Growth in a downturn: progression when you can’t progress

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Managing managers


A common frustration being felt in my network is that progression opportunities have been slim since the recent economic downturn. I have been speaking to people who are on both sides of this dilemma: those who have been denied progression opportunities themselves, and those who have been unable to secure them for their best staff.

The hard truth is that there isn’t really much you can do about it.

When the economy is fragile, the right thing for companies to do is to control their costs, and one of the biggest costs, whether we like it or not, is people like you and me.

So, if companies are controlling their costs, what can we control?

Epictetus would be proud

The most important thing to embrace, especially in middle management, is that there are things you can control, and things you can’t. I notice that many of these progression dilemmas are caused by people trying to control things that they can’t, and failing to control the things that they can.

What do we mean by this? Well, let’s take a look at an example. Let’s say that you’re a manager and one of the people on your team is a brilliant Senior Engineer. They’ve been in that role for a number of years and they have become the de facto technical lead on everything that your team does, with a clear and demonstrable influence across the wider organisation.

With their impact in mind, looking at your career tracks, it’s clear that they are ready for a promotion to Staff Engineer. In fact, you can make a clear case that they’ve been operating at that level for the last year or so. Since you’re worried that they may leave if they can’t progress, you promise them that they’re going to get promoted in the next window which is coming up in a few months. You talk about it frequently in their one-to-ones to reassure them that it’s going to happen because you’re concerned that they are going to look elsewhere.

You’re proactive: you work on the promotion case together, acquire all of the necessary peer support, and submit it to the promotion committee. But to your surprise, it gets rejected with little reasoning other than there are limited promotion slots available this year. Budgets are tight, and that’s just how it is right now. It’s nothing to do with your Senior Engineer’s performance, it’s just that there are other people who are higher priorities for promotion in the limited slots that are available.

Now the issue lies with you: you promised to deliver something that fundamentally you had no control over delivering, and now you feel terrible. What’s worse is that your superstar engineer is now demoralised and their trust in you and the organisation is damaged. After all, you said that something was going to happen, and then it didn’t. It was a promise that you couldn’t keep.

Reshaping the narrative

So what could you have done differently? Well, let’s look at what you can’t control:

  • The economy and its impact on your company.
  • Whether or not your company has the budget to promote people at any given time.
  • Whether or not your member of staff is one of the highest priorities for promotion across the whole department.

OK, but what can you control?

  • The narrative that you set with each of your staff around their progression.
  • The trust that you build with each of them.
  • The support that you give them to help them grow.

So what can you do? We could replay the above scenario with an alternative narrative that makes it clear that you can’t control the outcome, but you can control the support that you give them to ensure that they are in the right place when the opportunity to secure a promotion does arise.

When your talented Senior Engineer comes to you and asks about progression, you can lead with honesty about how the process works. You can reassure them that from your own point of view they are on the path towards the next level and that you’re going to work with them to make sure that they will have demonstrated all of the required competencies. You can make it clear that the promotion decision is something that happens outside of your direct control, but the journey that you’re going to go on together will be to build up a clear body of proof for those that make the decision.

Now, it goes without saying that if someone is completely blocked from progressing for an extended period of time, there is a good chance that they will leave. However, that scenario lands firmly in the “can’t control” category. As much as it sucks, there’s nothing you can do about it. You can only do your best.

You don’t control scope, but you do control impact

Let’s now go back to talking about you, rather than a member of staff. After all, the problem is the same! When it comes to career progression, fundamentally you are not in control of when your scope changes, but you are in control of increasing your impact.

Typically companies describe their career tracks in terms of a competency framework. A common way of visualising this is as a grid with job titles along the top and competencies along the side. Each cell in the grid represents a level of competency for a given job title. You can see over 75 examples of these progression frameworks on the website, but here’s a hypothetical example that is a subset of the career framework that I created for the Engineering department at my previous company.

If I was an Engineering Manager that wanted to progress to become a Director of Engineering, that would likely be a struggle right now. At the time of writing, our industry is in a downturn where we are not hiring significant numbers of new teams that need a newly minted Director to manage them. In fact, company sizes are shrinking.

One attitude would be to accept that progression is out of the question and therefore I should just stay in my lane and operate at the level that I am currently. Then, in the future when the economy is better, I can start to think about progression as we begin to expand again. However, whilst it is true that I can’t control the scope of my role, i.e. I can’t secure that promotion, I can control increasing my impact regardless.

An alternative attitude would be similar to investing in a downturn. Rather than pulling all of my money out of the stock market when the economy is bad, I can instead invest more when it is cheaper to do so for the possibility of a greater return in the future when the market conditions change. So whilst the scope change to Director is out of the question right now, I can still invest in my impact so that when the opportunity does arise, I’m at the front of the queue to take it.

Working backwards

A way of doing this is by creating a workback plan with your manager. This is a plan that you create together that outlines the impact that you want to have in the future, and the steps that you need to take to get there.

An example of a workback plan for a hypothetical Engineering Manager that wants to become a Director of Engineering is shown below. We build on the progression framework diagram we saw earlier. We also assume that there is an important authentication project that is coming up that will have a significant impact on the company.

A workback plan may evolve over time, but it is an important artefact of progression that can be used in promotion cases. It makes crystal clear between you and your manager what you are working towards.

Using a tool like this means that you can be confident that you are investing in your impact and stretching it into the next level of scope, even if that scope isn’t available to you right now. However, when the opportunity does arise, you’ll already have a clear body of proof that you’re ready for promotion: it’ll be backwards-facing, because you’ve already been operating at that level already.

If you think about it, why do senior roles get filled by external candidates? It’s because they already have demonstrable experience. So why not take the same approach as them? If you can demonstrate the skills, you’ve already got the upper hand by having far greater context and domain knowledge.

That makes you sound like a safe bet to me.

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