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A Career Management Model

CareersFall98: A Career Management Model

Kurt is a managing director in the Provo, Utah office of Novations Group Inc., a Provant company. He has helped several organizations design and implement career development systems based on the Four Stages model. Kurt can be contacted at ksandholtz@ or

In today's constantly changing work environment, technical professionals need to reinvent the way they think about and manage their careers. Clearly, the traditional approaches to career development are inadequate and anachronistic. Even though today's organizational structures no longer resemble the famous Egyptian landmarks, the ancient pyramid model of career advancement -- in which "success" is a series of moves up the ever-narrowing organization -- still strongly defines our assumptions about careers.

In the new economy, the rules for career growth and individual development are being rewritten. We're in a period of "good times" for computer scientists, electrical engineers, IT professionals, and the like -- which is exactly the right time to think ahead to the future. Where is your career leading? Are you developing the skills that will provide long-term employability, or will you remain a "hired gun," only as good as your most recent project?

The survey work we've done with a wide range of technical organizations suggests that most professionals know what they need to do to perform well in their current jobs. Fewer than a third, however, are clear about what is required over the longer term.

Enter the concept of the Four Stages -- a concept that changes the way growth and development are seen in organizations. At a minimum, the Four Stages can help you begin to think horizontally rather than vertically. Who knows, it might even open your mind to career options you hadn't considered.

Over the past 10 years, a growing number of technical (and nontechnical) organizations have adopted the Four Stages as a common language of performance and development. 3M, Monsanto, Exxon, Rohm and Haas, Motorola, Amoco, Intel, DuPont, Sandia National Laboratories, and SmithKline Beecham are a few places where the pioneering research of former Harvard Business School professors Gene Dalton and Paul Thompson is taking root.

Paradoxically, the Four Stages research didn't begin in the career development arena. Rather, the researchers were studying performance rankings over time in an attempt to understand "technical obsolescence" -- the tendency for people's performance rankings to peak around age 40 and slowly decline until retirement. Yet when they looked more closely at the performance data, they found significant numbers of top performers in every age category.

In other words, some people continue to be seen as key contributors well into their 50s and 60s. How do these people "beat the odds"? The answer was not immediately apparent. The researchers interviewed hundreds of managers, asking them to describe what characterized the top performers in their groups. The responses were baffling: One manager would describe the high achievers as outstanding in managing the details, while another characterized top performers as those who focus on the "big picture." Some managers praised specialized expertise, others the importance of a shift in perspective from technical depth to business breadth. All told, the research turned up 129 conflicting descriptors of high performance. It seemed that what managers viewed as high performance was as quirky and idiosyncratic as the managers themselves.

Frustrated by (and distrustful of) this lack of an obvious pattern, the researchers decided to push the unit of analysis down one level. They searched for "clusters" of descriptors that had internal consistency within the varied and contradictory overall data set. A clear pattern of four development stages emerged, displayed in Table 1.

In short, the research found that there is no "one-size-fits-all" definition of high performance. Organizations expect individuals to contribute not only more, but differently as they progress in their careers. The things that make you a high performer early in your career are the same things that can earn you the "deadwood" label later on. By documenting these changes in expectations, the researchers arrived at the descriptions of the Four Stages.

Interestingly, the research has since been conducted in nearly all functions and at all levels of large organizations, including numerous organizations in Western Europe and the Asia-Pacific region. So far, the Four Stages seem to describe how people grow in their ability to add value to their employer -- whether the company is located in Silicon Valley, Sweden, or Singapore.

With that in mind, let's look at the characteristics of each of the Four Stages in greater detail.

Stage 1: The Apprentice

People in this stage work under relatively close supervision and direction. This direction comes from a supervisor or a more senior person in the field. Characteristics of Stage 1 include:

  • The work is never entirely your own.
  • Your assignment is part of a larger effort or activity.
  • You are expected to do most of the detailed and routine work on your part of the combined effort.

In Stage 1, individuals are expected to accept supervision and direction willingly and to exercise initiative and creativity within a well-defined area. Ideally, they'll work with a mentor to learn the approaches, the organizational savvy, and the judgment not found in textbooks. If they learn quickly and well, they will be given increasing responsibility.

