Kanav Bhama (Business Operations, Dovetail), Tim Rossanis (GM, Head of Growth - Retail & New Verticals A/NZ, Uber), Jess Rogers (Strategy and Operations Manager, Snap Send Solve), Ellen Dinsmoor (Head of Operations, Vow), Rhiannon White (Chief Product Officer, Vend), Tim Atkins (COO, CancerAid), Will Dennis (APAC Commercial Finance Director, Afterpay), Matt Thurin (Growth, AirWallex), Lee Lubner, Emer McCann (Manager, Talent & People Operations, Simply Wall St), Darryn Rabec (Venture GM at BCG Digital Ventures), Chris Quirk (Investment Manager, rampersand), Rebecca Evans (Marketing Manager, Sonder)
This post answers the question 'How does career progression happen within a startup?'
There are three themes in these answers:
As an overarching perspective I’d say role progression is a lot more driven by the person and their career ambitions, and there is little to no dependency on a structured and tiered development environment - each person is a master of their destiny. I’d then probably look at this from an early vs later-stage startup lens.
In earlier stage-startups I’ve seen role progression to be more flexible to how the business needs and products evolve. Often you’ll find people assuming responsibilities to fill gaps and making sure the wheels don’t come off the business. These can then over time be clarified and formalised as responsibilities that are reflected in roles.
In later stage startups where there are more specialised teams forming the progression can happen in a more structured manner and the growth paths are likely within those specialised teams. However there are exceptions, many high-growth companies in the scale-up phase often present with growth opportunities in adjacent teams or leadership roles too.
The great thing about start-ups is that progression is often self-directed. If there is an opportunity or new area you want to pursue (and there’s a need for it), you’ll often be supported to seek it out and rewarded for your initiative, too.
Career progression is also less linear than in a corporate setting. The smaller and scrappier a start-up is, the less likely there will be predefined pathways to leadership positions. It’s often all hands on deck, with less emphasis on seniority or titles.
As a result, you’re likely to have space to create your own opportunities and play an active role in crafting your career. It pushes you to be thoughtful and intentional and allows the space to pursue new interests and broaden your skill set over time.
Two thoughts on this:
Role progression tends to happen more organically in a startup. There is less likely to be a defined ‘career ladder’, with clear frameworks for progression. It’s an environment where you can make a mark very quickly. Equally, if you like the clarity and structure of a defined ladder, you might find the lack of that uncomfortable.
Role progression is generally less fixed than in professional services careers, meaning it is more important to take active management in carving out your own experience and progression within the company. If the company is growing fast often new roles and job opportunities arise frequently to solve new business needs
There are less politics in role progression at a start-up. If you’re good and work hard you will often be rewarded. Best part is that there are plenty of opportunities to move sideways and into different teams as the business grows.
When it comes to start-ups, being a "cultural fit" won't save your skin everytime. I’m approachable, empathetic, I love talking to people and I smile at strangers. I am quick to settle in to a business and make friends and I work hard to make time for people. I know these are important things in business but what’s more important is turnover, performance and growth. Being smiley can’t make a business more money, nor can it make you a stronger performer in the long-run. Your personality will make you stand out in your career, but don’t hide behind it. Always be the best you can be on all fronts.
Career progression is not as structured as corporates, and it’s not a given. But, if you join early, you may start at a higher role and progress as the company grows.
Much more choose your own adventure than corporates
If you want to progress, get your core competencies right:
Try seek out new experiences, it’s the fastest way to learn. You will progress when people know they can depend on you
Key things that will help you progress:
If it’s a bigger organisation, you need to understand the politics. Do all the right things but ensure people see your good work
What have we missed? Please hit 'Contribute to the Guide' to give your perspective and help others into their first role.