members stay happy and high-performing by giving them opportunities to grow within your company and not feel like they’re stagnating – for your own benefit as well as theirs.
Here are 4 primordial steps to put progression at the centre of your HR processes:
- Talk about progression right from the recruitment process so your potential hires understand how crucial it is for you
- Implement regular check-ins in your performance management processes
- Get new hires and managers (after probation) to create a clear path towards where they want their new role to go and how to be held accountable for it
- Make sure you create a career progression framework that makes sense for your people so they know what role and responsibilities they can aim for
In its most basic form, a career progression framework is something that:
- Defines the possible roles and titles across your business
- Shows which roles each team member can progress to
- Explains what someone has to do to progress to each role
An effective career progression framework offers your team clarity and gives them a sense of meaningful progression.
It stops them from feeling like they’ve stagnated – and the subsequent risk of them being demotivated, or looking for progression opportunities at other companies.
Finally – and most importantly – it shows them that you’re invested in their personal development, something we have always strived to do at Charlie, but that we didn’t always manage.
Up until we gathered feedback from leavers and reflected, we weren’t very good at progression, but we knew becoming excellent would improve our employee retention and employee engagement rates.
That’s when I started auditing what we were actually doing and how this impacted the business.
Here’s how we handled career progression in the first few years of CharlieHR. If you work in a small business, it will probably sound pretty familiar:
- Every month, each employee had a scheduled, informal meeting with someone more senior to discuss their personal development.
- Once a year, the CEO and I would decide who should get a pay rise. We’d then hold meetings with everyone to explain why they would or wouldn’t be getting a pay rise.
Anybody could book a one-to-one meeting with me at any point to discuss their personal development.
This isn’t actually a huge problem for small, fast-growing startups as progression can occur naturally from the business growing, but as we grew, cracks began to show.
The more I talked about how important progression was to Charlie, the more hollow and hypocritical it felt. There simply wasn’t any clarity. We weren’t providing our team with consistent or clear answers.
I just ended up with a lack of motivation. That feeling that you are stuck in a bit of limbo with a career that has the potential to not really be going anywhere in particular. Jess Noel, Customer Operations Associate
There were a few reasons why our current process didn’t work:
- Managers were responsible for development, but they didn’t have the tools in hand to provide good mentorship – there was a lack of guidelines that opened the door to a lot of inconsistencies between how managers would give out pay rises and promotions, creating unfairness between team members.
- Progression was centred around managerial opportunities and nothing else – a lot of startups fall into this trap in terms of seniority levels, however, it can be a problem for people who don’t want to be managers or if you don’t have enough vacant roles.
- Seniority wasn’t about output or achievements – we weren’t objective enough when it came to promotions. It was often about how long someone had been there or if we felt like they were ready.
The landscape was very unclear; each time you felt you were progressing in your role, the conversation to uncover how you've improved had no underpinning – it was all very subjective. Matt Grannell, Product Designer
In a lot of ways, this impacted our business and the way we related to our team members. The three areas where we identified a problem were the following:
- Hiring – it was difficult to hire at the right level without an internal alignment on what skills we wanted, making the hiring process longer, unclear and more expensive as it dragged on.
- Retention – people had a tendency to leave as they couldn’t see themselves progress within the company.
- Motivation – it was hard to get people on board if there wasn’t a clear sense of direction and it created a lot of frustration.
We first hired The People Collective to audit our current processes and help us in crafting a career progression system that would work for our specific context. Here are the first steps we took with them:
- Define every possible role at Charlie
- Show everyone what different roles they could progress to
- State what team members needed to do to get there
- Give managers guidelines so they could answer key questions about progression
- Define a progression path for people who weren’t interested in being managers
- Provide objective standards to measure whether someone was ready for promotion
- Bring clarity and consistency to the team
Here’s how we did it in 5 steps and how you can perhaps do the same.
1. Prepare the foundations of your career progression framework
A career progression framework is going to be a foundational piece for your business, so you don’t want to rush it. Think long about implementing it and put together a roadmap that makes sense:
- Give someone total ownership of the project, for whom it could be their number one priority – in Charlie’s case, I was responsible for it.
