Building career paths is one of the most rewarding parts of being on a leadership team. You get to see people grow and develop, and you’re able to support them through that process. But if you haven't created career paths in a while, it can be a bit daunting.
Before I share tips on how to build out a career ladder, I want to acknowledge there’s a lot of different paths CSMs can take that are outside of moving up as an individual contributor or into CS leadership. But I’m going to focus on creating career paths for growing within the CSM team.
Tip #1: Identify the competencies required at each level
The first part of creating career paths that I focus on is identifying competencies or “key skills” that people need at each level. You can’t just compare CSMs on their numbers because not every book of business is the same—you have to take their performance across metrics and pair that with an evaluation of how they’re demonstrating key CSM skills.
A good way to start identifying the competencies CSMs need at different levels is to think about the most successful CSMs you have currently or have worked with previously—as well as some of the less successful CSMs you’ve worked with—and consider what expectations they were over-performing or underperforming on. What consistent behaviors set the great CSMs apart from everyone else?
Start with a list of “general competency areas” like relationship building, product and industry knowledge, ability to talk about product use cases at different levels within an organization, organizing time to focus on the right customers, the ability to listen and tailor the product to a customer’s specific goals, and so on. Start with these higher-level skills then define what the expectations are around those skills within each level.
Here are a few competencies we look at for CSMs:
- Ownership: We expect CSMs’ to own the strategy and activities across their account, whether they are the ones executing the action (pulling a report) or driving it internally (communicating feature requests). In moving to a Senior CSM role, this expectation may also include owning team projects, sharing best practices internally, and aligning all needed stakeholders to an overall strategy.
- Relationship Development: We expect CSMs’ to be able to develop relationships across their customer base. Rather than relying on a single contact, we look to see that they become multithreaded throughout accounts. As they become more senior, these expectations rise: CSMs at higher levels need to be building multithreaded relationships across multiple teams within accounts, and consistently creating and maintaining relationships with executive sponsors.
- Curiosity: This includes the ability to prepare insightful questions to drive further engagement and customer awareness, which then evolves to include bringing insights and questions from industry trends and previous customer conversations.
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Tip #2: Check your language for clarity
Once you’ve documented those competencies for the different CSM levels, you’ll need to check the language you’re using in the career ladder (and in your job descriptions) is aligned to clearly communicate how you define success in the role. In designing career pathing documentation or job descriptions, it can be easy to fall back on “marketing jargon” and vague explanations. Try to be as specific as possible about what a candidate will need to demonstrate to be successful.
If you’ve written both documents, it can be easy to become biased on the language used. Look to get feedback internally and externally on how you’ve positioned the role and levels. You might also consider doing surveys on whether people’s job experience is different than what they expected coming in.
Tip #3: Add in examples of what those expectations look like in practice
Even after you’ve done work to make job expectations as clear as possible, it can be a real benefit to the individuals using that document when you add real-life examples of what an expected behavior looks like in practice. It can help CSMs take something from a concept to actually visualizing how they can demonstrate in their day-to-day work. When we look at the competency of ownership, we provide examples such as: Develops account strategy and communications/receives input from necessary stakeholders; Drives projects to completion, communicating timelines, risks, etc. internally and externally; Acts as the customer's "go to" person.
Tip #4: Avoid “check the box” mentality
One of the biggest challenges in implementing a career framework is avoiding a “check the box” mentality in your team. For example: In early iterations of our career ladder, before we started fleshing out the competencies needed in each role, we were referencing things like performance in a certain scenario and even time in seat as qualifiers for moving up into a more senior position. This ended up creating the expectation of “I did that item, so now I get a promotion. I’ve checked the box.” As mentioned earlier, not every CSM will have the same opportunities or engagement given their book of business, so not only will you set poor expectations around time v. skills, you may also put some team members at a disadvantage if they do not have the ability to execute against a specific scenario.
While I love to see career growth and have the ability to promote people, we also want to incentivize people to grow the skills they need to be successful both at their level and the next level. The best way we’ve navigated that is to move towards competencies (as in tip #1). Now, it’s not a one-time event that qualifies people for growth within the company. It’s continued performance against expectations, which is what we really want to see. And ultimately, this has also led us to have more clear and actionable performance and coaching conversations. We only have so many career levels we can offer, so providing a path for someone to continue to grow and hone their skills will allow them to be set up for success—both within your company and beyond.
- When to create career levels: Our approach has been to build levels out as we need them, using our original framework as a guide. For example, if you know a Junior CSM role will be needed in 12 months, you can add it into your documentation, but I wouldn’t create all the competencies descriptions or job write up until it gets a bit closer, as the focus of the role may evolve. If you only have one level today and see team members beginning to demonstrate skills that may move them to a more senior role, then that is a sign it is time to create another level or two, to help guide through career planning discussions.
- Management needs a career path: Oftentimes, focus on career pathing is allocated to the individual contributor path, or getting into a front line manager role. Once you promote (or hire) someone into a manager role, you need to provide them with coaching and guidance on what success and continued growth looks like.
- Performance cycles: At a smaller company, the ability to promote when appropriate can trump a more formal process. As you begin to grow, you may get feedback from leadership or Human Resources around a more structured process and timeline. Even if your process is an annual or bi-annual review for promotion, you should be working with your team members at least quarterly to discuss feedback (in a more formal setting—feedback should be happening continuously!), understand their career objectives and work through their individual career plan. This allows for fewer surprises come promotion time, where you as a manager feel confident in someone’s ability to execute at the next level and can bring examples to support that internally.
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