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Growth is really part and parcel for us here at Designlab.

When you’re a small, ambitious team aiming to transform an industry, growth is both an explicit aim, and a side effect of the work that you do. Growth is also nebulous and multifaceted.

At Designlab, we push to grow the number of students we reach in order to help transform more careers; we push for curriculum growth in order to stay cutting edge; and we push for personal growth in order to engage and keep our talented team.

Our challenge is not if there is space for growth, but rather, being deliberate about the growth opportunities we empower our team to pursue. Part of being deliberate is making sure that growth pathways are visible, and up until recently, we had no good way of doing this.

So, out of the need to provide our team with inspiring and exciting growth trajectories, the idea of building out growth ladders was born. Being a team of UX/UI design educators, we knew the first thing we had to do was put the user, our employees, at the center.

Read on to learn about how we created career paths for our employees through growth ladders and a user-centered design approach.

12 Questions to Predict Employee Performance

The decision to build growth ladders left us with a challenge.

We know that growth is happening amongst our employees here at Designlab, and we believe that it’s important to our team to develop both hard and soft skills. What we sought to understand was just how much of a priority it is for employees, and, to find a transparent, engaging way to represent potential growth pathways to the team.

There is a tremendous amount of new research available on maintaining high employee engagement, while still promoting growth and a healthy work-life balance. But the Gallup Q12 statements are what heavily informed our thinking on growth ladders.

Gallup's employee engagement work is based on more than 30 years of in-depth behavioral economic research involving more than 17 million employees. Through rigorous research, Gallup identified 12 core elements—the Q12—that link powerfully to key business outcomes.

These 12 questions emerged as those that best predict employee and workgroup performance:

  1. Do you know what is expected of you at work?

  2. Do you have the materials and equipment to do your work right?

  3. At work, do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?

  4. In the last seven days, have you received recognition or praise for doing good work?

  5. Does your supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about you as a person?

  6. Is there someone at work who encourages your development?

  7. At work, do your opinions seem to count?

  8. Does the mission/purpose of your company make you feel your job is important?

  9. Are your associates (fellow employees) committed to doing quality work?

  10. Do you have a best friend at work?

  11. In the last six months, has someone at work talked to you about your progress?

  12. In the last year, have you had opportunities to learn and grow?

This research reinforced the importance of actively pursuing personal growth as a key pillar of our business. It also further reinforced that building growth ladders for the team would be worth our time and effort.

At Designlab, we believe that every person needs to contribute positively towards creating a culture which values the behaviors outlined by the Q12 statements.

The Challenges of Creating Growth Ladders

Personal growth is driven by the ambitions and interests of each individual. However, in order to be successful in its application within a business context, personal growth needs to also happen in combination with the needs of the company. This is a complex balancing act.

There is immense value in empowering individuals to grow skills you don’t even know your company needs yet. But there is also value in getting the day-to-day work done. This is a complex balancing act.

There’s also an undeniable link between personal growth and compensation. We’ve found that anything involving money has the potential to be both highly sensitive and highly emotive.

We thought a lot about this complicated and nuanced balance of matching personal development goals with company goals. In the end, we decided that our best path forward was to involve the team.

4 Things to Keep In Mind When Designing Growth Ladders

Each team member played a direct part in developing their growth ladders. 

Individuals were invited to either write and design their own goals, or, management would provide goals and they could comment and provide feedback throughout the process. 

Here were some of the things we noticed when designing growth ladders with our employees.

1. Not everyone wants to be a manager

One of the most common themes we saw was that not everyone wanted to be a manager—but everyone does want to grow upward! 

Thus, we decided to design two alternate tracks: a “management” track and a “specialist” track. The former naturally lends itself more to managing others, and eventually overseeing entire teams. The latter is concerned with a hyper-specialization of skills and knowledge, so that they remain valuable assets to any given project/department.

2. Don’t forget about soft-skills

There are many things we do daily in our job that we forget to measure, or have a hard time tracking. These are things like: communication, time management, creativity, and adaptability. It was important for us to categorically include these kinds of skills where appropriate, and make sure they were improving commensurate with the growth of an employee. 

3. Do your market research

We heavily research various city indices and average salaries when designing our growth ladders. We then pinpointed compensation in the growth ladder to be about a quartile above market average in order to remain competitive in our salaries.

4. Transparency is key

Like with everything else in our business, we tried to be as transparent as possible throughout the process of designing these growth ladders. This meant working closely with each team member on their ladder—as much or as little as they may have wanted.

Several thorough discussions about scope, responsibility, language, and levels heavily informed our growth ladders. This was in an effort to make sure every individual was content with what they had set forth in their growth ladders, and knew what growth was expected of them.

Conclusion

In the end, we built a growth ladder for each team member and role in the company. 

Each growth ladder is based on a matrix of responsibilities and the corresponding expectations for each responsibility by level of seniority. This sounds complicated, but really all it means is that we built a career path that each team member can use to develop their skills and hold themselves accountable to their goals. 

We also empower individuals to move into new roles as they become available if they align with their interests. This means that a team member does not have to look to only the growth ladder of their current role when building out their personal development plan. 

Growth ladders have allowed us to build personal development plans that are relevant and helpful for both the individual and the greater team. We expect to be maintaining and updating these ladders on a quarterly basis as the company grows.

Illustration by Gina Medranda

Learn more about user-centered design in our UX Academy.

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Mandy Kerr and Austin Basallo

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