Career Stages

I often help my clients think about career stages, where they are and where they want to go. Here is some information about the concept of career stages.

In their work on career progression in organizations, Dalton and Thompson (1986, 1993) identified four distinct “stages” employees may occupy throughout their careers. Not all employees move through these stages but some do. The four stages can be described as follows:

Stage 1: Depending on Others

  • Willingly accepts direction
  • Demonstrates success on a portion of a larger project or task
  • Shows “directed” creativity and initiative
  • Performs well under time and budget pressure
  • Learns how “we” do things

Stage 2: Contributing Independently

  • Relies less on supervision; works independently and produces significant results
  • Increases expertise and ability
  • Develops credibility and a reputation
  • Builds a strong internal network of relationships

Stage 3: Contributing Through Others

  • Increases in breadth and depth of knowledge
  • Stimulates others through ideas and knowledge
  • Involved as a mentor or ideal leader in developing others
  • Represents the department effectively to internal and external audiences
  • Build a strong internal and external network

Stage 4: Organizational Leadership

  • Provides direction to the department
  • Defines/drives critical opportunities and needs
  • Exercises power responsibly
  • Obtains essential resources
  • Sponsors promising individuals to prepare them for leadership roles
  • Represents the department on critical strategic issues

Dalton and Thompson arrived at their conclusions based on studying the relationship between age and overall job performance. In their initial investigations they saw a decline in job performance over time and thought it was age-related. Upon closer examination of their findings they discovered that there were high performers in every age bracket. What they learned was that performance “expectations” changed over time. As employees spent time in a job role more was expected of them. Low performers tended to remain in a stage longer than expected or failed to perform the essential stage-related tasks. High performers were those who were able to make transitions (or “novations” in Dalton and Thompson’s terms) through the career stages.

For more than 25 years of studying the relationship between organizational expectations and individual performance, their findings suggest that if an employee wants to remain a top contributor, they need to change the way they contribute. The same skills and approaches that make one a star early in a career won’t guarantee continued success throughout a career. The organization’s expectations – the templates against which contributions are compared change over time. The developmental needs of employees shift as well. Each stage carries with it distinct developmental tasks and activities which enable employees to more fully contribute. The four stages model can be of help when thinking about coaching or developing the skills of others.


Gene Dalton and Paul Thompson. Novations: Strategies for Career Management.    Dalton/Thompson. 1986.

Gene Dalton and Paul Thompson. The Four Stages of Careers in Organizations. Novations Group, Inc. 1993.