Bear with me as this is the first time I’ve put my thoughts on this topic in writing. I expect I’ll iterate the content of this post many times over as I get feedback. If you have thoughts, I’d love to hear them.
Senior job titles are awarded too easily in the high tech space. No matter the field, we’ve all encountered colleagues who hold a senior position but don’t act senior embody the values and responsibilities that their team needs them to live up to. This happens for a variety of reasons. It can be easier to provide a title bump in lieu of additional salary. Or it’s used to keep a specialized contributor around. Worst of all are those times when managers believe that seniority directly correlates to the time in a role.
If you watch team sports, you’ve seen how coaches interact with their veteran players compared to the rookies. Vets are held to a high bar, and those expectations include actively helping the new players level up. The same expectations must be set in the business context (don’t worry, that’s the last sports example).
A “Senior” title is a leadership role indicating that the person is not just experienced, but team-oriented.
Leaders owe it to their team to set clear expectations for what it means to hold a “senior” title. These standards must be challenging, yet achievable and require that people work at that level for a time before the title is given. While some details may change between career paths (design, development, product management etc.), these are my baseline expectations.
Proactive Mentorship & Participation
Senior team members proactively help others on the team, especially those who are junior, while still delivering top-notch work. It’s the only way for a good team to become a great one. These senior folks actively shape a positive team culture. They are an example for the others — their work is beautiful, but not untouchable and they take feedback as well as they give it.
This really boils down to a “no jerks allowed” standard. IF you’re a senior member of the team should embody the very essence of empathy for those who are going through the lessons that you learned and you should strive to help accelerate them through those times.
Senior people transform broad ideas into thoughtful solutions that can be implemented. They execute at a higher level. In some cases, they may define the initial solution and define the tasks for more junior teammates.
Senior people represent their team to the rest of the business. They’re prepared. They know what’s important to defend and when it makes sense to be flexible for the greater good. They know how to best achieve those goals with different stakeholders. Their team feels confident that they are well represented.
Senior folks understand the business and the “why” that drives each decision. They dig in, learning and thinking about the long-term goals for the team and company. They are pulled into larger business planning discussions because their feedback is valued by other teams. They take what they’ve learned back to the team to spread the context.
Years of Experience
Senior people may have been in the role for a while, but that’s nowhere near as important as the aspects above. Doing the same job for seven years doesn’t mean that a person serves their team and the company well. The converse is often true — developing these skills does take time, but the amount varies between individuals. Some people show a natural aptitude and earn that title earlier than others.
This leads us to an uncomfortable conversation for many leaders — telling someone who has many years of experience but doesn’t embody these skills that they haven’t earned the title. It’s /hard/. But, it’s the right thing to do for your team and that particular individual, to do otherwise is a disservice to everyone.
The New Normal
When someone embodies these skills they are ready for that “Senior” prefix, though they must understand that these are the new table stakes.