The Sandhills Development Career Progression Framework

In the summer of 2019, when I took on the role of Director of Operations at Sandhills Development, the company had no framework for employee growth and no clear strategy for employee compensation. Changing that became a short term priority of mine, in spite of the fact that I’d never previously created anything of the kind.

I spent a great deal of time then studying the topic, interviewing peers, pouring over examples online, and generally doing everything I could to become our resident subject matter expert. Eventually I was able to draft something which suited our needs reasonably well.

We used my initial version for about six or eight months before I collected feedback from the team and published an improved, more complete, version 2. The second iteration was structurally the same but included much longer, clearer job level descriptions.

This month, Sandhills Development was acquired by Awesome Motive and as a result, we’re no longer actively using the framework I created. For this reason, I wanted to create a quick post here preserving what we made.

Quick guide to the framework – I wanted to accomplish a few things with this:

First, I wanted to create something which was role agnostic. Many other CPFs feature unique descriptions and criterion for every discipline and that wasn’t going to work for us. I had to abstract the guidelines so that they applied equally well for everyone in the company.

Second, I needed to introduce a system for micro-progressions which would allow all employees room to grow without changing job titles. To accomplish this we established a six step ladder which could be applied to every single role. We called these “job levels” and married them to the compensation system so that predictable pay ranges could be disclosed to the team.

Lastly, I really needed this to be simple. I knew that most of the team had little to no experience using such a system and that it would be a lot to adjust to. Every employee needed to be able to see themselves in these level descriptions and every manager needed to be able to quickly evaluate their subordinates. I’ve studied some extremely detailed and sophisticated frameworks and knew that we’d have problems if version 1 had all the bells and whistles. To accomplish this I did my best to focus on the aspects which were most important and make compromises in areas which I thought we could afford to address down the road.

Here is a doc I authored explaining how the job levels system is intended to work:


Job levels are what we use at Sandhills to provide employees a clear path for growth within their given roles. For every single job title within the company, there are six levels. Those levels represent a linear progression path accompanied by escalating salary baselines.

We collect compensation data from a variety of third party sources and use that to calculate salary ranges for every job title and each level within those titles. That data gets updated on a routine basis.

All employees will be paid at least the minimum salary which our data and calculation prescribe for their current level. If updates to our data result in a salary baseline for a given title + level increasing to a higher amount than an employee with that title + level currently has, the employee’s salary will be increased to match the new, higher baseline. However, in the opposite scenario in which our data updates result in a given title + level getting a lower baseline, no changes will be made. We will not lower anyone’s salary due to fluctuations in the market data.

The job level review process

Job levels can be changed at any time. There is no official schedule or routine for re-assessing levels and that is on purpose. If an employee has fulfilled all requirements and met all expectations as directed by their supervisor regarding their next level upgrade, they should not have to wait until a pre-ordained time to have their level changed. Conversations between managers and subordinates about the next job level upgrade should be happening regularly to ensure both parties are on the same page.

Managers are responsible for:

  1. Explaining to subordinates what is expected of them in order to earn their next upgrade.
  2. Providing clear, actionable feedback as their direct reports progress.
  3. Recommending a level change when they believe all expectations have been met and improvements have been clearly demonstrated.
  4. Ensuring that level reviews are conducted with each subordinate at minimum once per year.

In most cases, level upgrade discussions involve only relevant department managers, the Operations Director, and sometimes the Managing Director. However, sometimes other managers may be allowed to view the pitches and discussions involving their peers in the interest of learning how best to perform their own in the future.

Employees pursuing a level upgrade are responsible for:

  1. Regularly seeking clarification and feedback from their supervisor regarding their progress.
  2. Providing clear evidence of their improvement and accomplishments when asking for level changes.

Additional information about job levels

Here are a few other important things to know about the job levels system and how we use it:

Job level downgrades

Currently this is not a thing. If an employee’s performance regresses temporarily, we will not lower their job level or salary.

Employees paid above the minimum for their level

When an employee’s current salary is greater than the minimum baseline for the next level they are pursuing, earning that upgrade will not result in an automatic pay increase. Pay increases from level upgrades will only occur when the minimum salary for a newly earned level is greater than the employee’s current salary.

Similarly, when our market data updates result in our benchmarks increasing for a given title + level, but an employee’s salary is already greater than that amount, no change in pay will be applied.

Expectations or requirements for growth

Sandhills does not require anyone to continuously earn new level upgrades. Employees are encouraged to progress at their own pace. There is no expectation from the company that employees keep leveling up. This system exists so that everyone in the company has a clear, straightforward path to higher pay as they continue growing and improving. Every employee can decide for themselves how fast they wish to move along that path.

Initial level setting

For new hires or employees being given a new title, a level must be initially applied by that employee’s manager. There is no requirement that all employees begin at level 1. Managers will use their best judgement to assign the most appropriate level initially and continue to re-assess after. That said, in many cases sufficient evidence justifying a higher starting level will not yet be available and thus level 1 will be most commonly used to start.

Job level confidentiality

Actual job levels of Sandhills employees are not shared with everyone. Typically, the only people who will know someone’s job level are the employee, their manager(s), the Director of Operations, and the partners. At times other managers may become aware of the levels of employees who do not report directly to them as well.


