A common question for every professional involves career planning. What are the various career stages? What is the next stage for me? What activities should I be undertaking now, so I can set myself up for success in the next stage?
I view career progression and career phasing in 3 stages. The level of your impact to the organization, determines the career stage you are in currently.
The early or first stage is about Self Growth. Success is largely dependent on being great at managing yourself. Delivering on projects you are directly accountable for is sufficient for career progression. While stakeholder management is always important, having the advocacy of your manager and being really good at your chosen profession is the proven path for career progression.
The first stage is also the time you find “yourself” professionally. It is a great time to evaluate alternate roles and careers, identify a skill (e.g. design) or area of expertise (e.g. finance) that you believe will be your chosen profession. As we progress through our careers, both our skills and areas of expertise will definitely evolve, but knowing early what you believe will be your long term career is a huge asset.
Using the Pareto principle, 80% of your career depends on your actions — e.g. your performance on your projects. 20% of your career depends on the actions of your team (e.g. your manager or critical stakeholder). You get promoted by getting better at your job as an individual contributor, and largely doing the same job, only much better. For example, you can adjust to growing complexity in your projects without skipping a beat. The first drafts of presentations are more complete and require less iterative feedback before it is considered final. You should expect to proportionately spend 80% of both your time and your focus on self growth.
A key skill to develop in this stage is curiosity. For example, be curious about newer trends, how your work interacts with others, what strategic decisions have been made and the rationale for those key organizational decisions.
Commonly, as individual contributors start excelling in their jobs, they get invited to become people managers, and enter the second stage.
The second stage is about Team Growth, when you transition from being an individual contributor into being a lead. This stage is about your ability to manage and influence teams. You may manage people directly, and some functions, e.g. engineering, have the concept of a “tech lead” where you are an individual contributor but influence the work and have a huge say, of a larger team without direct people management responsibilities.
It is important to identify and adapt to these stages. Every stage in the career is a chasm we need to cross. When “crossing the chasm” and entering a new stage in our careers, success no longer happens by doing the same job better. Instead, we need to do a different job and get better at it. The role shifts towards a mix of your individual contributions as well as the collective output of your team. The 80–20 split in the first stage now shifts, with the team component becoming a bigger contributor to your career success. What worked in the past, will not work at these “chasm crossing” stages in your career. A top reason I have seen individual contributors slow down in their careers is because they can no longer use the same skills to progress in their career. Brilliant individual contributors, who cannot lean on the collective strengths of the team, are unprepared to delegate and scale, or be unwilling to trust others on the team, often start experiencing a slowdown in their careers or other negative side effects (e.g. being unable to coach others or delegate, they do the bulk of the work themselves, leading to burnout or work-life balance issues, poor manager scores, employee attrition and more).
On the other hand, people who build systems to take on more, can scale and deliver more without sacrificing on the team’s quality of work, see an acceleration in their careers. In addition to managing yourself, the skill you mastered in Stage 1, you have to get exceedingly good at:
- Becoming a better version of you: Building time management techniques (e.g email management, delegation — especially your weaknesses, communicate clear goals) that let you scale, freeing you up to do your most important work.
Team management (Purpose, People, Process)
- Establish a clear purpose and vision for your team, and how their work contributes to the mission of the overall organization.
- Identifying and hiring people so you get the right people on the bus, sitting in the right places. Look to hire people with complementary skills to your own strengths, so you have a well rounded team.
- Map the role that each team member plays, how they contribute to the bigger picture, and ensure clarity in roles and responsibilities, especially minimizing overlaps.
- Coaching your team, helping them identify their dream team — the six kinds of people they need to be successful in their careers.
- Get comfortable with delegating, not knowing everything in detail, but know enough to represent the topics with senior leadership and customers.
- Be an advocate and sponsor for your team, giving them additional opportunities to showcase their talent.
- Build a playbook to streamline various operations and make things predictable where possible. For example, have a clear cadence of project reviews, the goals/format to use, following up on action items.
- Be clear on escalation paths and how conflicts are resolved without impacting the team morale or culture.
- Incorporate fun events to see a lighter side of everyone so people not just enjoy their work, but also working with each other.
Stakeholder management — know who the critical stakeholders are for your own success, and proactively build a plan to build strong bridges with them.
Evolve your personal identity or brand. As you make the shift from individual contributor to managing your team (and growing the size of your team and projects), revisit if you need to update your personal brand to reflect the new stage of your career.
Over time, the bulk of the time is spent in team related activities. The collective impact of your team becomes the primary indicator of success. It is common to see folks change teams or employers and broaden their experience and expertise.
If you become a pro at scaling your impact through your teams, you start getting into stage 3 territory.
Stage 3 is about Organizational Growth, your ability to influence and potentially manage an entire organization. You are largely setting many of the priorities for the organization. Depending on the size of the company you work for, the definition of “organization” could be a business unit or product area. Your actions directly impact the culture, the revenue and other top metrics. Stage 3 leaders are really good at managing their time, their emotions (even keeled regardless of if the news is good or bad), thinking big, attracting and retaining senior talent, building partnerships and bridges with other senior leaders in the company and modeling humility. They are not necessarily equally strong in all these attributes, however they have a healthy baseline in each of these areas and clear spikes in one or more areas (e.g. the visionary leader is still a pretty good people manager).
The Pareto principle is flipped, your success is largely dependent on you inspiring your team and influencing the organization. The bulk of your time should be spent on activities that impact the organization.
The irony is that excelling in stage 2 activities is not enough to get to stage 3. This can be a particularly wide chasm to cross. You don’t get promoted on potential alone, or excelling at Team level impact.
You have to be demonstrating 100% of stage 3 attributes first, to be formally recognized and promoted to the job.
Your senior leadership needs to see evidence of you acting like a stage 3 leader, before you formally get promoted to that role. As you start getting good at, and getting recognized for, your team level impact, start focusing on how to set up your entire organization for success. Sometimes this can happen with you changing companies and explicitly applying for such roles. Recognize the shift that is needed to become a stage 3 leader, and start acting like one before you formally are offered the job.