- Understand that the process is going to take time – be ok with the fact that this is not going to be done in one day but give yourself a deadline to achieve it.
- Contract someone to do salary benchmarking or use a salary benchmark platform – this could technically be done in-house, but it’s better to have an expert on-hand or a platform or it will take double the time to gather and sort through the data.
- Don’t build it from scratch – there are bigger, more experienced companies who have done it before you. Take inspiration from them! In our case, we took inspiration from Monzo and Buffer and an incredible collection of public progression frameworks at progressions.fyi.
2. Understanding the different levels and career paths
At a basic level, a progression system turns an employee's career into a series of levels and provides rules for how they move from one level to the next when they have performance reviews.
There’s a wide variety of jobs at Charlie, from product designers to software engineers. So how do you build a system that works for them all?
We decided to build a career progression framework that worked for all. Back when we did it, it was already a massive project to take on, so we wanted to see the impact as soon as possible.
That meant we created:
- One system where everyone would have the same number of levels and the same rules for how to move from one level to the next.
- A focus on behaviours and values where team member could show both their soft skills and technical skills
- Two career paths between People Manager and Individual Contributor, meaning not everyone had to become a manager in the course of their careers but could focus on one area of expertise for the business.
However, in recent years, after growing our team, we decided that wasn’t enough. Many of the behaviours and values appeared quite abstract to team members, meaning they didn’t have a concrete understanding of how to progress.
That’s when added expectations specific to each function of the business, meaning the progression framework became even more refined and more specific with real-life examples.
Of course, this isn’t something that’s necessarily doable at the beginning (as we’ve experienced), but in the long run, and as your function grows, you’ll need to find the right balance between a simple blanket approach and something too granular.
Remember that your career progression framework doesn’t have to be set in stone and that it’s always possible to iterate on the process as you go.
3. Create a good sense of progression
Our old system was pretty traditional. We divided most roles up into “junior”, “mid-level”, “senior” and “Head of.” This simply wasn’t detailed enough to give people a feeling of progression. The most glaring example was the “developer” title, which sat between a junior developer and senior developer. People felt stuck in this role, with no real idea of when or how they would progress to senior developers.
We realised our new system needed to offer a larger number of levels. We looked over a lot of frameworks that had chosen to do this – most chose six or seven levels of progression. We chose to go with seven.
The result was this barebones framework:
But even with seven levels, we still worried about people feeling like they’d lost momentum. We wanted our system to cover a lifetime of progression.
A level 1 person is just starting out, while a Level 7 is absolutely at the top of their game – so the jump between each level marks a major progression in someone’s career development.
It could take a few years to move between each level, so to avoid people feeling “stuck” in a level, we added 2 sub-levels. These give a stronger feeling of day-to-day, month-to-month progression, and work like this:
4. Making career progression clear to everyone
We had our structure of levels and sub-levels. Now we needed to work out what was needed for progressing from one level to a level above.
This meant defining a set of expectations and competencies for each level. We broke these expectations up into three areas which we felt applied to everyone in the business, regardless of their specific role:
- Knowledge – a focus on breadth and depth of knowledge and how people’s expertise can develop over time
- Delivery – what the expectations of delivery are and how they’re met by team members
- Communication & Leadership – how they communicate with other team members and how they’re able to lead on projects across the business
We added these two:
- Business Impact – having a significant impact and moving the needle when it comes to business priorities and metrics
- High Performance Behaviours – displaying company values and contributing to how we behave and interact as an organisation
We also decided that to reach each level and sub-level, team members would have to achieve a certain percentage of the competencies listed above.
Remember, there are two sub-levels, which means that before progressing from level 1 to 2, you’ll have to be 1.1 and 1.2 – so we decided to split it with 33% of competencies at 1.1, growing to 66% at 1.2 and finally, 100% for 2. This worked for each level the same way.
Then we went about deciding what we expected at each career level. This was no easy task – remember, this system is designed to cover a lifetime of progression.
