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Building Career Levels for Growth and Retention

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The core of sales enablement’s role lies in helping salespeople succeed. While competency mapping is useful to determine the characteristics and skills needed to succeed within a role, sales enablement can translate competencies into more practical guides for salespeople through career leveling.

Building competencies into career levels can take competency mapping a step further and provide essential guidance to salespeople on how to level up in their careers. By using levels to identify where employees stand, and opportunities for growth, career leveling can provide a framework for transparency and consistency across the organization.

On an organizational level, career leveling might be something your human resources team is already doing – it’s an exercise that can greatly benefit company culture, from recruiting to driving retention. Detailed job descriptions with clear opportunities for growth help attract the right candidates for the role, while standardized qualifications can help ensure the candidate is a good fit. Career leveling also provides a consistent approach to pay and promotions, creating more pay equity across the organization. By creating standardized criteria for each role, career leveling frameworks provide a consistent approach to career paths and professional development, ultimately driving a more transparent company culture – and therefore, retention.

When it comes to career leveling for sales, sales enablement can play a pivotal role in partnering with HR to craft the right level steps that align to the competencies, learning paths, and professional development programs. For salespeople, career leveling can be an essential tool to help reps feel momentum within their careers, and set their sights on achievable goals. Identifying clear levels and steps for growth helps sales reps understand where they are now, and provides guidance for how to get to where they want to be.

Career levels can be used to guide many important decisions within an organization, such as promotions or pay, so it is a process that requires care and detailed planning. Most importantly, cross-functional collaboration is crucial to ensure accurate and effective levels across the organization.

“The way you keep people on board and empower them to move up, across, and diagonally within our organization, is to create the right path for them to move through,” said Devon McDermott, vice president of global enablement at Persado. “So, that’s enablement, that’s sales ops, that’s HR, it’s everybody working together. It’s essential.”

Here are four steps to take to begin crafting your own career levels for sales.

Planning and Research

Career levels can become a foundational part of company culture and processes, so it is essential to clearly define how levels will be used and the value they can add, both to the organization and its employees. Practitioners should dedicate time to conducting research prior to building career levels in order to determine how best to develop a solution. Focus initial research on developing a deep understanding of current organizational structures, as well as who key stakeholders will be and what they will utilize career levels for. Use this research to determine how your career levels will be structured in order to maximize impact.

To create a strong foundation for building career levels that align with business values, consider the following strategies to guide research and planning:

  • Designate a task force. Building career levels can be a hefty task and isn’t something you will want to have to redo in a year’s time. To ensure that your career levels are effective, practical, and can last long-term, make sure that your team can commit to the time, resources, and dedicated focus that building a career leveling framework requires. Your task force should consist of those who will most frequently use the career leveling framework and those who are most familiar with the responsibilities and scopes of specific roles, such as sales managers or HR.
  • Create your vision for career leveling. Before you begin to develop levels or define roles, ensure that you have a clear vision for the desired outcomes and results of your career leveling framework. Articulate how career leveling will align with business initiatives or current structures, and add value across the organization. Try asking the following questions:
    • What is the purpose of implementing career levels?
    • How will this affect the nature of various roles, job scopes, and the overall governance system of the sales organization?
    • What company values need to be tied into career leveling?
  • Manage stakeholder involvement. It is important to find the right balance when it comes to communication with key stakeholders. Involving sales managers or leaders is a great way to ensure that career levels are accurate and effective. No one knows the responsibilities, scope, and workflows of specific roles better than the leaders within these teams. Their feedback and input on how to structure levels and define roles can help create a more accurate framework.

However, it is important to remove bias when needed. Having too much influence from managers or leaders can lead to bias in the framework. In general, people tend to overemphasize the importance of their own roles, and knowing career levels could be tied to promotions or compensation could create bias, even inadvertently. Like all systems of measurement, career levels are susceptible to error, so controlling for bias is essential to crafting a fair framework.

Developing a deep understanding of desired outcomes and current organizational processes is the first step in building effective career levels. Investing time into careful planning and research ensures a strong starting point for the work ahead.

Defining Roles

Clearly defined roles are the foundation for accurate career levels. If jobs aren’t defined correctly, career leveling frameworks can produce role conflicts, place difficult demands on employees, lead to inefficiencies, or create perceptions of inequity (for example, reps feeling as though they are “doing too much for too little”).

