How do Careers Really Work? The Three Phases
After surveying tens of thousands of professionals and doing statistical analysis on the Spencer Stuart database of millions of the world's most accomplished executives, we have come to recognize that the majority of professional careers can be broken into three discrete phases: the "Promise Phase," the "Momentum Phase," and the "Harvest Phase." Unless you are a founder/entrepreneur, how highly you are valued in each stage is a function of two distinct but related sources of value – the value of your potential and the value of your experience. Understanding how the mixture of potential and experiential value shifts over each of the phases will give you powerful insights into what you can do to maximize your career success.
The Promise Phase. At the beginning of your career, your value is almost entirely dependent on your potential — what you will be able to contribute to the organization in the future. The first five or seven years of your career constitute The Promise Phase. When you get a job fresh out of college or in the early years, the basis of your value is primarily determined by your natural talents, your intellect, your ability to work in teams, your ambition, you enthusiasm, and the like. These aspects are how hiring managers and bosses evaluate you - on your potential.
The Momentum Phase. As the early years of your career unfold and you start to gain more professional experience, your success is determined less and less by your potential and more and more by the actual experience and expertise that you develop. As a more senior executive, your success becomes much more dependent on your track record. This is the flywheel of your career that we call the Momentum Phase. If you are a marketing executive, this is your experience building brands, managing new product introductions, advertising campaigns, creating and optimizing customer segmentations, building social media campaigns, and opening up new channels for customer acquisition. If you are a finance executive, this is your track record managing the preparation of financial statements, taking a company public, establishing banking relationships, managing risk, and leading acquisitions. The more experience of these sorts you have in your area of expertise, the more you will be valued by your current organization and of course by others seeking to recruit executives.
The Harvest Phase. At some point in the Momentum Phase, usually between the ages of 45 and 55, there comes a point where careers begin to diverge. Some individuals manage to keep developing personally and professionally, moving into new positions or redefining their existing roles. Many others, however, start to fade. They get passed over for new opportunities or find themselves in a rut. Even though they might be doing what they have always done and doing it well, their careers seem to be headed south or on an inexorable march towards retirement. Those who are able to move successfully into the final, or Harvest Phase of their careers with ever-increasing levels of success do so by discovering ways to apply their experiences to new situations. This is the CEO who becomes an operating partner in a private equity firm overseeing portfolio companies, the accounting partner who builds a portfolio of corporate board directorships and audit committee chairs, or the top corporate executive who mentors entrepreneurs … or maybe even becomes one her/himself.
Understanding how careers really work, how you are valued, what is expected of you, and what you need to deliver at each stage will help you progress on your career trajectory.
James M. Citrin co-chairs the North American Board & CEO Practice at Spencer Stuart and is the author of You Need a Leader--Now What? How to Choose the Best Person for Your Organization, You're in Charge, Now What? and The Five Patterns of Extraordinary Careers, all from Crown Business, http://www.amazon.com/James-M.-Citrin/e/B001IXS7LM.
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