Transparent career maps: How we did it and what we learned

ProductLondon

At Wise one of our core product values is transparency. Our mission is to remove the hidden fees that often get applied when you send money across borders to different currencies – so advocating for transparency and building into our product is a top priority. We also practice transparency when it comes to our career maps. 

Building a career map

At times we’ve taken transparency maybe a bit too literally – you might remember the Wise team from a few years ago stripped to their underwear while protesting outside the Houses of Parliament against those hidden fees that banks like to charge. Today we passionately believe in that mission and continue to lobby for transparency in financial products, as well as upholding that value across our products – money transfers, borderless accounts and cards. We’ve also started to apply that principle to our product team and last year published one of the most radically transparent career maps in the industry. It’s had way more impact than we expected.

Where did we start?

Like all things we work on in the product team, this came from customer feedback – specifically from our Product Managers. After organically growing the team to somewhere near 80 Product Managers across the business, we started hearing feedback that it wasn’t always clear what people had to do to grow their impact or get promoted, some Product Managers felt they were treated differently to others and that compensation wasn’t transparent. 

We also got external feedback from the Product Managers we met during our hiring process – our compensation wasn’t aligned with the industry standards, the opportunities to grow as a Product Manager were not clear, our structure was non-standard. These are just a few examples – they’re important because they slowed or even prevented us from hiring great people. We also were increasingly aware that our team wasn’t as diverse as we wanted it to be – it didn’t reflect the product community, but more importantly didn’t match the demographics of our customers. We quickly realised that creating a more structured career map was going to help more than just our Product Managers – it was going to help us find the product managers we needed to hire to achieve our mission.

How to build a career map

We started out in early 2020 with the aim of ensuring that all Product Managers at Wise were clear on the expectations of their role, that promotions, feedback and compensation was fair across the team and there was a guide to help Product Managers grow with the product they were building. The subtext to that final point is that we tried to codify what we mean when we say, ‘the more impact you have for customers, the more you’ll grow and be rewarded’. We want to be clear that we evaluate impact and pay our people consistently and fairly.

We already had a career map at that point but it lacked a lot of detail, also the compensation bands were not published and at that time most of our Product Managers were at one of two levels – Product Manager and Product Lead. After joining Wise as a Product Lead from a much larger organisation, I had experience of building career maps so started by using some previous examples to help start to build out our criteria. 

One of the hardest parts of this process is turning the implicit assumptions people have of ‘what good looks like’, into explicit criteria that help a large group of people understand where they meet expectations and where they have areas to grow or improve themselves. Being the newest member of the team, understanding this context was really important for me, so I spent a lot of time listening to the other product leads reflecting on their teams when discussing performance, promotions or assessing candidates in the hiring process.

Check out our Product Team levels here. 

What did we learn?

One of the most effective ways of getting to a clear career map is to talk through real examples as they come up – for example, when someone was up for promotion, as a group of product leads we pushed ourselves to write down what it was that meant someone had met the criteria and ensured we all agreed.

We also reflected on our hiring experiences – especially for more senior roles and got feedback from candidates who were successful but also those who dropped out of the process. As a result, over the course of 6 months we added in more levels to our career map – Senior Product Manager, Group Product Manager, Product Director and re-titled our Product Lead role to Senior Product Director to be more in-line with the rest of the product community. This is important as we found many Product Managers worried that it would look like they took a step back if their title changed significantly, also that it made external networking more challenging – for example, I got fewer invitations to speak at conferences when my title was unclear on LinkedIn. It’s not the most important contributor to me being successful in my role, but when building our profile in the product community helps us to find more Product Managers it doesn’t make sense to add friction there. 

We also benchmarked and updated our salary bands and published them internally and externally – to build confidence that we are rewarding our product managers fairly. We’ve had a huge amount of positive feedback on this – with many product managers both internally and externally proactively reaching out to tell us that they value this.

 Tampa office breakout

So to summarise, here’s what really helped us build a great career map:

  • Start with something that’s worked elsewhere – either an existing draft or a career map you’ve used before – it provokes feedback more than a blank page would
  • Have honest discussions about your existing team – align on what you’re looking for, be clear when it’s missing
  • Run retrospectives on your hiring process – listen and learn what puts off great prospective candidates 
  • Work through real examples – when someone is up for promotion, get very clear on what it is they are doing that means they meet the criteria
  • Write it down – turn implicit assumptions into explicit criteria that a wide range of people can understand and use
  • Publish the career map externally – it builds confidence in your team and helps you reach and resonate with more Product Managers (it also enables more feedback)

Career maps can help build diverse teams

At the same time as we started putting this career map together, we were also starting to tackle some of the imbalances in our Product Team – specifically our gender diversity, which was not in an acceptable state. Back then less than 20% of our Product Managers were female. I’m proud to say that’s increased to 40% over the past months and the career map has really helped us to do that. 

We realised that women, as well as many other minority groups, are far less likely to apply for jobs when the salary range and level of seniority of the role are not clear. So, publishing our career map suddenly became even more of a priority as we tidied up our job descriptions with more inclusive language, clarity on our support for flexible working and clear statements of intent for our commitment to building diverse teams. 

One key adjustment we made to our hiring process was to mandate 50:50 female to male sourcing, which meant leaning on our recruitment teams to really rethink how they found candidates for our open roles. The career map helped them to firstly understand what we were looking for at each level of Product Manager, find relevant candidates and then describe clearly to those candidates what we were looking for. Of course job ads can do a lot of this work, but having a generic description of each product manager role makes proactive sourcing much easier. It also helps us to connect candidates with multiple roles – we often consider candidates for multiple roles. Our recruitment team are partners for every hire we make and the career map has really helped that partnership to work. 

So to summarise, here’s why every organisation should have a radically transparent career map:

  • helps create a culture where Product Managers in an organisation feel confident that they are treated fairly and supports them to grow
  • helps Product Managers outside the organisation understand what we are looking for at Wise and whether the role might be a good fit for them
  • helps our hiring teams (recruiters, hiring managers, etc) do their job by supporting sourcing of candidates, screening calls and all the way through to offer conversations – the end result of this is that it increases the speed at which we hire the right people
  • helps us build the team we need to achieve our mission faster

I strongly believe in managing your team like a product – understand its problems, continually think of ways to improve or solve them, test those ways and measure the impact, do more or less of those things as appropriate. People build the product and getting that to work well at scale doesn’t come for free. We’ve found something that works here – as well as our hiring rate and gender diversity metrics both trending up, we’ve had enough anecdotal feedback from Product Managers both at Wise and externally to feel confident that this is worth doing. We’ve committed to reviewing and iterating on our career map regularly, so expect to see it grow with us as we continue to build our product and team.