How to Scale
Rethinking the Product Design Career Ladder
A step-by-step process for organizing and growing your product design team.
Why It's Important
There is incredibly quick turnover in the product design world. 51% of designers begin looking for new opportunities within a year due to poor leadership and stagnant growth.

I took a look at how to take a stale design org and revitalize it for growth opportunities, scaling and employee retention. Utilizing research from other orgs who have scaled successfully, voices in the industry for design leadership and my own findings, I outlined a process to transform our team.

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Look to Your Team
Like any other user experience problem, the key to designing an organization that works for everyone is to listen to your users. In this case, that means the members of your team. You have to dig deep and get to the root of systemic problems and find out what the people want.
I initiated this as a personal project out of frustration with my own growth on an idle team. I conducted all research, interviews, surveys, data analysis and process creation for this project and turned it into a proposal for departmental expansion and title review.
The main obstacle I faced with this research was lack of resources and support from management, so I did what any leader does…figure it out anyway.

“A leader is someone who demonstrates what’s possible” 
Mark Yarnell

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What is a Career Ladder?
• A career ladder is a general, often hierarchical, framework that outlines the structure of a team or department.
• It provides a clear depiction of all the cogs in the machine and how they work together.
• It outlines defined paths for career advancement.
• It provides opportunities for both lateral and vertical moves through learning opportunities and collaboration, and gives design a voice at multiple levels.
• It is not an indicator of team member importance, nor should it be used as a tool for micromanagement.
• It is a way to keep a pulse on the goals and skills of our team members.

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What is a Team Health Monitor?
A specialized self-assessment tool designed for agile teams to measure team effectiveness
and happiness. As somewhat of a comprehensive retrospective, health monitor responses are
used to improve team relationships, processes, morale and growth.

Atlassian created a Team Playbook to guide and level-up their teams. They surveyed 1,000+
team members across different industries, and found certain behaviors lead to higher
achievement. Practices that focus on empathetic transparency (the freedom to share ideas,
opportunities to help make decisions, and deeper connection with others) lead to stronger

As a first step to crafting a career ladder, it was imperative to assess the current health of our
team using this tool. I created a Team Health Monitor survey with questions derived from Atlassian’s Team Playbook, other org design and leadership resources, as well as of my own creation.

The questions centered around the following topics: Collaboration, Communication, Growth, Performance, Support, Titles and Transparency.
I analyzed and graphed the responses to use as visual representations of our perceived team health in the career ladder proposal.

*Important to note: As a valued member of the Product Design team it was important to include my responses as well, but they were kept separate from the other survey responses so as not to skew the data.

Summary of Responses
The Trouble With Titles
• Companies with smaller Product teams mistakenly believe a list with titles and pay grades is enough. Typically, the financial commitment is assessed first, and based on that a title for the requisition is then created.

• The underlying problem with this methodology is that the team has one idea of what skills and experience they need for a role, and how they perceive that level of expertise is usually gauged differently than how it is viewed by the organization.

• Once candidates are being considered, the team wants to hire the strongest candidates of the pool, and this often does not match the resulting job title, nor does the title match the responsibilities.

• The tendency is to always bring in more senior-level designers, but pigeon-hole them into junior roles to accommodate the pay grade.

Titles are extremely arbitrary and varied as well. What one company considers a Senior or Design Lead is considered a Principal or Director at another. There is not a universal standard, so it is up to the organization to come up with their own definitions for each role.
Defining PD Roles
Crafting organizational definitions for roles provides clarity on responsibilities and career paths within the team and greater org.

Common titles on Product Design Teams
Generating a Skills Matrix
Looking at the role definitions provided, the next step is to hold a collaborative workshop around generating a skills matrix.

What is a skills matrix?

A skills matrix is a well-articulated set of core skills a team identifies as essential to succeed. They include skills in the design craft itself and other skills required to produce excellent work, collaborate and communicate effectively, and the skills needed to lead. Although every single individual might not, every team, collectively, should have these skills to be successful.

“A skills matrix, if done right, should allow a team to align on the skills this team needs to have, overall. This means that teams and not individuals, should have a mix of all of these skills to be successful. It should outline the mix of skills we currently have, skills we know we really need, and skills industry teams have that we need to get better at. Some of those skills might not be applicable to your current team but it is extremely important to not fall into the trap of building a matrix that represents your current team versus the team you want to transform into.”

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Workshop Agenda
1. Set the expectations by providing an overview of the exercise and sharing the goals, principles and framework.

2. Each participant writes a set of core skills for each of the main framework categories.

3. Review the core skill sets suggested by each participant, ask questions for any needed clarification.

4. All participants get 5 votes per category to highlight the skills they feel are most needed and valuable.

5. The team works together to generate a Top 10* list of skills across all categories. Everyone has veto power and is allowed to defend their choices.