One of the major problems in Stage 1 is adjusting to the idea of "taking orders." Like it or not, you're the new kid on the block. You don't know the ins and outs of the job yet. You need to earn the trust of others. A new employee described his feelings during his first year on the job:

My first year here was hell. I was ready to go to work and make a contribution. But for a year, no one paid much attention to my suggestions. I almost left. It took me a year to realize that I didn't yet understand the complexity of the problems we were working on. Now I try to take enough time with new people to help them understand the dilemma of those early years.

While it is important to stay in Stage 1 long enough to build a solid foundation and to earn the trust of others, people who stay in Stage 1 indefinitely will, over time, become less and less valued in the organization. You can't spend an entire career in Stage 1. You'd go crazy -- if you weren't fired first. (To review some of the barriers to moving into Stage 2, refer to Table 1.)

Stage 2: The Independent Contributor

Most individuals look forward to having their own projects or areas of responsibility. Earning this opportunity and taking advantage of it moves a person into Stage 2. People functioning in this stage:

  • Assume responsibility for a definable portion of a work effort or process.
  • Work independently and produce results that are recognized as their own.
  • Develop credibility and a reputation for competent work.
  • Manage more of their own time and are more accountable for outcomes.

Think of Stage 2 as your solid technical foundation, and essential for building a long-term career. In this stage, your peer relationships take on greater importance, especially in a team context. People in Stage 2 are true team players, pulling their weight without the need for a lot of guidance, and willingly sharing information with their fellow team members.

Stage 2 individuals rely less on their supervisor or mentor for direction, and more on their fellow team members. In fact, they begin to resent being micromanaged. For example:

My first people leader taught me a lot, but after a while I didn't need all the hand-holding and direction. So I was happy to be transferred to a new area. The new project leader was a better manager. He helped me to expand my influence. He encouraged me to develop contacts with people in my field, both inside and outside the company. He showed me how to interact with these people as well as how to make presentations to management and to customers.

To move into Stage 2, individuals need to develop their own ideas and technical judgment. They need to cultivate their own standards of performance. Developing confidence in one's own judgment is a difficult but necessary process. One person's experience with this process may illustrate the point:

I had been working with my mentor on several projects for three years before I developed the necessary confidence to submit a proposal on my own. But I found that my confidence was short-lived. I had been used to making decisions, but I had always checked them with my mentor. Now that I had my own project, I lacked the confidence to make any of the important decisions. He was unavailable for about six months, and I was almost paralyzed during that period. I made very little progress on the project. Eventually, I discovered that I could get the opinions of other people in the department and then make a decision.

Stage 2 is an extremely important step in your development. Resist the temptation to rush through Stage 2. If you move too fast into a management or leadership role, you'll never have the credibility necessary to make broader contributions. Pay your dues and make sure you first establish yourself as a competent professional specialist.

Stage 2 is a key decision point in your career, however. Many people find that they prefer a "leave me alone and let me do my work" type of role. Indeed, the most readily identifiable role in most organizations is the independent contributor -- the expert or specialist working as a member of a team.

This hired gun philosophy is fraught with peril, however. Continued recognition and reward requires staying at the cutting edge of your discipline, and the continued strategic importance of that discipline to the organization. You may be able to control the former, but the latter is beyond your influence. You probably know someone who was a top-notch nuclear engineer who's now selling real estate because the world veered away from his chosen area of Stage 2 depth.

So if you decide to stay in Stage 2, don't sit back and expect to be valued forever. In any stage, you need to actively expand your skills and build your contribution.

Stage 3: The Coach or Idea Leader

The key to Stage 3 is the ability to contribute through others. This doesn't mean managing or supervising other people. Recent research from 10 technical organizations shows that nonsupervisors outnumber supervisors five to one in Stage 3. This suggests there are a lot of people out there who've discovered how to have broader impact and influence without making the move into management.

