How We Handle Career Progression at Aira
The last few weeks have been pretty full on with interviews at Aira. Over the last four years, we’ve pretty much always been on the lookout for great people to join our team, but the last few weeks have seen us hiring for five roles which, even for us, is a lot!
One of the consistent themes that arose from the interviews was that two things commonly made people unhappy in their current roles:
- No obvious career path, progression or next step for them
- Little or no opportunity to learn from people around them or externally
Now, I’ve done enough interviews to know that when you ask someone why they’re looking to leave their current job, the reasons above are the easy ones and may not account for the entire picture. At the same time, I’ve hired enough people who have given these reasons and then gone onto thrive when these issues are improved. Even if a candidate doesn’t give the reasons above, generally there are two main reasons why someone leaves their job:
- Lack of career progression
- Their manager
The latter is a post for another day but I’ve written about leadership and management before if you’d like to take a look.
Some of you will also be saying to yourself right now that “more money” is another reason and to some extent you’re right. However, it ties closely in with progression and I talk about money as a motivator below.
Today, I want to share some principles that can help guide career progression, as well as sharing some of the specific things we do at Aira. Career progression is a big part of our culture and you can also get an overview in this section of our culture code.
Quick caveat - we’re not perfect at this, I don’t think we ever will be, but given feedback like this on working here, I don’t think we’re doing a terrible job either.
Principles of career progression
Before sharing some specifics, I thought it would be useful to share what led to the systems and processes we have now.
Everyone will leave at some point
They will, get over it. This tweet sums up my position on it quite nicely.
I once heard another business founder share an approach here which is to ask their team what the company can do to set them up for the next step in their career. I don’t explicitly ask this very often at Aira, but I like it because it openly confronts reality and makes it ok to talk about career progression at another company.
One thing we do ask though is what the long-term holds for someone. Some don't know and that’s fine, others will have it mapped out. Either way, understanding this can help you spot opportunities to help them (and you) toward that goal. One of the team has openly stated that they want their own agency at some point in the future - I love that and we can help them achieve that while still helping Aira and our clients along the way.
Everyone needs a next step
Not everyone will have their career or life mapped out and that’s fine. I’ve always encouraged younger people (man, I feel old) to not obsess over it too much because there are plenty of opportunities out there.
But everyone needs at least the next step, no matter how small it is. It could be as big as moving toward their next promotion to a more senior level with more responsibilities. Or it could be as small as learning a new skill.
The thing itself is subjective. What’s important is that the person feels like they have something that they’re working towards.
Money isn’t progression for most people
Of course money is important, let’s not kid ourselves. But from my experience, it’s not the main driver for most people, particularly given the industry we work in. Other industries that are more sales/commission driven, sure I can see how it would be different.
The key thing here is that money alone isn’t enough when it comes to progression. If someone isn’t happy in their job, throwing more money at them is only a short-term fix on an underlying issue. If that underlying issue is career progression, money is definitely not going to solve it. Instead, they’ll keep looking for opportunities elsewhere but maybe suspend their search for a few weeks.
Progression doesn’t have to be management
The traditional career path means that as you become more senior, you take on more managerial responsibilities, which is likely to include management of people. So it’s quite easy to assume that to progress, you need to be able to manage people/a team at some point.
This shouldn’t be the case and it isn’t at Aira.
Some people simply don’t want to manage others. Some people love the idea of it.
If you’re the former, it shouldn’t get in the way of progression. It just means that progression is a bit different and is more skills/core competency-focused rather than people-focused. More on this below but in summary, we take account of this at Aira and lay out different career paths for people based on their desire to manage people or not.
Hat tip to Distilled here who helped me learn this a few years ago and thanks to Lisa Myers for helping me understand how to roll this out in reality (more on this below).
What career progression looks like at Aira
Expectations instead of job descriptions
Everyone needs to know what is expected of them in their roles. If they don’t know this, there is no way for them or you to objectively measure how well they’re doing. Of course there are going to be elements of a role that aren’t very tangible, but there are still ways to account for that and make sure it’s clear what is expected of someone.
The traditional way of doing this is via job descriptions. Every role has a job description and from here, someone can understand their role. This can sync up with job adverts too and make it clear to potential hires what their role will be.
About a year ago, I started writing job descriptions for every role at Aira. After a couple, it started to occur to me that many roles and levels of seniority shared the same expectations, objectives and behaviours. For example, the job description for a Digital PR Executive will cross over heavily with an SEO Executive in things like written deliverables and client comms.
This led to me rethinking things a bit and instead of job descriptions for specific roles, I wrote a list of expectations that we have based on level of role, in our case:
- Senior Consultant
This meant that we did something very important (I didn’t realise how important at the time): we separated behaviours from skills. There are common behaviours that we expect from the team, regardless of their particular role or skillset.