And here are the actual job level descriptions that we used:


Non-management

Level 1

Capable of handling many assigned tasks within a narrow area of expertise. Lots of oversight from management or a higher level colleague is necessary to review work. Breadth of experience is limited and comfort is with a very small number of focuses. Not yet familiar with most aspects of our products, services, and processes. First time working professionally in this role. Could clearly benefit from seeking help sooner and more often.

Level 2

Some oversight and review is needed for primary functions. Most submitted work meets our standards. Clearly communicates with manager when encountering work related challenges. Exhibits noticeable increase in capacity for standard duties. Comfortable suggesting new ideas within scope of influence. Able to contribute using multiple technologies. Demonstrates noticeable time management improvements. Seeks out mentorship to help with growth.

Level 3

Able to work mostly independently and assist with a variety of duties beyond core focus. Provides useful feedback and ideas which help improve our processes. Reliably shares progress updates before managers have to ask for them. Demonstrates initiative by addressing issues and completing to-dos without being asked. Solves problems in increasingly creative and effective ways. Takes on new responsibilities and/or additional workload without primary assignments suffering. Clearly understands which assignments are the highest priorities and consistently spends the most time on those assignments. Actively seeks feedback from colleagues and manager. Continuously seeks to learn new skills, techniques, and tactics which are beyond what is required for current assignments.

Level 4

Capable of leading an entire project from start to finish. Comfortable with most aspects of our process and technologies. No assistance or oversight required for normal duties. Can assist with the mentoring and training of new hires. Communicates clear progress updates to the rest of the team. Estimates of time to complete assigned tasks and projects are accurate more often than not. Receives negative feedback graciously. Exhibits clear time management skills. Demonstrates a willingness to work outside of comfort zone. Possesses unique skills which are sometimes requested by other teams.

Level 5

Acts as a role-model by exemplifying company values. All work meets or exceeds our standards and can often be used as an example of “how it should be done”. Can lend assistance with reviewing the work of more junior counterparts. Shares detailed updates on team progress with the rest of the company. Capable of leading some highly complex projects. Able to fully scope most new projects. Provides colleagues with constructive feedback and actionable suggestions for improvement. Almost never falls behind on assignments to the degree that teammates need to pick up the slack. Willing and able to deliver high quality informative and/or educational presentations to the rest of the company when called upon. Is often a “voice of reason” who helps diffuse tense situations and can appropriately navigate interpersonal conflicts. Has a knack for distilling complex ideas and concepts such that they can be understood by those outside of the project.

Level 6

Capable of consulting higher level management and lending valuable insight. Work is innovative and always high quality. No assignment within discipline is too complicated for meaningful contributions to be made. Able to fully and accurately scope any new project no matter how complex. Understands the bigger picture beyond personal assignments very well and can make pragmatic decisions based on broad business implications. Very rarely commits serious time estimate miscalculations. Is extremely effective at time management. Provides managers with meaningful feedback which helps them improve. Contributes knowledge, resources, byproducts, or other valuable creative works to a community of peers. Able to temporarily fill in for manager when manager is absent. Can architect new internal processes from scratch.

Management

Note: If level designations are unclear based on these descriptions alone, managers may look to the non-management descriptions for additional, general descriptors as needed.

Level 1

Very little to no management experience. Comfortable overseeing a very small number of projects and personnel. Still learning the basics of management and how to lead a team. Frequent assistance from other managers is needed. Communicates team priorities clearly to subordinates.

Level 2

Noticeably less oversight and support from other managers is needed for primary responsibilities. Able to oversee some projects from inception to completion without any additional managerial support. Consistently abides by company and department guidelines. Subordinates have more praise than critiques regarding management style. Actively seeks out opportunities to learn and practice managerial skills. Develops a rapport with each subordinate. Conducts a thorough, productive one-on-one with each direct report and communicates issues to department or managing director.

Level 3

Possesses a thorough understanding of company processes and departmental issues. Is a subject matter expert who can effectively teach others about the inner workings of their team’s responsibilities. Breadth of knowledge and capacity are such that assisting other overburdened managers is sometimes possible. Daily and weekly Basecamp checkins are consistently informative. Contributes to the development of departmental processes and guidelines. Comfortable and capable addressing issues involving interpersonal conflict.

Level 4

Capable of mentoring other less senior managers. Can handle multiple large projects from start to finish without managerial assistance. Able to manage large, diverse groups. Some exhibited management or leadership practices are so effective that they are adopted by other teams. Takes responsibility for initiating job level reviews and other important discussions with direct reports instead of waiting for someone else to do so. Writes detailed and informative monthly team/project reports in Basecamp. Willing to make hard decisions. Authors documentation for departmental processes and procedures. Keeps higher level management informed about team’s progress without having to be asked.

Level 5

Is a standout performer in terms of leadership within our company. Can manage very large teams effectively. When employees are moved to this leader’s team, they consistently become measurably more productive and satisfied with their jobs. Regularly lends a hand to other managers without getting overwhelmed or behind on projects. Adept at finding creative ways to motivate and inspire teams to higher levels of achievement. Manages to keep everyone in the company well informed about their team’s most important initiatives.

Level 6

New talent joins our company just to work for them. Leadership methods are innovative and always effective. Should be managing the company’s most complicated and challenging teams. Finds creative ways to ensure most, if not all, projects are completed on schedule. Can confidently and professionally navigate even the most difficult personnel situations. Able to contribute leadership, managerial, or domain knowledge to the broader community. Has mastered the art of defining project scopes.

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