So yes, it is a comprehensive project that needs to be tackled slowly and deliberately, but it’s definitely worth the end result for you and your team.
To help you in the process, we made our own progression framework public so you can save some time and money by building off the work we've done.
Just click the image below to access the full spreadsheet of our expectations for all levels of Individual Contributor and People Manager.
5. Fitting everyone into the career development framework
Everything up until this point had been theoretical. Now we had to see if it would work in practice on your team’s career growth.
We assessed the entire team using the progression framework, working out what level they would be – and which title and salary they’d get as a result.
This was a pretty intimidating prospect – what if there were discrepancies for people in their current roles? Fortunately, while there were some, they were pretty minor.
For those being underpaid, this was a great opportunity for us to make up for a failing on our part: we’d been undervaluing their work.
For those being overpaid, we committed to not lowering anyone’s salary, instead giving them a smaller bump in pay at their next promotion, bringing them back into line with the framework.
The only thing left to do was to reveal it to the team.
6. Rolling your progression framework out to your team
It's a complex system, and I worried that if we didn’t win that initial buy-in from team members, it could end up falling flat.
What’s more – rolling it out had the potential to be a pretty fraught process. For the first time, we'd be laying down in black and white the seniority of every person at Charlie. People’s job titles were going to change. There was the potential for salaries to be amended.
To give the framework the best chance of success, we broke it up into two stages, both roughly a week long.
- Stage 1 – rolling it out to people managers and beginning the “levelling process”. We had already matched people to a certain level, however, we didn’t want it to be up to top management only so we asked managers to level their own team members. We then all calibrated to make sure our decisions were aligned.
- Stage 2 – rolling out the progression framework to the whole company – after coaching managers on how to talk about the progression framework, we presented our work to the whole of Charlie.
If you’re not sure how to go about it with your own team, I used this slide deck to make it more useful and understandable – feel free to download it below.
I then let managers book conversations with their direct reports to discuss re-levelling and make sure everyone agreed with it before locking it in.
7. Bonus: beyond the career progression framework
Wanting to make our progression framework a living, breathing part of Charlie’s values to build high-performing and happy teams has been a great achievement and a foundational part of the way we work.
That also meant that the rollout was only the beginning and that we had to make sure the framework wasn’t just a flash in the pan, but a system that underpinned professional development for everyone working at Charlie.
To that end, we’ve incorporated the progression framework into various parts of our career development plans.
1- Performance reviews three times a year
Many companies choose to do their promotions and salaries discussions every year, however, we’ve decided to do performance reviews three times per year.
Here’s how they work:
- In February, June and October of each year, we launch our performance reviews process.
- During these months, our managers and team members will have 2.5 weeks to reflect on their progression, write their reviews and have their meetings.
- Once that’s done, and if a re-levelling or promotion is to be put forward, managers will discuss it during a calibration meeting with top management.
- When a decision has been reached, team members will be informed and any pay and title changes will be done the following month.
If you think that’s a lot to handle on your own, this is a process that’s embedded into our software so you can automate it.
Roll out performance reviews in one click and let the process unfold with automatic reminders sent to your managers and team members.
With our 360 reviews feature, our performance reviews become even more complete by integrating feedback from peers into the process.
Start a 7-day free trial with CharlieHR today to find out more about performance reviews and progression.
2- Personal Development Plans
We also started to incorporate the progression framework into our team's Personal Development Plans (or PDPs).
This is a really useful way of bringing the framework out of the abstract and into our team’s day-to-day experience of their work.
This allows team members to set:
- A development goal that’s the focus of their re-levelling
- Focus on areas that will help them achieve their development goals – for example, communication, technical expertise, etc.
- Ways of achieving this in their day-to-day or with L&D budget for example.
We then encourage managers and team members to store all these notes in the same place to come back to it each month and recap and adjust if necessary – straight from the onboarding process.
Make sure there isn’t one unique “managerial” path
As we mentioned earlier, two paths are essential. For us, that means:
- Individual Contributor – someone who brings their skill sets to the table and takes on projects as team leads by themselves.
