The Universal Traits of Senior Team Members

Every manager is sure to encounter a similar question during their performance reviews: “I think I did well past x and feel like I earned a raise, don’t you agree?” Underlying this question is often the topic of seniority. There are very few quantifiers that are so widely used, yet have so little transferability across organizations. What separates a junior or medior-level team member from a senior?

Depending on how well a company has defined its job descriptions, this question is either incredibly easy, or incredibly hard to answer. Writing thorough job descriptions might not be at the top of a priority list (although it probably should and is one of the reasons why small businesses suck at hiring and retaining talent!), but why is it so fundamentally difficult to agree on the concept of seniority?

It gets even more interesting when realizing how misjudgement of seniority impacts an organization, starting at candidate interviews. There is no silver bullet – as always – but it’s certainly unnecessary to make the same mistakes as those who came before. 

Time as a proxy for seniority

One of the most fundamental mistakes is that seniority is often confused with time spent in a role or at a company. “Years of experience” and “formal education” are easy filters when those responsible for hiring are unable to evaluate candidates on their actual merits. Because of this, senior roles often require 5+ years of relevant work experience; a requirement which can be a very poor predictor.

Skills and capabilities develop in non-linear fashion, meaning that not every single unit of time translates in the same unit of experience. Some employees are able to develop quickly at the start of their career, in the right environment (due to the law of diminishing returns). Others might stall out due to innate traits, or because their environment does not expose them to the right amount of variety in order to develop. If the rate of development in a single skill is erratic, you can only imagine how this would look across a range of skills required to perform well.

When I first browsed the Basecamp handbook I was struck by how they emphasize that their levels of seniority do not compare to those used externally: “We recognize mastery and titles at Basecamp for the work done at Basecamp”. This statement has become a personal reminder of something we already knew: never assume seniority.

The price of misjudging seniority

Getting seniority wrong can come at huge costs. Not so much in terms of salary, but the opportunity cost of hiring an actual senior team member. This quickly becomes apparent in smaller organizations that are hiring for positions with a high variety of non-standardized work. In order to maintain quality and throughput a relative high ratio between junior and senior employees is required.

I previously wrote on how overcommitted (highly utilized) senior team members lead to long lead times (wait time). A hiring manager that thought she would be hiring a senior, who turns out to be less senior than expected, puts tremendous pressure on a team. When combined with the huge costs of hiring and the sunken cost fallacy this can be extremely hard to correct. 

Backtracking earlier decisions on seniority probably won’t go over lightly from a relationship perspective and are almost impossible in some parts of the world due to employment law. Being conservative when hiring and offering a tangible growth trajectory is the prudent thing to do unless you’re able to fire really quickly.   

What makes a senior?

It is impossible to generalize job-specific skills across positions, but it is possible to capture the transferable skills that separate junior-level team members from those more experienced. Proficiency in these skills is exhibited on a spectrum and weighed differently depending on the role, but they apply to every line of work in white collar companies.

These are the traits that I’ll be looking for to consider someone a senior team member.

Changing perspectives

Considering the perspectives of colleagues and customers is crucial in order to foster sustainable and efficient professional relationships. Less experienced team members are often unknowingly preoccupied with their side of the problem. In a customer-facing role, being able to empathize is required in order to provide a high level of service. 

Realistic problem solving

Solving a problem requires a good understanding of the problem first. There is a fine line between naivety and enthusiasm when suggesting solutions. There are times to be creative and times to be pragmatic. Change itself is easy, but changing without breaking stuff is hard. Don’t be averse to change, but senior employees should always acknowledge its impact. 

Process improvement

Signalling deficiencies in processes and output, while subsequently suggesting improvements requires deep understanding of a subject area. Senior team members are responsible for making sure their teams work is up to standard and current.

Risk management

Having a clear understanding of possible setbacks before and during a project is crucial to its timely success. Risks with high impact and those that can be easily mitigated should always be tackled or frontloaded (“Are we over the hill, yet?”). Ambiguity should be solved before it escalates. Awareness of the risk appetite and understanding which risks are worth taking are crucial to keep improving as an organization. 


Reflecting on your own actions is the only way to improve. If you never take a step back and observe past actions, you will never get better at what you do, unless others tell you. This reflection is not worth a dime if it is not combined with action and thus improvement. Ultimately you are responsible for getting better.

Balanced opinions

Have an opinion backed up by empirical knowledge. This can be anecdotal as long as you understand and proclaim that n = 1. Be prepared to explain your opinion in a balanced and fair way. If you’re not able to present a compelling opinion or story, there is little use to have one in the first place. “Strong opinions held loosely” are preferred.

Abstract thinking

Taking day-to-day phenomena and being able to generalize to common patterns serves as a force multiplier and unpins all of the traits mentioned. It allows for quick adaptation and learning. Those who are able to quickly traverse different levels of abstractions are very valuable team members. Being able to build mental models and quickly assessing whether a specific case fits this model keeps projects on track.

Business context

It is certainly not required from every team member to be concerned with the strategic direction of an organization, but every team member should understand how her role fits in with the overall strategic objectives of the business and time. How are you and your role contributing to the bottom line and how are daily decisions impacting this contribution?

Prioritization and time management

Very few team members want to be micromanaged and very few managers want to micromanage. Senior employees make the right decisions when they are faced with unplanned work. When work is expected to expand past its boundaries, changes to the scope of work or timeline are suggested taking all perspectives into account.

Wrap up

Seniority does not equal time but is often considered as such because it’s easy to quantify. If time does not serve as an adequate measure, what are the traits that define seniority? Such a list will never be exhaustive, but traits in this article get you 90% there.