Next Step, How Long, How To

I counselled at a youth camp once where we implemented a point system to help incentivize good behavior. Arbitrary but quantifiable, 100 points is enough to get a 6th grader to do some pretty funny stuff. By about the third day of camp, though, the kids started to wonder what the points were for, how many points they had, and how many points the other kids had. We like to compete with something or someone else, and we want to know the exact margin by which we are winning or losing. In sports, we tell the athletes what the goal is (score 12 baskets), how much time they have left to accomplish it (7:32), and how to do it (more 3 pointers). In military training, commanders will tell their students where they have to get to (point Bravo), in how much time (6 hours), and how to get there (use the old Forest Service road).

And then there's our professional life. Sadly, too often, corporations (and by corporations, I really mean the humans that make up the company) don't tell people what the goal is, how soon they should accomplish it, or how to get there. Too often, the prompt is an unverbalized "Just keep working hard for an undetermined amount of time and someone will make a subjective decision as to your performance and if you deserve a promotion." It's like your coach pulling the team into a huddle and saying, "I'm not going to tell you how much time is left or if you're winning or losing. Just keep doing your best (whatever that looks like) and you'll find out when myself and the other coaches decide it's over." What?!

People need goals, especially in the workplace. Not 5 year goals. Six month goals with promotions happening every 12 months. Anything beyond that and the goals become vague, non-quantifiable, and subjective. They lend themselves to apathy ("Why work hard now when I still have another four years to make Senior Developer?") and a lack of a sense of accomplishment.

Now I'll say something a little more controversial: by promoting people every 12 months, you'll get more out of your people. Before the entire work force lets out a collective groan about having the life squeezed out of them in a new, cruel, hamster-wheel kind of way, let me rephrase that: by being up for promotion every 12 months, you'll get more out of yourself. You'll accomplish more not because it's asked of you, but because you see the goal and it's within your grasp. Your game will constantly be getting better as you rise to larger and larger challenges. You'll enjoy your work more because now you have a goal (Senior Developer), you've been told how much time you have to accomplish it (12 months), and how to get there (1. Lead development on an initiative, 2. Get a certification of some sort, 3. Improve your communication skills by reading these three books).

If a manager isn't willing to tell you what the goal is, how much time it should take, and how to get there...run. These are the managers that go home at night just happy that no one quit and wondering how much longer they can keep under-paying you till you realize you could be doing so much more in a company that actually appreciates its people.

At this point you may be raising one of two objections. First, you may think I can't afford to promote all my subordinates every 12 months. I've been here for 15 years and there's only 3 levels between the new guy and myself. We have a very flat corporate structure, so people feel close to their upper management. Great, you want people to feel they have a voice and that upper management understands them. Making them wait 5 years between promotions does absolutely nothing to accomplish this.

In my first job, there was me, my manager, and his manager. I was the new guy. My manager had been there 10 years. His manager had been there 25 years and was one of the most senior people at the company. I didn't feel close to him. In fact, it was depressing. I could look ahead 25 years down the road, knowing that my title would change twice in that time frame and my office would move 50 feet down the hall. Not much motivation.

At the company I work for now, there are about 9 promotions between myself and our OMVP. I have a long way to go, but I see how to get there, and (here's the kicker) I feel much closer to him than I did my previous boss who was only two levels above me on the ladder. Here's why: people value relationships based on interactions, not corporate structure diagrams. I don't care if the box with my name in it appears two nodes away from the box with the boss's name in it on the company tree. But, I do care that the person in charge is taking the time to get to know me, cares about how my career is progressing, asks for and listens to my input and perspective, and shows me where I'm going, how long it should take me, and what I need to do to get there. Do not rely on corporate structure to facilitate relationships and make employees feel valued. Rely on people to facilitate relationships and make employees feel valued. The goal of corporate structure is to lay out a path and an organization, not to give a false sense of appreciation from upper management.

Second, you may be thinking Whoa, slow down. I don't want to be expected to get promoted every twelve months. This sounds great if you're a greedy ladder-climber, but I'm not in it for the money. If you're thinking this way, look at the ladder rung above you. Does it involve considerably more effort, time, and responsibility? What if the next promotion didn't involve such a drastic change in duties? What if it were a smaller jump that just allowed you to operate more independently and gave you a raise? Suddenly, a promotion every 12 months starts to sound nice. And this is where the two objections have to come together: you can't have a corporate structure that only makes drastic promotions every 5 years, or you end up with some people who don't want to get promoted. If the promotions are more approachable, individuals will have an easier time seeing what the next step is, how long it should take, and how to get there.

There's a small subset of people for whom this won't work well. You like what you do. Exactly what you do. You don't want to learn new things, take on new responsibilities, or make more money. You enjoy repetitive tasks. If that's you, feel free to neglect everything I've just said.

For the rest of us, find someone who will show you what the next step is, how long it should take, and how to get there. Then get after it, and enjoy loving what you do.

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About Scott

I am a software engineer from Bozeman, MT enjoying the slightly warmer climate of Colorado. I think code can change lives. I think lives are worth changing. I write code.

You can find me on Twitter, LinkedIn, , and Github.