- People Managers – someone who takes on a similar path, but instead spends more time managing teams of people and improving their skills.
This is really important, as many people don’t have any interest in becoming a manager and this will avoid losing team members along the way.
Build a compensation calculator
At Charlie, we needed our levelling system to tell us not just someone’s seniority – but also how much they should be paid.
We knew that we’d have to be paying at least “market rate”, but it’s hardly an exact number. Different people and companies have wildly different ideas about what the 'right' salary is for any given role, and all those numbers will fluctuate according to the market.
The solution here was to reach out to Justly – a London-based consultancy who we worked with to create a set of accurate and reliable salary benchmarks for each team and level of seniority in our business.
Working with Justly allowed us to save time and effort in a process that would have taken ages, whilst making sure we held the right data to set fair and transparent salaries at Charlie.
Here are the three steps we went through:
- Choosing a data provider to set our salaries – Justly works with all the major salary providers and after running through the different options available (Pave, Ravio, Figures, Mercer etc), we opted for Pave as a solid base to build our salary system. We created salary structures for each team, using a mix of percentiles (low, middle and high end of the market) that accurately matched our pay strategy. At this point we also recognised that there were some roles that didn’t exist in Pave, so Justly helped us create some bespoke benchmarks. Once we were done with this first step, we ended up with a structure like the example below for each team.
2. Mapping our team to the salary benchmarks – once we had our benchmarks, we needed to objectively map the team back to them. We had everyone's level and sub-level from the existing progression framework, so all we were left to do was assign them a team or ‘job family’ (a term specific to salary benchmarking that relates to the specific type of work someone is doing e.g. ’Software Engineer’, ‘Product Management’, ‘Software QA’ etc, while departments are broader e.g. all the previously mentioned job families would fall under the ’Tech’ department.)
3. Assessing our team’s salaries – Justly handed us a compensation calculator with the salary structure for each team and where each person in the business sat against this structure i.e. ‘below the band’, ‘within the band’ or ‘above the band’ and by how much. Using this information, we were able to build out accurate budgets for salary adjustments and make sure we had pay parity moving forward. It also clearly showed people what they could earn, should they be promoted to a new level or switch to another team entirely.
By the end of the process, we had a fully functioning compensation calculator that not only told us the market rate for each of our current roles, but also our future roles, which was super useful for forecasting our costs.
This process was very important for Charlie and benefited us in the following ways:
- To stay competitive as an employer with the most accurate data on the market
- To be as transparent as possible with our team members by ensuring we set salaries in a fair and objective manner
- To spot any discrepancies in our current compensation and correct them (for example if some people were paid lower or higher than the percentile we aimed for)
- To reinforce our DE&I strategy by keeping an eye over pay gaps between gender, race, ethnicity, and beyond
We get in touch with Justly every year to make sure we pay in line with the ever-changing market, and to ensure no one at Charlie is left behind.
Create meaningful job titles
We had job levels, a list of expectations for each level, and salaries linked to each level. Now we just had to give all the levels names.
This task was an optional one. We could have left everyone with the basic IC/Manager numbers – adding titles to each level was just icing on the cake. But we decided to do this for a couple of reasons:
- A number alone doesn’t communicate someone’s role and responsibility particularly clearly – especially to people outside the business.
- Simply changing a number isn’t a particularly satisfying reward for progressing to the next level.
Each job was given its own set of titles, for all IC and manager levels, creating a result like this:
This took a long time. A chief concern was fairness – particularly between the IC and managerial career pathways. We wanted the framework to demonstrate that we valued managers and ICs equally. If the titles felt unbalanced between the two career paths, we were undermining all our work.
Keep on iterating and changing your career progression framework
Our career progression framework has not always looked like this – it’s taken years in the making to refine it and make it what it is today.
Although we’re pretty proud of the results, we’ve made a few changes over the years including running our reviews at a different frequency and adding extra levels to our existing framework.
Overall, what we’ve learned is HR processes are never fixed in time, so always try and review your framework to reflect your team’s needs and your business’ growth.
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