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Careers can feel like a string of two- to five-year jobs. New titles or changes to a different organization usually mark the journey. But Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison says a better way to look at your career is that it evolves through six stages:

  • First stage – follower: Your first job out of college will be task-focused, as you carry out what others tell you to do. And he says in his book Advance that’s a good thing: “You will never lead if you don’t know how to follow someone!”
  • Second stage – collaborator: You’re still operating from your technical skill set but now require people skills as you collaborate with others on your team rather than primarily take orders.
  • Third stage – instructor: You now are a team leader or first-level manager, and those people skills become even more critical as you give instructions to your team, which may only be one other person. “The key here is whether you effectively instruct people on what needs to be done instead of being the one to do it,” he observes.
  • Fourth stage – manager: You progress into managing larger teams with bigger goals. You’re not just motivating direct reports but also finding the resources for them to be successful.
  • Fifth stage – influencer: You now transition from directly managing a team to influencing people – in particular, people who don’t directly report to you, who might be in similar or higher levels in other departments.
  • Sixth stage – leader: Your work now revolves around inspiring and empowering others. “As a leader, you don’t tell people what to do; rather you tell them what to think about,” he says. You want to motivate them so they can do more and become more than they thought possible.

“It’s important to calibrate this journey. It isn’t a ladder, one job to the next.

Rather, you travel through various stages of development, spending more time in some than the others. You may have one or two jobs in one stage and several jobs in another. You may traverse all the stages, or stop at some intermediate point. It’s up to you,” he writes.

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Obviously you need to think ahead and prepare for what’s ahead. His framework helps you prepare to move from doing to collaborating to instructing to managing to influencing and leading. He also urges you to work on developing a global mindset, dealing with ambiguity, handling and managing change, and mastering a faster pace.

Backing you up in the journey will be an inside and an outside strategy. Inside your company, you want to be indispensable – especially to your boss. That buys you job security should downsizing erupt because you’re the last person the boss wants to lose. After all, you’re indispensable.

But complement that with an outside strategy of insurance. Build relationships in your network and continuously look for opportunities elsewhere that might help you. “When the opportunity is right or when you need to make a move, you’re poised and ready. Most importantly, you never make a move because you’re desperate. Avoiding those desperate job changes is the No. 1 thing you can do for yourself to keep from derailing your career progress,” he says.

Also helpful in avoiding derailing would be to avoid the “dirty dozen career derailers” he shares: Unawareness, rigidity, disorganization, arrogance, untrustworthiness, cracking under pressure, defensiveness, not being a team player, hearing but not listening, poor performance, lack of independence so that you stay with the same boss or mentor too long, and overreliance on one skill.

Quick hits

  • What’s your most important organizational tool? Time-management coach Elizabeth Grace Sanders says it’s saying no by either not agreeing to commitments in the first place or eliminating some currently on your plate.
  • Similarly, look at daily habits – daily to-dos – that can be replaced by something less frequent, advises psychologist-turned-writer Alice Boyes. Can the daily team huddle for updates be replaced by a checklist, for example?
  • The notion you should never mention the negatives of your product or service is countered by a study that found people who opened a credit-card account after learning about a card’s downsides spent 10 per cent more each month than customers who heard only the benefits. Their nine-month cancellation rate was also 21-per-cent lower. Ryan Buell, a Harvard Business School professor, told a university publication “when customers have a more holistic view of the trade-offs of an offering, it helps them make more well-informed choices, which enhances the quality of the customer relationship.”
  • To improve your speaking voice, read a children’s book aloud as if to a three-year old, suggests presentations coach Gary Genard, as it will help improve your intonation. Also spend time with audiobooks, which are usually read by top voices.
  • The best career advice tennis pro Sloane Stephens says she received is that "you win or you learn, but you never lose.”

Stay ahead in your career. We have a weekly Careers newsletter to give you guidance and tips on career management, leadership, business education and more. Sign up today.

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