In the first part, we covered the depths of helping individual contributors understand their professional and personal development paths. It’s now (at least somewhat) clear, and it’s time to kick off the whole “development” journey.
SMART Career Plan
If you’re not familiar with SMART Goals, please read about it - it’s a great tool to use in the right circumstances. And I believe setting up a career development plan is one of those circumstances that can help put a lot of needed clarity on the table. The most common complaint I have ever got from ICs about their career development is that, while defined, it still feels vague. Putting a career development plan up with SMART in mind is rarely easy, but no manager chose this career because it is supposed to be easy, right? ;-)
To simplify things, what a person need is guidance. You don’t need to write down the entire path step-by-step right up to the promotion. Instead, you need to set the proper goalposts so that a specific skill is improved once it is reached and there’s a track record. And a sense of achievement! Exactly, a career plan can and should be a set of goals. SMART goals.
If your engineer is still far away from the promotion, don’t shut down in despair just yet - you don’t need to mark the entire path in one go. Especially in engineering, things move fast. Apply such rapidness and uncertainty multipliers like doing this in a startup, on a market that is being disrupted, personal uncertainties, and it will feel like an uphill battle to foresee something beyond a few months forward that doesn’t have to be seriously revised in a quarter or so. Therefore, my advice is to set career development goals for approximately a quarter. Feel free to develop the high-level guidance further, too, but don’t invest too much time into it now. You both don’t know how successful the first set of goals will go.
Partnertship With Colleagues
In no way is the manager the smartest person in the room, especially regarding technical knowledge and experience. How does one coach an engineer into becoming, let’s say, an architect while never being one? As you can guess from the subtitle - it is required to make sure this skill gap is addressed by other people in the organization who have the necessary skills and experience. Way too often, managers try to pull whatever possible burden themselves. It’s out of the good intentions, but not necessary and sometimes even harmful by not precisely hitting the target.
So whenever you feel you don’t have the necessary skills to uplevel your engineer, take someone who has it aside and agree on collaboration. Then, their feedback could and should be considered when setting a career development plan. Setup an entire board of coaches if necessary: the more exposure to a diversity of different approaches, ways of thinking, and cultures, the better.
A necessary part of any career development is agreeing on how often you’re doing check-ins upfront. It must happen without any excuses (except if anything on the personal life side, of course), even if there’s no progress. Check-ins must be used to:
- Iterate over what has been achieved, sharing the pains & the gains
- Setup or refine the next set of goals
- Confirm next check-in date
- Provide professional and personal-level support
You both walked a long path until now — many conversations about personal aspirations, thoughts, goal setting, and all kinds of support. And then your engineer comes back on one of the check-in syncs and carefully mentions that they might not be so much interested in this particular career path anymore. Oops.
Please, breath in, breath out, and…
Why? You just avoided the most costly mistake - your engineer going towards the career they will be unhappy with. Yes, that avoidance was expensive in time investment, but it is never “for nothing.” They acquired a set of maybe secondary skills, but all of them will be beneficial for their career in the future. I rarely find some skill useless unless a person is about to change their industry completely. Even then, with your help, they became better human beings.
So if it is the case, a pivot in the plan is needed - embrace the change, and march forward with even more dedication. It’s the right path to walk.
While this is the happiest outcome of the whole endeavor, you can make it even better. Every promotion happens because of two factors: preparedness and opportunity. Keep an eye on those opportunities in your organization. If your candidate is not ready yet, use other promotions to baseline your progress and directions. If you can already smell promotion in the air, start preparing related parties by carefully planting a seed about possible upcoming changes. Use your authority to give a good credit of trust whenever possible - with your backup, the promotee will have a little more time to adjust and show their full potential once in the new role.
Career development is usually lengthy and often not too straightforward. However, at least personally for me, it is one of the most fulfilling outcomes of my work. Seeing someone grow and reach their professional heights is incredible. I wish you to experience this often!
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