Sophie Broadbridge—Getty Images
By James M. Citrin
May 12, 2015

Your value to your employer changes following a pattern strikingly similar to how physicists describe the properties of energy. They refer to potential energy – energy at rest, and kinetic energy – energy in motion. Careers follow similar patterns.

As you prepare to enter the workforce you are building up your store of potential value – the value you will be able to add in the future based on exercising your intellectual and interpersonal energies, applying your education and academic achievements, bringing your enthusiasm, work ethic, and energy to an organization. As you land your first few jobs and begin to gain experience, this potential is translated into momentum, as you become increasingly more valuable based on your professional expertise, reputation, and track record. Picture a kid on a swing, kicking his legs and causing him to swing higher and higher. That is how your career takes off. You launch your career with the scale registering heavy on potential, and light on experience.

As you move through your career, the scales shift and the experience side eventually grows to outweigh the potential side. The trick is to add to the experience side of the equation without emptying the potential side. The more you can turn your potential value into valuable experiences, which can then be converted into greater potential, the more valuable you will become in the career market over time.

Now let’s turn to the first three phases that most careers follow.

Aspiration Phase

Time frame: 0-3 years

Characterized by: discovery and introspection, the process of learning, and the development of knowledge.

What you should aim to accomplish: In this phase, your value in the career market is based almost completely on your potential. So the most important objective is to discover your strengths and interests, and to begin learning marketable skills. Try out as many different kinds of tasks and jobs as possible. Get feedback from professors, peers, and mentors who can help you to identify what you are good at—and what you’re not good at.

If you use the Aspiration phase to gain exposure, build skills, work on your weaknesses, and fill in gaps in your knowledge, you will build your potential and strengthen your ability to provide value to current and future employers. So focus on acquiring life skills that are valued in every industry: writing, thinking critically, listening well, problem solving, and collaborating effectively with others.

And don’t forget to focus attention on your life outside of work. Take the time to build meaningful friendships, establish healthy living habits, and partake in activities you enjoy. These skills, coupled with the ones you’ll develop at work, are the foundation of any successful career and life. If you build them now, you’ll be poised for success as you develop more specialized skills later on, starting in the Promise phase.

Promise Phase

Time frame: 3-10 years

Characterized by: recognized by those who employ you through your compensation, promotions, access to the best assignments and mentors

What you should aim to accomplish: You will continue to explore your interests and talents, but you will also begin to develop specific professional skills, and make meaningful contributions to your organization. One goal in this phase is to show that the bet your superiors made on your potential was well placed. You will do that by becoming known as a can-do person who meets deadlines, does high quality work no matter the assignment, and asks good questions.

The second goal of the Promise Phase is to position yourself for the next stage of your career by testing out a diverse set of roles and work environments. First, are you inclined toward a position whose objective is to generate revenue, or do you prefer support functions? Second, are you skilled and interested in managing others, or do you prefer to be more of an individual contributor? Often, answers to these questions only emerge over time. You may need to switch departments, companies and even industries to answer them and you should reflect upon them carefully over the first decade of your career.

If you’ve built a strong foundation of work relationships and a reputation for excellent work, you may well be able to switch jobs within your existing organization to explore these key questions. It is incumbent on you to figure out the best environments and roles in the Promise Phase so you can dig into your chosen area and start becoming valued for your track record and experience. This is to say that there is one other key goal of the Promise Phase – to develop your skills in managing your own career.

Momentum Phase

Time frame: 10-20 years

Characterized by: your track record and reputation for which you will become known in the marketplace.

What you should aim to accomplish: The Momentum phase is when the value of your experience will overtake your potential value as you grow your professional standing by capitalizing on your experience, stature, skills and expertise. In doing this, you will become promotable in your company and more recruitable in your industry and across sectors.

Beyond leveraging your experience into new opportunities, success in the Momentum phase is also defined by the quality of the teams you build and manage. This is perhaps the first thing CEOs and HR officers consider when deciding whether you’re a fit for an executive role at the company. You want to become known as a “talent magnet,” someone who has built a positive culture inside your organization, attracted world-class talent from the outside, developed talent internally, and used all of these resources to create highly effective teams.

Build goodwill by supporting those around you and being a positive, responsive, and helpful colleague and leader. This is especially important when life inevitably gets in the way during this period of your career. The more goodwill that you have built up from having supported others around you and from being a positive, responsive, and helpful colleague and leader, the more assistance you will in turn benefit from when it comes to maintaining your momentum and balancing work with the major events in your personal life, such as marriage, parenthood, and health issues, to name a few.

Citrin runs the CEO Practice at Spencer Stuart, one of the world’s leading executive search and leadership consulting firms. He is the best-selling author of six books. This article was adapted from his latest, The Career Playbook: Essential Advice for Today’s Aspiring Young Professional, out now.

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