To begin defining roles, explicitly state how each role fits within the organization as a whole. Align with sales managers and leaders to identify the responsibilities, expectations, and impact of each role. Make sure to articulate how each role works to drive overarching business goals or initiatives. To identify the responsibilities and impact of a role, try asking the following questions:

  • What does this job have authority over?
  • What are they accountable for?
  • What knowledge or skills are necessary for this role?
  • What happens if this job is not performed correctly or consistently?

“Figure out who you have, what their skill set is, how you can develop that skill set, so that when you choose the path and the trajectory of the people, you’re doing it appropriately,” said Tanya Kunze, CEO at Swift Coaching.

Keep in mind that job descriptions play a critical role in recruiting and hiring. Job descriptions should help HR and managers understand exactly who is being hired, why they are being hired, what skills they need to succeed, and where there are skill gaps.

Take a look at each job description to ensure they answer these questions, and revise them if not. In doing so, be sure not to over-define roles in order to leave room for autonomy and flexibility.

To help ensure that these job descriptions can be seamlessly translated into career levels, take the time to standardize the format of job descriptions – using an organized nomenclature and consistent language throughout. Finally, ensure that job descriptions align with company values, as this will actively encourage reps to demonstrate those values in performing their job duties.

Creating Levels

Once roles have been defined, determine a structure for leveling in order to appropriately assign roles to levels, and create paths for promotions within a job family. Levels should specify the skills and characteristics needed for success at each stage, and give clear guidance for how to progress to the next level.

Oftentimes, a role will span multiple levels, but will have different competencies demonstrated at each level as the employee progresses. For example, AE1, AE2, and AE3 might represent different levels of account executives. This allows reps to see not only how they can move to a new role, but also where they stand and how they can progress within their current role.

In order to effectively align roles with levels, consider the following strategies:

  • Determine a framework for the number of levels. The number of career levels within the framework should create a tangible sense of progression. Finding the right number of levels for your organization should strike a balance between simplicity and a sense of achievement. Too many levels can create an overly complex framework, and diminish the sense of accomplishment that comes with promotions. However, too few levels can over-simplify the framework, and make employees feel “stuck”, or as though progress is out of reach. Many organizations implement 4-7 levels for each job family.
  • Match job responsibilities to level expectations. Assign roles to levels by determining where there are clear steps in responsibility, impact, department size, or business needs. Confer with function executives, HR partners, and direct managers to determine how best to match roles to levels.
  • Remove ambiguities. Differentiate roles that fall under each job level by thinking through the responsibilities, expectations, and impact of each. If a role can fall under multiple levels, clearly define what is expected of this role at each level in order to differentiate them.

Levels are referenced in many important conversations within the organization, such as during annual reviews or when considering opportunities for promotions. As such, it is essential to pay careful attention to the wording of different levels or gaps between them. It can also be helpful to document the process of slotting roles in order to provide transparency to how levels were assigned or justify steps needed to level up.

Building Career Paths

While career levels can provide a series of steps within a job family, career paths are useful to guide long-term goals or overarching growth within an organization. Creating career paths provides a clear direction for sales reps to move up within the organization or even to move laterally into a different role. Career levels often work within career paths to map out the skills needed to advance along a certain track within a field. By creating career paths, employees have an idea of role opportunities within a given field, and a clear path to reach long-term goals through leveling.

In order to craft career paths that help employees pursue their goals, ensure that there is a path for every track within the organization. For example, create separate paths for sales managers and sales reps. This ensures that reps will become managers because they are passionate about managing people, not just because it is the next step in their career path. Creating an equally meaningful career path for individual contributors allows people who want to focus on honing a different set of skills to do so while maintaining opportunities for meaningful growth.

“[We created] paths so that people can see exactly what they need to do to either move up in the sales organization, move over to a customer success role, or perhaps even leave the business, and that’s okay,” said Devon McDermott. “We’re preparing them for everything that they could possibly want to do.”

The final step to a successful career leveling framework is implementation. In order to ensure adoption across the organization, take the time to communicate with sales managers and reps about why career leveling is important, how you expect it to influence long-term company performance, and how it will benefit sales reps on an individual basis. Once reps are assigned levels to match their current roles, have one-on-one conversations with sales reps to ensure their levels are fair and effective.

Ultimately, career leveling provides a clear roadmap for growth and a standardized structure for promotions and compensation. With a transparent framework for career advancement, sales enablement is better equipped to develop sales reps and drive retention.