How to Build Career Pathways at Your Organization

Ever had a high-performing staff member wonder if they still had a future at the organization, had employees label a colleague’s promotion as unfair, or heard rumors about inequities in staffing decisions? You are not alone. There’s no magic wand to fix all your staff management challenges, but being more transparent and consistent about your people-related decisions (such as hiring, performance evaluations, promotions) will help you avoid some of the most common ones, and we have something that might help: a career pathways tool.

A career pathways tool* is a framework for defining the skills, knowledge, and other requirements of a job—aka the “must-haves.” It’s used to articulate what a staff member needs to do to be successful and progress in a role.

For example, if you’re articulating the career path for Campaign Organizers at your organization, you’ll start by defining the competencies needed to be successful, and then lay out how those competencies evolve at increasing levels of responsibility. Click on the image below to see the full Campaign Organizer example.

[Table image description: The columns are labeled as “Level 1: Organizer,” “Level 2: Lead Organizer,” “Level 3: Regional Organizing Director,” and “Level 4: National Organizing Director.” The rows read “Competency A: Relationship Building” and “Competency B: Capacity Building.” There is a description of each competency in the remaining spaces, with increasing responsibility at each level up.]

For a staff member, a career pathways tool serves as a roadmap that answers the following questions:

  • (Short-term) What do I need to be successful in my current job?
  • (Medium-term) What do I need to do to get to the next level? and
  • (Long-term) What options might I have to shape my career in line with the organization’s plans and strategy?

For your managers, it serves as a consistent guide during hiring and performance evaluations. It helps them be more equitable and objective while making promotion decisions (“has this person truly met the bar on competencies needed for the next level?”).

So, how do we go about building one of these?

Pick the right leader to develop the career pathways tool.

If your organization, like many nonprofits, doesn’t have a full-time head of HR, make this a “special project” and assign a senior leader with a track record of managing people. Here’s a toolkit with step-by-step guidance and examples.

Decide on the roles you want to develop career pathways for.

Building career pathways for a role is hard work that requires collaboration and buy-in from leaders and staff. Start with one to two roles that are the most prevalent in your organization—and use the learnings to build them for other roles.

Make explicit your organization’s philosophy around hiring, development, and promotions.

The process of articulating it will bring out any misalignment and misconceptions amongst your senior staff or leadership team about success and advancement within specific roles at your organization. Actively surfacing and resolving these disagreements will require your direct intervention.

Ensure managers use the career pathways for performance evaluations and ratings.

A career pathways tool will become yet another document gathering dust in an office if you don’t push for it to be actively used and referred to in performance evaluations. During check-ins, nudge your managers to use the tool. Discuss people-related decisions they’re making (such as hiring a new staff member) in the context of the tool, and not in the abstract (“how did that candidate do against the competencies we’ve articulated for this role?”).

Yes, developing career pathways will add work to an already stretched team, but the cost of inaction—the people-related challenges, lost productivity from employee dissatisfaction or departures—remains high and long-lasting. Investing the three to four months typically required to define career pathways for key roles will propel your organization towards a more consistent and equitable approach to people management.

*Note that a career pathway tool is known by many names—“competency model” is a popular way of referring to it, particularly in HR circles.