The roles most often played by people in Stage 3 are:

  • Coaches who equip others with the tools, knowledge, and opportunities they need to develop themselves and become more effective. Coaches don't develop people -- they enable people to develop themselves.
  • Informal mentors who are experienced, well-established employees who take personal interest in the careers of others and facilitate their development. They do this by providing crucial information, making important introductions, serving as a role model, providing support and guidance, encouraging the participation of younger people in making decisions, or in any other way make a significant contribution to their development.
  • Project or team leaders who head up multiperson projects, teams, or task forces, but aren't assigned people responsibility. This role may often be formalized -- that is, it's a specific job assignment given to a person by management. It requires broad perspective and the ability to accomplish tasks that are greater in scope than one person could accomplish alone. Good project leaders are always good coaches who know how to plan and organize the efforts of others.
  • Idea leaders to whom others look for help in solving problems and dealing with unexpected situations. Often very creative thinkers who are well networked, idea leaders bring crucial information into the workgroup and make sure that the information is broadly shared. They are often seen as wise, savvy gurus in their function or discipline.
  • Internal consultants who know how to get resources, influence management, and make change happen. These people are widely known and sought out for help on numerous projects. Not just sitting in their cubicles waiting for the phone to ring, they take a proactive approach to their work. They look for areas where their expertise and background will be helpful, then find ways to contribute.

There are several shifts in activities that must take place if individuals are to move into Stage 3. They must:

  • Develop a greater breadth of technical skills and apply those skills in several areas.
  • Build a network of people outside their own workgroup and use that network to help the group get its work done.
  • Become involved in the development of people and the stimulation of others through ideas and information.

One Stage 3 nonmanager described her role in these words:

Right now I find the sponsors for our work. I do the conceptual thinking, develop the project, and then get someone to support it. After I get the support, I must coordinate and collaborate with others, and still do my share of the actual work.

This person remained the force behind the project and also worked closely with those doing the detail work. Some employees are exceptionally innovative. Often this kind of individual becomes an idea person or consultant for a group. Jonas Jensen, a 59-year-old idea leader, described his work in this way:

I sell ideas. When I work on a problem, it starts to bug me. At some time, I will read or discover something and apply it back to solve the original problem. I then share my learnings with others so they don't need to reinvent the wheel. Others often come to me with problems they cannot solve. Generally, I can pull some information from my experience or reading and give them a direction to follow in solving the problem.

Probably the most central shift that occurs as individuals move into Stage 3 is the nature of their relationships. In Stage 2, you had to learn to take care of yourself. In Stage 3, you have to learn to be interdependent, to assume some form of responsibility for work other than your own. A marketing person who had been doing a lot of independent work described the process:

I sold my manager on a new project. Now there are three other people working on the project. We are putting in long hours and having a lot of fun. But there are new challenges. I have always asked my bosses to give me independence, and I gave them loyalty in return. Now I have to learn to do that with the people on my team.

Stage 3 requires strong interpersonal skills -- agreeing on objectives, delegating, coaching, and coordinating. You need to be able to build the confidence of coworkers, not tear it down. If you're threatened by the success of others, you won't be able to provide them the guidance and freedom to explore and test their skills.

One dilemma for technical Stage 3s is that you'll find yourself pulling away from technical work. The question is: How far? Some make a great effort to stay close to their field:

I assumed when I came here that being a good engineer was all that was necessary. Later I found that engineering was more than just doing equations. You have to conceive, sell, and direct a program. I began to do all those things and found myself in management, mainly because I didn't want to work for the other people they were considering. I want to stay close to technical work and maybe move back into it. Because I know it is difficult to move out of management into technical work, I have stayed close to my field, written papers, and still consider myself to be an engineer.

Keeping a foot in each camp is hard to do long term. Eventually, you'll probably have to let go of some of the hands-on technical work to be successful in a broader Stage 3 role.

Stage 4: The Organizational Leader

Not many people progress beyond Stage 3. Not that there's anything wrong with that -- moving through the stages isn't a race with the prize going to the one who gets to Stage 4 first. But your employer does need some people to provide the high-level leadership that will define the future. If you have the interest, here's what it takes. Stage 4 people:

  • Exercise significant influence over critical decisions in the organization.
  • Help to shape the future direction of a major part of the organization.
  • Represent the organization in wide and varied interactions both outside and inside the organization.
  • Sponsor promising people who might fill future key roles in the organization.

Believe it or not, many technical contributors find ways to play a Stage 4 role without moving into management. Here are some examples:

Idea innovators. These people influence the future of the organization through original concepts that often lead the organization to change the way it does its work. They champion new systems, processes, and operating principles that improve the productive capacity of the organization. Their influence is based on a reputation for achievement and a keen sense of what builds the organization's ability to compete in the marketplace.

