Finding Your Fortune: The 7 Career Phases


fortune cookie


I got the above fortune at an Asian restaurant in Dallas, Texas a couple weeks ago. I have been carrying it around in my pocket. I love fortune cookies; Not the almond flavored sugar cookies, but what is inside of them. And I bet you like them also. From kids to grown ups we are attracted to knowing what will be our future. When I was a child, this was a cultural obsession. We had the 8 ball, which would tell you the answer to any question you asked. We had the Ouija Board which was downright scary – you were asking questions of your dead relatives. I recently had my palm read on the streets of New Orleans. She was amazing in her insights. Young folks today face a Formula One pace of change and tremendous uncertainty. How can we who aren’t at the beginning of our fortune search help those who are sitting at the starting line? I see successful future fortunes passing through the following seven phases.

I. What will I learn on this job? – The Education Phase

College used to be a differentiator but that is no longer sufficient, just necessary. And just any college isn’t good enough, where you go matters now more than ever. Graduate school? Another differentiator. But don’t stop there, your first job should be less about the money and more about, “What will I learn on this job and how will it advance my learning?” Don’t force your fortune right out of the gate. In other words, don’t define initial success as the path to the most money. The doctors have it somewhat right with their concept of a residency. Your early positions should consist of the best learning environments. Find the best place to gain training. Back in my early years IBM was the place to get sales training. If you worked at IBM you got the PSS (Professional Sales System) where you learned how to ask and listen and how to handle objections. You learned the difference between open and closed probes and when to use what. You learned all this in a disciplined way. One of my early bosses had run marketing at Xerox where they used PSS. He drilled it into me and us at Union Pacific Railroad. I am on the way to a sales call right now at 55 years old. I am confident. Why? PSS III sales training. Lean early career choices towards learning. Don’t run from graduation and consider it the end of school – treat it as the beginning.

II. Where is the fascinating work happening? – the Put Me In Coach Phase

After your educational phase where you advance your skills training, you should seek and chase the most interesting work. You should feel like the famous song, Put Me in Coach I am Ready to Play. If you are a programmer – where is the most interesting of that programming happening? That work may be happening in a large company or a smaller company. Is there a correct choice? Yes and no. On the yes side, all career work involves marketing yourself and let’s just say it is easier to convince folks that you had a bigger role in a small project than to convince folks that your company where you contributed was bigger than it really was. In other words, it is generally easier to move from a bigger company to a smaller one. In this phase of your career you want to ply and advance your skills in a project environment. Your bias here in making a career decision is again less about money and more about project scale and visibility. You want to get in the game, but a meaningful game.

III. What are my advancement opportunities? – The Prelude to Power

So now that you have gotten your residency or post-collegiate training and worked on some worthy projects you should be ready to focus on how to get some management and leadership into your diet. This phase puts you into a position where you are responsible for others. Now, you test not your ability to do things, but rather your ability to both manage and lead others to do projects. To put it simply, management is the art of getting things done; leadership is the art of getting others to do it. This phase of your career will determine whether you remain a technician or you rise to the level of a manager and leader of skilled and professional folks. While there is no right answer to what is right for you and happiness is distributed evenly among those who manage and those who do, they are very different lives. What is important here is that your vision of who you want to be ultimately aligns with your ability in these areas. If it does, whether you decide to be a professional or a manager and leader of professionals, you will be happy. If you imagined yourself a leader and don’t really have that skill set as tested through actual projects, you will be like Sisyphus rolling the boulder up the hill as it rolls back upon you. Advancement comes in many forms and there is only one CEO. Finding an environment where you have lots of advancement opportunities in many forms, e.g., professional 1, 2, 3 or various levels of management will help you figure out where you fit.

IV. What is your natural stride? – Finding your home in the stretch

At some point in your career you will settle into the stretch. This is that part of the horse race after the second turn when you settle in to your trade and your calling. This portion of your career will likely feel both natural and boring. It is natural because after you have completed the education or residency phase and contributed to major projects and tested your mettle as a manager and leader, you will find a “settle in” place. It is a comfort zone because you are prepared for it. It is uncomfortable because it seems easy. You have reached a level of craftsman(craftswoman)ship. You are able to work independently, your advice is sought, you have reached that 10,000 hours Malcolm Gladwell talks about in his book, Outliers. But your career phases are far from over.

V. Who becomes dissatisfied first, you or your company? – The Beginning of the End Phase

I remember so vividly when Steve Jobs got thrown out of Apple. It was actually portrayed fairly well in Jobs, the first movie on Steve Jobs produced by some friends of mine. At some point during the stretch of your career either you or your company will wonder if it isn’t time for a change. Who will pull that trigger first? This depends so much on the business cycles of your industry, your demographic, your age, the economy and an endless set of other variables. But it will happen. And whether you or your company initiates it, you will be staring at a cliff of uncertainty. This is where we need to be altering our sense of contribution and phasing our institutional workforce rather than “cliff retiring” them. The country that gets this right will rule the world for the near future.

VI. How do you pivot in a time of uncertainty? How do you handle uncertainty? – What is Next? – A return to Hunting and Gathering

So what did Steve Jobs do when tossed aside by Apple? He started a new company called Next. And now what is next? AARP talks of reimagining your life and career. Encore careers are advocated by some. I like that also. In my book, BOOMERangs, Engaging the Aging Workforce in America I advocate the phase out of career folks to preserve institutional knowledge and reduce the burden on our society and improve individual well being. I increasingly meet folks in this group who live like hunters and gatherers. Tossed off the career path they put “gobs” of work activities together to keep their sense of self worth and support themselves. This uncertainty takes a health toll and perhaps the movement from this uncertainty to new structures represents the greatest opportunity for our aging society.

VII. Can I just dabble until I dwindle? Accepting physical and mental limitations associated with age, we dabble until we dwindle.

There is really no reason to stop working and contributing other than a mental and physical limitation to do so. John Adams was working and writing in his office until he died at 81. He and Jefferson died on the same day, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. And that is what eventually happens. But you will find and do find this group volunteering at non-profits, medical facilities and other socially “good” roles. As longevity increases, we will need to find structures for these folks to contribute. Maybe they can play a role in the modern “Virtual Villages” where aging folks help each other in virtual networks.

Whether you find these career phases in one company or more likely in many, the career of the future not so much unlike the career of the past will be characterized by the phases of 1) Education, 2) Meaningful Projects, 3) Advancement and Management Challenge, 4) The Stride, 5) The Beginning of the End and associated uncertainty, 6) The Hunter and Gatherer Phase and finally, 7) The Dabble until we Dwindle phase. These seven phases are to be embraced and enjoyed. When we are young we want time to go fast. When we are old, we want it to slow down. When we arrive at a single cadence, a rhythmic drum and get in step with it and the phases of life and career – we dance.



By | 2014-12-02T14:02:00+00:00 December 2nd, 2014|Blog, career advice, creativity in the workplace, personnel management|