*While 10 is the suggested goal number, the purpose of this exercise is to whittle down the core skills to an agreed upon set, so if it is more than 10 there isn’t an issue as long as everyone agrees.
Why is this exercise important?

As the team begins to work through the core skills framework a few things will occur

• Common core beliefs and skills will be suggested

• New ideas about needs will surface

• Old ideas about needs will be debunked

• Leaders will organically rise to the challenge

The agreed upon set of core skills will then be used to inform which roles are vital to the team’s success. This will start the process of building a career ladder that works for everyone.
Assess Your Current Team Structure
Advancement Tracks
• If your current team structure follows a solitary path into upper design management, there are several issues with this formation:

• There is only upward mobility; no lateral movement.

• Leaders don’t always want to manage people.

• Craft leadership requires different skills than People leadership.

• There isn’t a balance of skills and responsibilities spread across the team.

• There’s no opportunity for advancement when there is only a single position to move into.

• There is very little delegation, making everyone feel like they have to work on everything all the time.

• It creates silos in not just the types of projects, but also in the types of roles and responsibilities assigned.

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Lateral Movements are Still Opportunities
There are no rules that say career mobility is always upward. Lateral moves offer chances to explore new areas, try your hand at leadership, or focus more heavily on the craft of design. They can be short-term or long-term assignments depending on the structure of your team and what the goals of the individuals are.

Lateral opportunities are also an alternative for when your team is feeling stuck but it's not the right time for a promotion. Designers desire to be heard and offering them the chance to try out different positions or gain new skills goes a long way in employee satisfaction.

“Lateral experiences can help you to fine-tune skills, build new relationships, learn a new or different approach, acquire deeper hands-on expertise, see the organizational operations from a different angle, and add to your knowledge base.”

“You can think of the exploratory experience as a chance to investigate possibilities. It may involve short-term work assignments or shadowing someone who’s in a position you may be considering. The exploratory experience could be as simple as having a conversation about the requirements of a role that seems attractive to you. It’s a chance to check things out to see what will work—and what might not work. Exploring is a very smart step to take before investing time and energy in pursuing other experiences.”
Leaders Don't Always
Want to Manage People
People management definitely is not for everyone. Unfortunately, in the majority of companies the only way to advance is to get promoted into a position where you oversee others. The sad truth about this is that a lot of the leaders put in that role do not possess the skills necessary to lead a team, nor are they personally invested in it because that wasn't their career aspiration.

Once you become a leader, your job is to no longer worry about yourself and your contributions. You are in charge of and responsible for the development and success of every member of your team. Leaders give credit to their teams when it is due, and accept all the blame when there are issues. Design leaders know the way and show the way.

“Leadership is a privilege, not a position.”

“Becoming a manager is not a promotion, it is a career change.”

“People leadership is hard and requires a very different set of skills, which
must be learned over time, taking precedence over design skills.”

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Distribution of Skills
Creates Success
Do you think it's better for everyone to share the same skillset and do the same job? Or do you think it's more valuable to have a diverse skillset and allow people to put those skills to use by doing the job that suits them best?

If you answered the former, we have a problem. A balanced and successful team is comprised of an array of talent that works to its strengths. You don't want 8 designers on the same team who all want to do research, or only visual design. It's vital to have members willing and wanting to work on all of the parts of the process, and not all at the same time.

“Team members must complement each other, must develop the right chemistry, if the value of the team is to be fully realized. This doesn’t mean, however, that members are clones of each other. For example, the degree of focus on results and relationships needs to be the right mix within a team to produce optimal outcomes. In particular, a group that is heavily results oriented will benefit from having some members who are more relationship focused. Inversely, a group that is heavily relationship based will benefit from adding those who are more task focused.”

“The predecessor had only hired team members with lots of experience. There weren’t any junior team members to take over this production work and free up their senior teammates to solve the bigger challenges.”

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Promotions Should Happen
for the Right Reasons
I cannot emphasize this enough...promote players whose actions earn game time.

There is nothing more discouraging to a team than watching someone get promoted who has not earned it. Simply having "seniority" is not a reason for promotion. Examine the results. Who delivered? Who fell short? Who goes above and beyond? Who does the bare minimum? These are all good gauges of performance when deciding who to give a boost.

“Less extreme but more common are firms that promote people who behave in ways that are at odds with the values they embrace. For instance, a firm talks about the importance of results and then promotes someone who repeatedly fails to deliver on his or her performance targets. Or a firm says that it values teamwork and then promotes someone who has delivered results but in a manner that is anything other than collaborative (hoarding information from other groups, failing to share resources, or undermining colleagues who are viewed as competitors, for example)."

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Delegation Fosters
New Opportunities
Unicorns are not real no matter how magical they seem.

The talent you hire may have the skills to do it all, but a good leader won't let them. Instead, a manager invested in their growth would do everything in their power to limit distractions, blockers and busy work so their designers can focus on what they were hired to do.