Such individuals may work quite closely with a manager or peer to help sell their ideas. Donna Jones is an example of the idea innovator. Her department manager described her as follows:

Donna is one of the brightest people I know. Her knowledge of the field is outstanding. She is talented, hardworking, and disciplined. She sets goals for herself on a technical project and achieves them. Every two or three years she has a new direction she wants the company to follow, and she is almost always right. She is not a saleswoman; she gets people like me to sell her ideas.

Internal entrepreneurs. These high-energy people are adept at seeing new business opportunities, then assembling the buy-in, money, and staff to pursue new product ideas and other business objectives. Often these people head large programs but directly supervise very few people. Art Fry, the inventor of 3M's original Post-It Note, is a classic example of an internal entrepreneur. Another less famous individual who seems clearly in Stage 4 described his work this way:

I had an idea for a new product area and was getting very little support through the formal channels. So I talked to a couple of people on my level and convinced them it was a good idea. We went ahead and did it, on the premise that when you're successful, it's easier to get forgiveness than permission. Today that new product is bringing in a significant part of our sales.

Sponsors. These people influence the direction of the organization through the selection and development of key people. A sponsor keeps an eye out for competent people, then gets them placed in key positions where they will be tested, challenged, and have the opportunity to prove themselves capable of making decisions affecting the organization's future. A sponsor makes sure key individuals are not pigeonholed or left to stagnate in unchallenging assignments by a rigid seniority-based promotion system or by less competent, insecure supervisors.

Compared to the mentor role in Stage 3, the sponsor role requires less frequent contact and is probably a more distant relationship. Often, individual Stage 4 contributors have reputations outside the organization through their achievements and/or publications. This enhances their credibility inside the organization and enables them to play an important role in recruiting key talent.

Another characteristic of people in Stage 4 is their extensive network of relationships outside the organization. One of our Stage 4 interviewees described himself as "multiorganizational" because he works on so many external boards, committees, and associations. Many of these individuals maintain extended networks of contacts. Maintaining these outside contacts is critical because it brings into the organization current information about events and trends in the environment.

A critical shift for those moving into Stage 4 is a broadening of perspective and a lengthening of time horizons. These individuals consider the organization as a whole and act in accordance with that framework. They think about the needs of the organization beyond the time period during which they will personally be affected. They think less about next month or next year and more about the next five to 10 years -- and beyond.

Value of Contributions

The original research found a strong relationship between development stage and value placed on an individual's contribution. In general, a person's perceived value increases as she or he moves through the Four Stages. The Stage 3 contributor, for example, not only does her own work well, she builds the productive capability of those around her. Likewise, the Stage 4 contributor influences the corporation to allocate its talents and resources to increase its productive capacity and competitive standing.

As Figure 1 shows, the perceived values of contribution in Novations' original 1979 research, and as replicated in 1998, plainly indicate that those who do their jobs in a Stage 3 or Stage 4 mode are judged to have made larger contributions and had higher impact.

Growth Within the Job

All of our research indicates that what you do with your job assignment is the single most important variable in developing your career. This does not mean that your ability to contribute is dictated by your formal job description. Quite to the contrary, the nature of the job is usually determined by how the individual chooses to influence the assignment. Role development is the process of changing or expanding your current job.

Don't let your job description limit what you can contribute. The highest performers in any organization are always testing the boundaries of their roles. They often discover a lot of room for development. The truth is, if it fits your talents and the organization's needs, you can grow from Stage 1 to Stage 2 to Stage 3 in practically any job. And even when the scope of the job does limit your ability to move to the next stage, this does not mean the end of growth. High performance in that assignment will invariably influence your ability to get new and more challenging assignments that have fewer limits on growth and potential contribution.

Making the Transition

Most people find it easy to understand the Four Stages. Somewhat less clear is the process by which you move from one stage to another. Such transitions are by no means automatic. Moving from one development stage to another requires taking a new approach to one's job -- in effect, renegotiating one's role in the organization. Such role renegotiations require a change in your relationships, tasks, perspective, knowledge, skills, and abilities.

A number of companies have begun to align their human resources practices with the broader implications of the Four Stages. Some have linked their compensation structure to competencies and the Four Stages in order to better reward contribution in a flatter organization structure and rapidly changing environment. For example, Monsanto, DuPont, Rohm and Haas, SmithKline Beecham, and Champion International are using competencies and stages as a framework for employee development, performance contracting, and compensation design. Having found that "pay for performance" is an attractive concept but difficult to implement, these organizations are beginning to use the Four Stages as an empirical, equitable, and defensible framework for linking contribution and compensation.

