5 min read

The 3 Phases of Your Career: Why The Best Performers Ignore Their Job Descriptions

Your core duties are important, sure, but they’re not where you’ll really have a chance to shine
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Photo by Rampal Singh on Unsplash

Greetings friends!

It took me many years as an S&P 500 executive to master my core job. It took me several more to realize that my greatest opportunity to make a lasting mark lay elsewhere.

Today, I’ll share what it means to perform well as an employee, looking at three key career phases. I’ll explain why so few people manage to make it beyond the second phase.

I hope the takeaways help you manage your own work and life, regardless of the position you’re in right now.

Your Career Has Three Distinct Phases

The simplest way to describe a person’s potential career trajectory is this:

  1. Learning the ropes, where you mustn’t screw up anything too big
  2. Delivering the essentials, where you master the core job responsibilities
  3. Contributing unique value, where you go beyond the core job

Let’s briefly explore the three phases. What are the characteristics of each? Why does a person survive one and make it to the next? What are the reasons for stagnation and failure?

Vibrant orange flowers amidst greenery
Image by author

Phase 1: Learning the Ropes (Survival Is a Matter of Luck)

When you start a new job, neither you nor your company really knows if you are suited for it.

  • The job description was incomplete and inaccurate because no description captures the full breadth of any job.
  • Both your application materials and your interviews were carefully scripted to show everyone at their best.

This means your early days are a period of discovery. What exactly does the job entail? Do you have the knowledge and skills to perform? Most importantly, while you are figuring this out, will you be lucky enough to avoid major screwups?

If you are fortunate, you will have no major crises that challenge you before you’ve learned the basics of what your role entails. The basics include much more than your job scope and duties.

You will need to learn what are the unstated expectations in addition to the explicit ones. You must identify who are the people who can derail your progress and, likewise, who will come to your aid.

Your company and your colleagues will be more or less indifferent to your success. Your company wants you to succeed, true, but that doesn’t mean it will create optimal conditions for you to do so.

Let’s assume the undisclosed factors about the company, the job itself, and your own experience do not promptly torpedo you. To survive phase one of your career in a new job, then, you need time to acclimate before you suffer major stresses.

How much time? I’d estimate anywhere from six months to two years, depending on your history and the job. That’s just the time needed to avoid that a serious problem proves fatal.

Mastering the core job usually takes considerably longer.

Phase 2: Delivering the Essentials (You Cannot Skip This Phase)

When I started as General Counsel of a global multinational, I was too young, too inexperienced, and hopelessly naive about what the job entailed.

I am quite sure it was just a matter of luck that I didn’t flame out in the early years. The reason is that I would have been unprepared to handle a serious problem. I likely wouldn’t have recognized trouble brewing sufficiently early to keep it from metastasizing and growing.

With every passing quarter, I learned what my job was and how to do it. I figured out what resources I had myself and which I could call upon for help. And with each transaction, dispute, and public filing, I gained experience that prepared me to handle the next one better.

You are not an expert for having done something once. By the Nth repetition, however, you may have developed expertise. This is what it means to master the core job:

  • You know how to do everything that your job regularly entails and you know how to do it well.
  • Because you have done core tasks before, you can easily handle nuance and variation.
  • The more aspects of your core job you become an expert in, the more work you can complete.
  • Because each task takes less time than it used to, you deliver better results with greater confidence in more areas.

Many people never make it to this level. Why is that? I see two primary reasons: (1) they do not sufficiently focus on what they’re doing, and (2) they switch jobs too frequently.

Many ambitious people are focused on getting promoted. Ironically, this leads them to invest insufficiently in their core job. Without mastering your core job, you may get promoted but you will not deliver exceptional value.

That’s because switching your job too frequently dramatically hampers your effectiveness. You put yourself back into the learning the ropes phase. You shorten the time you’ve spent mastering the core job. You thus lower your odds of ever mastering the next job.

Phase 3: Contributing Unique Value (Beyond the Core Job)

Mastering your core job is a fine accomplishment. If you do feel yourself gaining mastery, you have several options: stay put and comfortably perform your job, seek out a new job, or expand beyond your core job.

Strictly doing your job well is honorable but unlikely to leave a lasting legacy. Switching jobs resets your career clock and lowers your chances of growing beyond the core. You should thus view a move as satisfying your own ego more than doing something extraordinary.

So how does one expand beyond their core job? The best way I can describe it is striving to serve interests beyond your own.

  • Getting a promotion and more pay is about you.
  • Helping your colleagues grow their potential or helping your company thrive long-term is about others.

To make it concrete, here’s how I expanded beyond my core job when I was General Counsel. Together with a colleague, I started questioning the company’s vision and values. Specifically, we asked whether the vision was inspiring for employees at all levels and not just management. And we asked whether the values accurately captured the company’s culture.

This had little to do with my core job. But after more than 10 years in the role, I felt I understood the company well enough to raise the topic. And not just to ask questions, but to make suggestions.

Over the next two years, we updated the company’s vision and corporate values in a project involving senior management and the board but also employees around the world. My goal was to help shape the company’s culture.

I can’t tell you how empowering and invigorating it was to work on something that would have a lasting impact on the whole company. To feel that our contribution really mattered and see that belief reflected by colleagues around the world.

Your Opportunity Will Be Unique

I can’t predict what opportunity you will find to contribute extraordinary value beyond your core job.

I can say that you greatly increase your odds by recognizing that your career follows a predictable trajectory and making sure you properly focus on each of the steps in turn.

You must survive your beginner phase and devote enough time to master your core job. The tradeoff for being patient and staying at one company in one job is that you may ultimately be in a position to do great things.

Be well.

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I published a version of this article on Medium originally.