This may require delegation of tasks or you stepping up and taking one for the team. Your job is now to create the least stressful and supportive environment possible so your team not only wants to work, but wants to work hard for you because they know you have their backs.  

“If done well, team members will learn to appreciate the ability to remain focused on the work, instead of being sucked into the work-about-the-work that insidiously steals a surprising amount of time.”

“Much of what causes designers to stress in their work is the result of flawed operations.
Symptoms include:

• Trouble coordinating internally, particularly around process, communications, and file management

• Difficulty collaborating with other parts of the organization

• Inappropriate staffing on projects and programs

• Lack of visibility into related work-streams or duplicate efforts

• Non-existent measurement”

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Breaking Down Barriers
Give your employees the power to do their jobs. Welcome their ideas. Champion them up to the decision-makers. Allow them to contribute and feel like they can make a difference.

Feeling under-appreciated and left out of crucial conversations is extremely damaging to morale. Invite your designers to the decision-making table, listen and respond thoughtfully. 

“In the past, the highest barrier to innovation was organizational structure, with hierarchy and silos acting as bottlenecks. But that’s changing. With cross-functional teams, flat organizations, and collaboration becoming the norm, the gap between our desire as individuals to innovate and the ability to execute our ideas is less pronounced.”

“Even flat or matrixed organizations can fall victim to this type of negative behavior if a company centralizes decision-making in the hands of a toxic leader, stifles transparency, or fails to genuinely empower people to do their job. When employees feel trapped in a system in which they can’t be their best selves, negativity becomes a core part of the culture.”

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Dividing the Path
The role of the designer is in continuous flux. New fields are emerging all the time and rising technologies give birth to new skillsets. Product designers, in particular, always think about flow. It’s imperative to figure out how to continue to grow the roles of highly seasoned design ICs (individual contributors) without pushing them into management — or leading them to think they need to become managers to be successful.
How do we achieve this?
By utilizing a multi-path career ladder approach, we can better match team members to their strengths and capabilities.
From The Branching Career Path
From The Branching Career Path
From Building UX Teams at Scale: Inside Atlassian’s Bespoke Hiring Process
From Building UX Teams at Scale: Inside Atlassian’s Bespoke Hiring Process
From Making the Band: Building Exceptional Design Teams at Spotify
From Making the Band: Building Exceptional Design Teams at Spotify
From UX Career Path: Manager or Individual Contributor
From UX Career Path: Manager or Individual Contributor
Proposed ReOrg:
A 3-Prong Career Path
The most successful product design teams all have one thing in common: they don't have everyone in the same type of role on the same path.

The team is organized into 3 sectors:

• Craft Leadership

• People Leadership

• A Hybrid of Both

These 3 forks may intertwine at points on the career ladder, but for the most part they remain separate and denote a choice.

Allow your team members to choose where they feel they fit best. Of course, as their mentor you can guide them if you see something in them that you wish to foster, but remember it is their choice.

If they wish to remain focused on the hands-on design work, but want to elevate their skills, then Craft Leadership is most likely for them.

Designers drawn to helping others, creating processes and dedicated to helping things run smoothly may be suited to People Leadership.

Then there are those that don't really know quite where they belong. They may love to design and deep-dive into UX, but they also get a kick out of sharing those skills with others. For those that want the best of both worlds, there is a Hybrid option of both Craft & People Leadership.

Whichever path they choose initially, they are not locked into forever either. They may switch tracks completely or dabble. That's what lateral moves are for, remember?

In the next step, you'll find out how to assess where each member of your team fits based on their strengths and goals.

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Making It a Reality
Using the below steps, your main objective to solidify and improve your team should be to craft your Product Design Career Ladder.

1. Use the results of the Team Health Monitor to create goals for improvement.

2. Assess your team’s current titles and what they really mean.

3. Generate your team skills matrix.

4. Define the roles needed to achieve the goals in the core skill framework.

5. Looking at the core skills framework, set aside time with each team member to go over their skills and goals. You will use this assessment for placing them on a career track.

5. Reorg into a multi-path structure that has defined growth opportunities for Craft Leadership, People Leadership and a Hybrid of Both.

6. Evaluate how the team conveys performance metrics and rewards hard work. Your team needs to know how they stack up against expectations, but it's also imperative to recognize them for their efforts. Teams that missing either one of those guiding lights are wandering around in the dark hoping they don't stumble.

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The Results
I drafted a proposal deck presenting the findings from our Team Health Monitor and outlining this entire Product Design Career Ladder process.

The proposal went under review, but I ended up leaving my organization for a better growth opportunity. The positive outcome is that I now have a validated case study on how to scale a product design team that I can use in future leadership positions.

This case study also became the basis for my talk at Product Elevation 2022—How to Scale: Rethinking the Product Design Career Ladder.

If you have found this helpful or would like to share your own career advancement ideas, I would love to hear them!
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