On individual growth cycles

To continue our discussion of growth cycles from the past couple of weeks, I wanted to briefly discuss this as applied to individual careers.

Jeff Suderman introduced to me the concept of individual career cycles like product/company cycles. His thought was that we go through each of them with phases of our lives – introduction, growth, maturity, decline (depending on your specific life cycle definition).

Your first few months at a new job provide an introduction; as you become more comfortable, you enter the growth phase. After that, you’re in maturity and are contributing at a high level. At some point, you enter decline, maybe through burnout, maybe looking for a new challenge, maybe some other factor.

Then, you change jobs or get promoted; rinse, repeat.

It’s very interesting to me how long these cycles are for different people and for different kinds of companies. Most of my work experience is in the technology industry, broadly. And much of my experience has been in small, growing companies. At some companies where I’ve worked, it was assumed that you’d be at the maturity phase within a month and could sustain that indefinitely (probably a signal of lack of maturity within management in the company!); even at the ‘more conservative’ companies, it certainly was a 3-months-to-maturity expectation.

I was quite surprised, then, when I was taking an HR course for my MBA, and the text suggested that you can’t start evaluating someone’s performance in a role until 6 months after they started!

Now, a few observations:

1. I am still relatively-early in my career, doing jobs that are closer to entry-level. For entry-level jobs, the cycle should get to maturity faster than for higher-level jobs. It’s easier to learn to respond to a support request than the nuance required for an upper-level management role or a technical specialist of some kind.

2. A company that actually cares about it’s employees needs to recognize that an individual will eventually enter the decline phase, and that good employees will need new roles or new life cycle curves in some form. It seems like companies are generally good at doing this for people who are promoted, but generally bad at doing this within a role otherwise.

3. Much like the question ‘Does Apple need to keep growing?’, there’s an underlying assumption that the individual wants a new life cycle, and somewhat of an assumption that the new life cycle should be growth relative to the previous one. Personal growth is definitely something to aspire to, but it seems that different individuals desire the growth more than others. For most, growth isn’t their highest priority, especially later in their overall career.