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Time to rethink the traditional approach to career - including skills and growth?

Feeling that love/hate relationship with the traditional tools and processes for developing people? More specifically; the career frameworks and the typical career paths that we have gotten used to, that go hand-in-hand with hierarchical job architectures built on level structures and impressive business titles. While we don’t question the intent of them, like clarity for the individual, the commitment from the organization, making sure there are structured opportunities and development plans and making sure pay is equitable and competitive, we think it’s time to challenge if they really serve the purpose they are set out to do? 

We see it time and again: A huge effort to build a career framework that’s transparent for everyone and has clear objectives, often developed in close cooperation with the managers who will use it. But when put into practice, the framework still ends up motivating a check-the-box behavior where people expect that once they’ve gained “all the skills on the list” the next level of responsibility will automatically follow, without regard to whether the business needs an increased scope or more complex role on that position or not. In this day and age, this just won’t work. The skills and capabilities that we need today is often new knowledge that we’ve never even heard of before, things that are not taught at the universities yet. And what they are, changes more rapidly than ever. That’s not a good time to invest in well-documented processes with templates and lists and “contracts” that make people believe that if you tick off a bunch of pre-defined knowledge gaps today, you will move into this new role tomorrow. 

The new will be something more like a circle of trust, and much more about understanding the business as a whole. It will be about trusting the process and, even more so, enabling and investing in talent growth!

Why? Because people need to be promoted to positions that the business needs and where they have the potential to really make great things happen, not based on past ticks in boxes or because they are great at self-marketing. 

More than ever, people need to focus on growth, keep their passion and curiosity, drive their own development and stay current. This is what will make them promotable. Yes, the employer has a great responsibility here too, and companies that are not paying attention to this, enabling learning, and making sure there is an ongoing dialogue about skills and performance – those companies will not stay relevant and competitive either. 

Our old ways of thinking are holding us back, just like our needs to follow a designated route that might be outdated before you are even half-way there. And for what – to feel false security?

In the worst of cases, career frameworks are built-in isolation and not as holistic systems that connect to compensation & benefits, learning, and development, talent acquisition, or organizational design (including the small but very hot topic of business titles and promotions). If all these elements live their own lives with different drivers in different functions, alignment will not be great.

The Spotify Growth Incubator

A couple of weeks ago I got the opportunity to join a design session with great colleagues from different parts of HR at Spotify. We were looking at what we internally have started talking about as the “Spotify Growth Incubator”. The question was: “How might we talk about and help grow careers without being constrained by traditional career ladders?” 

We want to be the company that really makes people grow, not in the traditional way of tenure and promotions but instead with a focus on growth of skills. How can we facilitate that? In the workshop, we were challenging the way we currently think, the way we were taught, and the ways we have been programmed through our own experiences. This means – in all honesty – challenging the way in which a majority of our employees are still referring to career opportunities.  

We want our band members to grow new skills, deeper skills. Re-skill to be able to meet the future requirements, or up-skill to take on more or new responsibility and sometimes off-skill to make room for all the new skills needed. 

We need all our leaders to keep an attitude towards the team of “I’m here to support your growth, I’m thrilled to have you on the team for the time you’re here, but I’ll also be happy to help you find new challenges outside of the team so we can all grow stronger and better faster”. 

So there can be no “finders keepers” walls between teams in the company. Spotifiers must be able to move easily between units and teams, to suit their growth, and we can’t have any hierarchical structures that hold them back. This is a leadership trait and approach more than an HR tool. 

What if we’re not monkeys, but bees?

We scrapped the “career ladder” years ago and have been talking monkey bars instead because they are a far better analogy for how people actually move around during their career – and to stress that, sometimes, sideways or a different direction may be the most natural step for growth and taking on new challenges. 

Now though, we are thinking of it more as a bee-hive! 

We have the honeycomb with hexagonal cells where the bee larvae grow and pupate and grow into bees. Did you know those cells come in different sizes? There’s one to suit everyone! The growth is represented by skills filing those cells, you have your core skills in the middle (where it’s the warmest) and then you start filling aligning cells to grow broader. As your knowledge gets deeper all the cells will fill all the way, but they can still grow broader so you are never fully grown, there are always new things to learn. And all the bees are also working towards a common goal. We’re not sure bee-hives are the best parable but at least it works now in our lab stage developing this new way of thinking. 

How to grow sweet skills

Skills cannot be learned in the classroom alone, to really master them you have to do things over and over and learn new ways and adapt to different situations. So when a leader manages to facilitate skills growth through identifying situations, projects and roles where a team member can learn and grow, both parties feel great. 

Imagine a development talk that is completely focused on which skills the individual wants to grow and how we can make that happen! We want to create a way of comparing skills so that I, as an individual contributor, can compare my skills with what is necessary for the next role I’m interested in and needed in. An easy way for me to clearly see the gaps, almost like transparent overlay sheets. And then maybe another layer with open roles where I could learn and practice the skills I need. If we had a tool like that and combined it with excellent knowledge sharing practices, where it would be easy to find people in the organization who have the skills I need and who would be willing to mentor me, there would literally be nothing holding back our growth. 

What if next steps would include a shift of our job ads to focus on not only what you’ll do and who you are, but what skills you’ll grow if you take on this new role. 

We have also talked about what would happen if we dare to go even further, ditch the business titles and instead start sharing our personal “heatmap” of skills so it becomes more transparent what skills I have, how I grow, and what skills have that I can share that with others to help them grow. But let’s save that idea for the future and another blog post.

Keeping track of skills, the smart way

We’re also being practical. We all know that we can’t expect employees to diligently, promptly, and regularly update their skills proficiency and add new skills to their CV or profile. There’s just not enough in it for them, to make that a priority during the workday. But what we can do is to motivate that behavior by showing them what the return on their invested time is, make sure the internal marketplace is thought through and functional, and apply as much automation as possible. 

And let’s not get into self-assessing skills too much, as we know that most of us either overestimate or underestimate our skills, very few of us are spot on. And when managers evaluate they might not see the full picture either. The best assessment is the one that’s put together from many angles, and what will it take to introduce next-generation 360? That said, we also think we need to be careful to not overassess. After all, the exact level of proficiency in each skill is way less interesting than the will and ability to always keep growing. 

Can we build this beehive ourselves?

This is not where we offer final conclusions and a shiny new solution to fulfill all our growth dreams. We’re just getting started with this work. We need to get more concrete and specific, and we should probably start working on a solution that is dynamic and not like old static frameworks. Something that evolves with all the people at Spotify and how we grow, challenge, mentor, coach, push back and develop as a company. 

Yes, this might be wishful thinking, or utopian even. And we might drop some of these ideas or get new ones, or we might fail in a big way. But it’s in our DNA to dare to disrupt and not cling on to chosen truths. We like to “think it, build it, ship it, tweak it” and not just provide the same old same old. And we are not in the business of creating tick-in-the-box solutions. We are, however, very aware of what most people are expressing and asking for; and right now what most people express is wanting clearer frameworks. What we’re saying here is that “clearer frameworks” may be the one thing we can NOT give you, if we want to get serious about being serious about a culture of growth and relevant up-skilling that leads to continued hireability. 

If, in the end, we fail this challenge, then at least we tried something new and challenged the status quo that doesn’t really work. 


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