So, I've been doing the whole leadership thing for a while now. And during that time, I've come up with a few frameworks and principles that help me think about how I'm progressing in my own career and how I can help my team grow in theirs.
When evaluating someone's performance, it's important to consider three main areas: Practice, Process, and People.
- Practice is all about the technical skills needed for the job. If you're a software developer, your Practice would be your coding skills and knowledge of relevant technologies. To improve your Practice, you need to keep learning and stay up-to-date with your field. Trying out new technologies and techniques in your area of expertise can help you stay ahead of the curve and remain relevant in the industry.
- Process is about productivity and execution. This includes how efficiently and effectively you can get things done, as well as your organizational skills. A good Process means you can manage your time well, prioritize tasks effectively, and deliver results on time. Being able to work independently and without much coaching is also important as you progress in your career.
- People is all about how well you work with others as part of a team. No job is done alone, and being able to collaborate effectively with your colleagues is crucial. This includes clear communication, managing expectations well, staying accountable, and being transparent with others. It also means investing in the success of your teammates, helping them grow and improve, and being a positive influence on the team as a whole.
While not everyone is perfect in all three of these areas, they’re each important in their own right. One of the ways I see this in action is with the genius jerk coder archetype: someone who is great at Practice and Process may be a coding wizard that gets a lot of work done with brilliant technical feats, but might be real pain to work with. This is unacceptable on my team, and they are failing themselves and the organization at large with this kind of behavior.
Leveling and scope of responsibility
As you move up in your career, your focus changes from meeting individual expectations to thinking about how to make a broader impact. As you progress, you'll need to develop new skills and take on more responsibility.
- Intern/Associate - At this level, you focus on meeting your individual expectations and building up your skills with the help of others. You show that you are a capable learner and are growing quickly. You may take on small projects or contribute to larger projects under the guidance of your team.
- Mid-level - At this level, you can work independently without much coaching. You still focus on meeting your individual expectations with your individual skills, but you may also manage projects or coach junior team members. You should also think about how you can contribute to the broader goals of your team and organization.
- Senior - At this level, you think about how to help your team accomplish its goals and improve. You not only meet your own commitments but also help your teammates grow. You may mentor junior team members or lead cross-functional projects. You should also think about how you can contribute to the broader goals of your department and the organization.
- Staff - At this level, you think about how to enable your entire department. You are a capable individual and seen as a leader on your team. You are recognized across your department as an influential figure with a lot of impact. You should think about how you can contribute to the broader goals of the organization and help your department achieve its strategic objectives.
- Principal - At this level, you are a representative of your department to the rest of the organization and may even have industry recognition. You can forge alliances across several departments and have a clear impact on the organization’s top-level goals. You should think about how you can help the organization achieve its long-term vision and how you can help your department become a leader in its field.
As you progress in your career, your absolute expertise and ability in each of the three dimensions should grow. However, the proportion of those dimensions will evolve over time. Generally, the practice dimension is the most important when you are early in your career. As you enter your mid-career, the process dimension becomes more important, especially as you try to make an impact on your team and department. Finally, as you reach later stages of your career, people become the most important factor: mentoring, hiring, and firing.
There are a few gotchas that I've seen people run into as they move up the ranks:
- Not prioritizing lower level expectations before attempting to make a wide-reaching impact. This is common among ambitious individuals who want to move the needle and make their mark in the organization. They want to take on significant projects but may not meet their current expectations, and this usually means they need help prioritizing their efforts.
- Thinking that only a single or a handful of successful efforts at the next level will get them a promotion. I believe that people should be able to do the job before getting the job. This means that if someone expects to get a promotion, they need to demonstrate that they can consistently meet those expectations over time. Being able to point to several concrete examples of impactful work at the scope of responsibility expected of the role they are hoping for is required.
- Moving into leadership thinking they will still get to do their old job. Typically, when people reach the senior stage, there's a fork in the road: staying an individual contributor or transitioning into leadership. A lot people assume that becoming a manager is the next natural step in your career, but I think switching to leadership is really a career change. Essentially, you are changing your practice from whatever it was previously (coding, marketing, sales) to people management. While it's important to have appropriate practical skills in your discipline to make good decisions for your team and earn their respect, you should not expect to practice your discipline significantly anymore.