Why you probably don’t need to add in more levels

A common request that comes around from time to time is to add more levels and titles into a structure – specifically adding levels in between existing levels creating “tweener” grades. Almost equally as frequently, there will be a separate request, from a separate company, to consolidate all the excess levels and titles that have been created as no one understands the leveling system and it takes too long to progress upwards. So what’s the right answer? More levels, fewer levels? Let’s think through some of the implications…

The first question I ask is “why?” – what’s the impetus behind adding more levels. Usually the response will be something along the lines of “providing better career opportunity”, “rewarding people more frequently”, or “youngsters need frequent promos”. If that is the case then adding more levels probably won’t get to the root of the issue.

Adding levels to solve for issues around career opportunity

If the issue is a lack of career opportunity, then people asking for titles and promotions is usually the proverbial “canary in the coal mine” and a lead indicator of deeper organizational issues around career, development, and possibly pay. It is often the case that employees simply don’t know what their career path is and look to promotions as a means to address that. If that is the case, then adding in levels and titles is more likely to exacerbate the issue than solve it, since they will ultimately be perceived as additional hurdles to career progression, the distinctions between levels will get muddied, promotions will become an annual expectation, and you’ll stumble into an “up-or-out” culture while the underlying issue of career opportunity remains unaddressed.

“A promotion should be meaningful”

If career opportunity is the issue, then we need to go back to the basics of what it means to have a career and how we think about progression working from the top of the organization down to build a culture of trust and transparency around careers. Practical solutions involve training and enabling people managers to have meaningful conversations with candidates about their long term career prospects and opportunities, showcasing case studies of individuals that have advanced their careers, using job architecture to identify internal opportunities, and having potentially difficult conversations when there is simply no organizational need for the more senior role (often the case in a smaller organization) or when the individual hasn’t demonstrated the necessary capabilities to fulfill that promotion.

A promotion should be meaningful and bring with it healthy challenges and opportunities for both the individual and the company.

When does adding in levels make sense?

Having said that, there are scenarios where adding a level or two may be helpful. An example of where we can observe a large number of levels and steps is in government organizations where a career path is essentially pre-ordained and driven predominantly by tenure. The benefits of this approach are transparency, clarity of career path, and clarity of pay. While somewhat rigid, it is clear in these environments, what the career path is, what the titles will look like, how long it will take to get there, and what the resulting pay will be. This has the benefit of helping to mitigate pay equity issues since there is less room for inherent bias to play a role. This is also part of the reason that I wonder whether salary ranges will continue to be the default approach over the coming years.

The negative of such an approach is much less room for maneuver. The reason that many tech companies are unlikely to embrace this in the near future is because it limits the ability to push talented people upwards quickly and age isn’t always the best proxy for capability, particularly among engineers. Hence career-leveled broad-banded structures have become more common, allowing for promotions to be based on merit, and pay to vary within a range based on individual capabilities and expertise.

A legitimate reason to add levels could be market norms. A good example of this is the “Associate Director” title among biotech companies. For a company that goes from Director to Senior Director, this may be a worthwhile addition since it is often a career expectation in the industry and comes with a (relatively) common understanding of the level of experience and responsibility required.

Another example is adding levels to the top of a career track as organizational needs change. Early on, it might be sufficient to cap out at, for example, a Principal Engineer but as an engineering organization grows, so too does experience, and the need for greater levels of innovation and skill, creating the need for Distinguished or Fellow engineers which are increasingly commonplace. To be clear though, this doesn’t mean adding in “tweener” grades, this is simply stacking levels on top of what’s already there.

Keep it meaningful

If we are still looking to add in levels to a career-level based structure, the acid test for me is “can you define it?”. Within engineering as an example, it can already be difficult to clearly define the difference between, for example, a Senior Engineer and a Staff Engineer, or an Engineer and a Senior Engineer. If we are looking to add levels in between these levels, there should be a meaningful definition of the difference in skills and responsibilities within the leveling guides. Without this, the leveling guides start to lose their usefulness as a means to support career opportunities, and promotions become an expectation rather than a reward.

Before adding in grades and titles, make sure to get to the root of the issue to make sure you are addressing the underlying issue and not creating a problem for a later date. Take the time to sit down, discuss, and debate the pros and cons of adding levels, be clear about the organizational implications, research the market practice for your industry, speak to the individuals that are ostensibly pushing for this, and make sure that the motives are clearly understood.

Above all, avoid “decision by committee” which can result in a Frankenstein’s monster of career structures and an outcome I’ve seen often enough. This should be a decision made by the CPO/CHRO based on meaningful feedback and data. Bear in mind that it is difficult to add in levels to one part of the organization and not mirror that across all functions – doing so will create inconsistency in titling, level definitions, and promotional expectations. The solution could be as simple as a meaningful conversation with the relevant stakeholders.

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