Common Questions about the Four Stages

Q: The Four Stages model implies that even if an individual's performance does not decline over time, his/her perceived value to the organization could decline. Why?

A: Maintaining a specific level of performance over time is not sufficient to sustain high ratings. The reason for this is the "Law of Increasing Expectations." In an era when continuous improvement is essential to the survival of business organizations, employers require people to grow, develop, and add more value over time. The company expects that as individuals gain more experience, their capacity to contribute to the organization should increase. And contributing more rarely means doing more of the same. Rather, it means changing the way you do your job.

Q: Does the Four Stages model imply that the only successful people are those who have progressed to Stage 4?

A: Not at all. In fact, of all successful people, very few will progress to Stage 4. Research shows that less than 5 percent of the organization's work force functions in Stage 4. Fortunately, people in all four development stages add tremendous value to the organization. Again, research shows that most people -- as much as 60 percent of the work force at any given time -- are in Stage 2, and are making very valuable contributions.

Also, we must remember that the Four Stages model does not pretend to measure something as comprehensive, multifaceted and personal as success. Success in life is measured on many dimensions beyond mere perceived value to one's employer.

Q: Do people only move forward in these stages? If they do return to an earlier stage, what is the likelihood of their being able to make the eventual transition to one of the later stages?

A: As organizations rely more on lateral moves to develop their people, we are seeing more and more individuals having to return to an earlier stage. However, if the lateral move is well planned, most of these individuals quickly move back into the stage they were in prior to the move. Making a temporary transition to an earlier development stage is often essential to one's long-term growth.

Q: Are stages just another way to describe the management hierarchy?

A: No! Stage 3 and Stage 4 are not limited to people in formal management positions. Table 2 shows the percentage of managers and individual contributors in each stage, both in the original Novations research (1979) and in the recent study conducted within 10 technical organizations (1998).

Granted, these percentages may be somewhat different in your organization. But remember: Technical organizations are probably the most likely place to find Stage 4 people who aren't managers. As the statistics show, Novations has found that in almost all functions and roles, many solo performers are described as doing Stage 3 work, and some as doing Stage 4 work.


As organizations flatten and opportunities to move up become increasingly scarce, you need to think of new ways to grow and expand your contributions. If we think of growth in terms of promotions, we place our future in someone else's hands. If we think about growth in terms of development stages, we enable ourselves to control our future.

To reiterate, the Four Stages model does not imply that everyone can or should try to move to Stage 3 or Stage 4 as quickly as possible. We all have different talents and interests that will influence our level of success in different roles. Some people get frustrated by trying to be something they're not. Others short-change themselves because they are so intent on assuming broader roles that they don't take the time to establish the technical base and credibility they need in order to effectively lead and direct others. For those who have both a talent and passion for technical work, focusing on building their contributions in Stage 2 may be more effective than trying to become a Stage 3 or Stage 4 contributor.

However, to remain competitive, today's flatter organizations desperately need more people with the ability and desire to perform Stage 3 and Stage 4 functions, regardless of job title or position. This does not mean organizations should try to push everyone into Stage 3 or Stage 4 roles. But if you're interested, your organization may desperately need you to "step up."

To summarize the implications of the Four Stages research for individuals and the people who manage them:

  • The organization's definition of valued performance is not static; it constantly changes.
  • The Four Stages describe these changes; the stages lay out the rules of the game in today's flattened, nonhierarchical organizations.
  • You need to take charge of your learning and growth, thinking in terms of contribution, not position.
  • Resist the temptation to fast-track your way through your career. Building a solid foundation in Stage 1 and Stage 2 also builds credibility and influence (if desired) in Stage 3 and/or Stage 4.
  • Coaches and mentors are crucial to you at all stages of your career -- not only when you're just getting started. In fact, the move from Stage 2 to Stage 3 is much more complex than the transition from Stage 1 to Stage 2. Seek out the help that you need.
  • Job changes and career moves may require you to return to an earlier development stage for a while. Usually, it's worth it. You gain greater breadth and exposure, which help you remake the transition to your previous stage.
  • Don't get trapped in the old pyramid way of thinking. In other words, don't sit around waiting for the phone to ring with your next promotion. Rather, grow your contribution and impact by advancing through the stages, and the recognition will follow.


Copyright © 1998, Dr. Dobb's Journal

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