The developmental stages of a career: A legacy-building roadmap

I work with a lot of clients (and have sat with a number of colleagues informally as a friend) who are sorting out their career path and where they want to go. We have conversations about work and life, balance and alignment, and what matters most to them, not just at work but at home as well.

As part of these conversations, I often bring up the notion of seasonality – the idea that our lives and the careers that are part of those lives – ebb and flow through cycles.

For many of these people, the idea that their career has a predictable set of stages and developmental tasks to be completed during those stages is a new concept. But it is helpful in shaping their decisions. Here’s how I view those stages, shared in the hope that they can help you, too, navigate the right path for you.

Early Career – the transition from trainee to professional and learning to question rules successfully

This is the stage of career that begins when formal training is complete, we have been socialized into the professional behaviors and skills that we need to have in order to do the job, and we have been given the certificate, degree, imprimatur or blessing of a credentialing body to do the work.

Key tasks in this stage are:

  • Making the transition from trainee to professional, which can be especially tricky our first job is in the same venue or organization where we were trained
  • Managing impostor syndrome (“someone will figure out I don’t know enough, and they will send me home”)
  • Learning the rules for success, including things as simple as where to park and where and when people eat lunch or snacks, as well as the technical details of actually doing the job or asking for time off

As we progress through this stage, the impostor syndrome often begins to recede, but we are likely to fall prey to overcommitment because we are still trying to follow the rules, and have likely been acculturated to always say yes when someone important asks.

The tasks required to move forward from this stage include:

  • Learning how to question the rules for success when they don’t make sense, but doing so wisely and with political sophistication
  • Learning to say no professionally, and that it is important to do so
  • Avoiding premature assignment to leadership or administrative roles if they will derail early professional career success
  • Achieving some outwardly visible professional success, like recognition or promotion
Mid-Career – Awakening to some painful realities and developing professional independence

This is the stage where we develop a deeper understanding of our personal and professional goals. Our first management or leadership roles may be offered here, and they can often be undertaken with less risk to our professional success than if we advance earlier in our career. We begin to recognize that the rules for success we have learned may not always be applied fairly, and that they may not actually serve our own personal and professional goals. And we have notched enough “wins” in our belt to be recognized for our successes within our organization and beyond.

Key tasks in this stage are:

  • Learning to say the “strategic yes” after we have said the “necessary ‘no’”
  • Clarification of professional goals for our own midlife, particularly considering them in light of competing professional and personal interests (see What Matters Most to You?)
  • Learning to effectively manage personal responses to potentially unfair application of rules for success

Beginning to serve as a mentor for the early-career professionals who are following in our footsteps

As we move through this stage, clarity about our goals begins to develop. We are recognized increasingly for our successes beyond our own organization. We begin to consider what it looks like to plan for our successors, either because we can see our work being unfinished as we move forward, or because we are considering moving to another role or organization. Mid-level and senior leadership roles may be offered and undertaken successfully.

Tasks to be completed in order to move on from mid-career include:

  • Developing and securing our own professional reputation
  • Reflective assessment of our career and personal goals, including consideration of changing roles or institutions
  • Mentoring of younger professionals who look to our leadership and expertise
  • Succession planning for work we know we will not finish
Senior Career – Expert, wise expert and building a legacy

Many senior professionals will tell us that this is the stage where the fun begins, though I hope that the fun has been happening all along. At this point in our careers, our reputation internal to the organization and beyond has been secured. We are fluent mentors of others. We recognize that our professional work is not complete, but that we have achieved meaningful success. We may be offered senior administrative roles, and these may be emerging as our primary work .

Tasks to be completed in this stage include:

  • Planning for completion of our professional work – what still needs to be done, and how much of it will we do?
  • Succession planning – who will carry on the work that needs to be continued?
  • Active and reflective consideration for yourself and stakeholders about career options appropriate to this stage of life
  • Active legal, financial and other planning to achieve your goals

As we move through the early part of this stage, we begin to be seen as the “wise expert” in the room. We are clearly recognized for the outcomes we have achieved. We are working perhaps mostly in senior administrative roles, and we may have a great deal of autonomy in how we spend our time.

In order to wrap up this stage and move to the next, we must:

  • Actively participate in public dissemination of our significant accomplishments – it really is time for that “graceful self-promotionothers have spoken of. Our participation is key to allowing others the recognition that we have a legacy and that we understand what it is.
  • Planning for a smooth handoff or succession to safeguard and build upon our legacy
  • Finalizing our plans for the next stage, and communicating with others about those plans
Capstone – building upon our legacy

As our population has been able to live longer with good health, we have had to rethink what retirement actually looks like. I prefer other terms, and those of you who know me well know that I am experimenting with them in my own life.

Here are some things that I know:

  • Retirement is not just “taking to a rocking chair” for most of us, though I know more than a few people for whom it really is a retreat from the world of daily work and effort in a public setting.
  • This stage means different things to different people.
  • Those who are most successful in what I call their Capstone phase are those who have been most systematically self-reflective about what matters most to them and how to accomplish those things.
  • I use the term “encore” career to describe a second (or third or fourth) career that may but does not have to be loosely tied to an earlier career. One of my favorite stories about this comes from a colleague whose primary goal in this stage was to obtain his Screen Actors Guild card and win a part in a Hollywood move. He succeeded – and was thrilled about it.
  • Lately, I have caught some grief from many of you for saying that I have “retired,” when I am actually building and running my own business as a full-time entrepreneur. Those who have spoken with me about it have led me to rethink what I will call this stage, and I now am telling people that I am in my renewment rather than that my retirement.

Given all of that, I’ll invite you to think of your own description for this stage – a primary career may be coming to a close, or you may return to the stage to take an “encore” bow in a new or related area of work that has meaning to you. Or you might decide, like me, that this is your renewment.

Whatever you call it, there are some tasks to be done in this stage as well. They include:

  • A pattern of being willing to reflect on what matters most to you
  • Financial planning to achieve personal goals Interpersonal and relationship development to maintain whatever level of interaction you want after your schedule shifts away from the work you have been engaged in.
  • Reconciliation of psychospiritual concerns around work, meaning, legacy and “giving back.” These topics become of prime importance to many in this stage, and it is important, if you are so inclined, to give them some time for reflection as well.
  • Asking the questions that nobody else has thought of but that have deep meaning to you at this stage of life.

And there you have it – my take on the stages of a professional career . This framework may be helpful to you as you think about your own career planning. Ask yourself which stage seems to best describe your current situation. Then look at what it takes to complete that stage, and what work lies ahead.

Reflecting about this process throughout your career makes you far more likely to arrive at your Capstone with a good plan. It also makes it more likely that you will have fun along the way, and not have to wait until the end of your career for the fun to start!

I’m really interested in a conversation about this – what am I missing, did I get anything wrong in your opinion, and do you find this a useful way to think about your own career? Please leave your thoughts below.

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