Here is a snippet from our expectation document named “What it means to be an Executive at Aira”:
[box]Develop your skills in giving and receiving feedback
We expect you to be open to feedback on all of your work, both positive and constructive
Why: A culture of open, honest, constructive feedback is at the heart of Aira. We want to constantly improve as individuals and as a company to stay ahead of competitors and deliver work to clients that improves their business. You need to be able to give and receive feedback effectively in order to keep improving and support the team around you.
- Learn about the importance of good, timely feedback
- Learn how to give constructive, useful feedback in the right manner
- Welcome and encourage feedback from other members of the team - actively ask for it, positive and negative
Whether someone is doing SEO, PPC, Digital PR or in the account management team, the behaviours above are highly valued and we expect this of everyone.
These behaviours change as someone is promoted and they take on more responsibility. We also have specific behaviours for anyone who is a line manager, for example this is from our “What it means to be a Line Manager at Aira” document:
Clear the headspace of your team
We expect you to remove roadblocks and free up the headspace of your team to do their best possible work
Why: Headspace matters a lot. It is really easy to think about too many things and allow that to get in the way of us getting things done. If your team are constantly fighting with your own headspace and struggling to find headspace to think strategically about their projects, then they need your help and support. Otherwise, their work will be sub-par, leading to an unhappy project and a self-fulfilling prophecy.
- Encourage good delegation of work
- Help with project management, getting things done and to-do lists
- Protect them from unnecessary noise - they don’t need to worry about team or office capacity for example - keep them focused on their clients
- Make sure they are not working crazy hours - they need a balance and to know that working hard isn’t the same as working long hours
Day-to-day, these documents are used for a few things:
- Guiding the team on what they need to learn and areas they can focus on improving. They are often referred to during personal development reviews and help set objectives.
- Helping us establish what Aira values and instilling the subsequent behaviours across the company as we grow.
- Letting team members see the “next step” and what is expected of them if they want to get promoted - it’s laid out very clearly by looking at the next level up in your career path.
The last point is a key one and ties back into the section above which outlines how important it is for someone to know the next step in their career and have a plan for stepping toward it.
These aren’t set in stone and we’ve edited, tweaked and updated them to reflect the changing needs of the business and our clients. This is how it should be and we’re comfortable with these always being a work in progress.
Core competency guidelines
While the expectations are role-agnostic, we appreciate that we also need to be able to give guidance on the skills required to do a good job on client projects. So alongside these documents, we also have an outline of hard skills for each role within Aira so that the team can review and see where their gaps are, then work with their line managers to put in place training/hands-on project time to fill these gaps.
Here is a snippet of this guide:
This gives a more concrete set of skills/deliverables that each type of role needs to be comfortable with. We don’t expect anyone to master every single skill within their role, but over time there shouldn’t be anything within this list which surprises them or that they feel uncomfortable with.
Training modules and budget
We run a combination of internal and external training sessions to help with skill development. For internal training, we have a range of topics which are owned and delivered by different members of the Aira team. Here are a few that I lead along with Harry and Matt Kay:
When it comes to external training, each team member has a training budget which they own and can use however they want. This budget gets renewed every year and puts control into the hands of the individual when it comes to things like external training courses and conferences.
Clear career paths and next steps
By now, the importance of showing someone the next step in their career should be clear. To help make this concrete for the team, we map out progression paths and then split out more senior roles depending on whether someone wants to be a line manager or not.
As mentioned earlier, Distilled influenced a lot of my thinking here and more recently, a presentation by Lisa Myers at SMX Munich really helped crystallise how this could be executed in reality. Thank you Lisa!
Each discipline within Aira has career progression mapped out in the following way and each step has a link to the expectation docs outlined above:
As an example of how this works, if someone is currently a Digital PR Executive, they can review the expectations for their current role and make sure they’re doing as much as they can or getting support where they need help. If the next step in their career is a promotion, they can clearly see the expectations for a Digital PR Consultant and understand what they need to do in order to get that promotion.
Something that can happen here and it’s a reality that we have to face - there may not always be a next step available immediately. The most obvious example is a team lead position. If there isn’t a team in place to lead, then you can’t promote someone into this position! This puts you in a tricky spot and there is no single right answer to this. Ultimately, this is where you need to balance the needs of the business against the needs of the individual. Most individuals will understand if the role doesn’t exist yet and be prepared to wait for their opportunity. At the same time, you need to do all you can to prepare them and give them something in the meantime such as management training or even mentoring a more junior member of the team or an intern.
One note on this - these have been in place for about a year now and generally work well, but they’re not perfect and will never be finished. We are always looking for ways to improve all of this and have made tweaks over the last year or so.
To wrap up…
You have a few examples of how we do things at Aira, but how you execute on this is totally up to you and will be dependent on your existing processes and team culture. No matter what though, remember that everyone needs to feel like they’re progressing and they have a next step.
If you focus on just one thing, let it be this - you should always be able to have a conversation with your team if they ask the question: “So, what’s the next step for me?”