September 30, 2022

Career progression shouldn't be rocket science: Here's how we're approaching it at Klyxx

Our career development model needed a significant overhaul. Read about why and what we're doing to create a more versatile approach from our COO.

90% of startups fail. One of the big reasons is their almost pathological fear of structure and ‘growing up’. 

As the COO of Klyxx Creative, I’ve come up against this inherent fear more times than I can count. You hear it all the time in the start-up space: “we’re scrappy,” “we want to be nimble, etc.” All the work environment phrases that sounded like a dream for someone who just left the financial services industry.

That way of working sounds a lot better than it actually is; especially when it comes to career progression.

Why do I say that?

This was my personal path at Klyxx (in two separate stints!): Intern. Ops Analyst. COO.

Total chaos and a ton of stress - almost from the get-go I was tasked with work that impacted the whole company. I was constantly pushed to fill shoes bigger than I thought I was ready for, which made it tough sometimes to gauge how I was actually doing.

That type of development, though common in start-ups, is really just a duct-taped solution in favor of structure. After a year of “just figuring it out,” I realized that this mindset is not conducive to scale.

And I’ve seen the other side. When I started my previous career at J.P. Morgan, I had a very clear path of progression in front of me. It was preset, predictable, and safe; I knew in each role exactly what I was responsible for.

But, that type of structure didn’t seem like it fit a company that wasn’t aiming to hit hundreds of employees. 

To succeed in scaling at the pace we wanted, we needed to take lessons from both startups & the corporate world; we needed to find a solution that blended the two and would work for us.

We ended up stumbling upon a model known as the career progression framework (or CPF for short), used by a ton of companies who went through the same exercise. 

The Career Progression Framework can bring the RIGHT structure

Over the last year, the main question we’ve been trying to solve is: “How do we keep the ownership of an early startup, but provide the structure needed to scale a company?”

Here’s the basics of the CPF that we learned after digging deeper:

First, what is the Career Progression Framework? 

  • CharlieHR wrote a great summary about the components, but put simply, the CPF is a set of guidelines that defines the how and what of job progression
  • It’s a model that establishes clarity in a role by defining someone’s core purpose at a company 
  • It helps provide that same someone with clear steps to improve their own skills and move up the ladder
  • For another sample, take a look at the CPF Tuff Growth shared in July 2020

Second, how does it mesh both startup and corporate culture? 

  • Like corporate, the framework gives clear paths for both the managerial and individual contributor route, with standards to measure progress (Buffer has a great write-up on the difference)
  • Like a startup, individuals are then allowed autonomy in charting their own path and thus can grow how they wish within the company
  • By introducing two distinctly separate paths, you avoid the problem of bloated middle management and ensure that advancement is not solely tied to managing others

From our perspective, establishing a clear-cut structure like this solves our two core issues:

  1. Provides motivation for team employees to personally improve, and 
  2. Retains the flexibility for personal autonomy (which is essential to long-term retention)

We spent a significant amount of time just reading up and learning about the CPF. Now, how do we take a model like this (really just an idea) and apply it to our company?

Here’s how we’re doing it:

Piecing our CPF together

#1: Intimately understanding our actual needs by seeing where we’ve been falling short

Implementing a new career development model is just as important to the employees as it is to the management team. 

When we first started this exercise we canvassed our team to learn where the gaps were in career progression. One of the most critical pieces of feedback was a general feeling of “being lost.” This is a note we’re taking to heart in building the framework. We’ve spent a significant amount of time researching and gathering data; but now we need to make sure it applies to us. 

We need to take the time to really hammer down on the core roles people will play at our company. Each job description should be refined so that it adds value; the details matter, and it’s important that the progression makes sense.

#2: Making a clear distinction between Individual Contributor and Managerial routes

Not everyone is meant to be a manager, which is something I was surprised to learn about. In many past roles, and other larger companies, high performers are always shifted towards management. It was only in researching the CPF that I learned about the Peter Principle.

In a lot of cases, team members may not have the soft skills required to be a manager, or the willingness to dedicate their time to teaching. And that’s okay. The goal of the CPF for us is to introduce an alternate path that provides an opportunity to double down on each individuals strengths and skillset.

#3: Baking skill learning into growth in our company

This is the only way to win in a changing world, which means creating a system of vertical AND horizontal progression. The introduction of “steps” as phases of progression in-between the more traditional promotion-type “levels” will allow us to emphasize learning. Team members can focus on building up their repertoire instead of worrying about demonstrating competency at a performance review

Successful development will now become a core component of growth as a business. Given that we’re a design agency, this becomes easy for us to encourage learning and adaptations of new styles that we find, and otherwise wouldn’t push for.

Being humble about our model

As if the case with any new implementation, we’re going to need to systemize a way to reinforce improvements. Quite honestly, we don’t know what’s going to happen once we start to put these systems in place.

Our objective is to develop something that works over time and makes sense across the company. For a startup pushing growth, undergoing a massive overhaul in structure can quickly create disarray - it’s important that everyone goes into this on the same page.

Here’s what we’re planning to do moving forward:

#1: Continue to audit the model

This will force management to understand why they have the positions they do and start to see what holes have been ignored and will need to be filled. For a company of our size, there’s no way to fully anticipate all the job roles that are going to be needed when it scales in size. We’re not just building for the present, but for the future as well. 

#2: Gather feedback during checkpoints and reviews

We’re going to zero in on this during our QCs to find out what’s working and not working from each team member. Establishing a floor set of objectives for levels and steps may sound good in theory, but may not function well in practice. Maybe our criteria is too advanced, or maybe our skill gaps aren’t wide enough. We’re not going to know until we hear it from someone directly.

#3: Reinforce our hiring requirements

Gathering feedback will also force us to further clarify what skills and expectations we have for people. Each role we look to hire for will need to have a specific purpose, and so knowing where we tripped up in the hiring process can guide us on shoring up the model.

Never stop improving 

Look at where the world is after the last couple of years. You look around and see so many companies that are really starting to think hard about their personnel.

This CPF is just the beginnings of an exercise in organization design for Klyxx. As a COO, my job is to constantly looking at the organization as a product on its own and understand where we’re falling short or see room for improvement. At the end of the day, we want this CPF to grow as our company grows.

Over the next few months, we’re going to be really thoughtful about how we continue to implement and roll out changes to our structure. We don’t want to leave any of our early energy behind, and we sure don’t want to become just another stodgy corporation answering to a myriad of investors, pushing deadlines that are unreasonable or unreachable.

Stay tuned for further updates on our journey and reach out if you’re thinking about, or starting to enact your own CPF changes!

I would love to learn more about what other companies are doing to build for the future.

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