Wednesday, 20 April 2022

6 stages of role development

Last year I was reading an article by the CEO of Recruitment firm, KornFerry, showing six stages of career 'development' (Burnison, 2021). I was quite struck how this CEO had turned career development into a process that I have not seen in the career development field. I could not decide if I liked it or not.

The model seems to conflate leadership theory development with the career stages of Super (1980). This not a bad idea. But I am not sure that it is career 'development' though. Career development has been defined as “the total constellation of psychological, sociological, educational, physical, economic and chance factors that combine to shape the career of an individual over the life span” (Sears, 1982, p. 139; as cited by Patton & McMahon, 2006, p. 6). Career development includes our transitions into and out of work, so I am finding Burnison's model a little truncated. I would probably be more comfortable if Burnison had termed the flowchart "the 6 stages of work expertise", or "the 6 phases of role development" (2021). And yes, I think the name matters. 

To detail my understanding of the 6 stage model (Burnison, 2021):

  1. Follower. This might be our first role after qualifying, and - like the Hersey and Blanchard life cycle theory of leadership (1969) of telling - we are being instructed what to do - and have all our structure supplied in almost a parent-child relationship, and deliver quite technical work. We may have low follower readiness (Hersey & Blanchard, 1969). This stage in the model doesn't appear to be like the followership style of Kelley (1988), but use of a followership model might help new hires to work on critical thinking and active participation skills. However, this stage is similar to the first theatre, the growth stage of Super (1980). 
  2. Collaborator. Again, this stage seems aligned to Hersey and Blanchard life cycle theory (1969), moving on two stages to participation. We are still delivering highly technical work, but we are working alongside others growing our interpersonal and team skills. We will have high follower readiness (Hersey & Blanchard, 1969), and similar to the exploration stage (Super, 1980).
  3. Instructor. This is where we take on our first line leadership role, and this step appears similar to the delegating stage from Hersey and Blanchard (1969). We are a manager with training wheels, and need to be able to effectively delegate, while encouraging others to deliver to a set of requirements. This stage may be aligned to Super's establishment phase (1980): we may "have the responsibility, but not the authority" (Burnison, 2021). 
  4. Manager. We move onto managing larger projects, teams and goals. We build skills in motivation, vision, influence, strategy, long term-goal setting, and planning. This stage may also be aligned to Super's establishment phase (1980). We have worked our way up. 
  5. Influencer. This is transition phase where we move into a more mentorship role. We are less hands on but use our influence and expert power to get things done, similar to Henry & Lee's networked model (2004). This stage is - I think - aligned to both Super's maintenance and disengagement stages (1980). However, I am unsure this stage is a linear characteristic: I suspect this is a trait across all stages. 
  6. Leader. Here Burnison takes a servant leadership approach (Greenleaf, 1998), focusing on follower empowerment, inspiration, and values. This might possibly be aligned to Level 5 leadership of Collins (2001), or authentic leadership (Avolio & Gardner, 2005). However, I disagree that this is a different step to step 4. For good management, we must be able to both manage - get things done through others - and to lead - to encourage the heart. But perhaps this is step 5 where we hone our management skills into a more developmental, leader-oriented role. 

This model is presented as a process, as a "pathway of possibilities, where the worker will, like Super's model, travel through stages of the process at different times, with different companies (Burnison, 2021). Interestingly, though, I don't think that the last two steps quite work that way. To me, step 5 is not a not linear. Step 6 might be, but I am also uncertain about that. I find steps 5 and 6 are more styles of working, rather than a role which we perform. 



  • Avolio, B. J., & Bass, B. M. (1995). Individual consideration viewed at multiple levels of analysis: A multi-level framework for examining the diffusion of transformational leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 6(2), 199-218.
  • Burnison, G. (21 September 2021). This chart shows the 6 stages of career growth. Where are you now?.
  • Collins, J. (2001). Good To Great. HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
  • Greenleaf, R. (1998). The Power of Servant Leadership. Berrett-Koehler.
  • Henry, I., & Lee, P. C. (2004). Governance and ethics in sport. In J. Beech & S. Chadwick (Eds.), The business of sport management (pp. 25-41). Pearson Education.
  • Hersey, P., & Blanchard, K. (1969). Life cycle theory of leadership. Training and Development Journal, 23(5), 26-34.
  • Kelley, R. E. (1988). In Praise of Followers. Harvard Business Review, 66(6), 142-148. 
  • Patton, W. & McMahon, M. (2006). Career Development and Systems Theory: Connecting Theory and Practice (2nd ed.). Sense Publishers. 
  • Super, D. E. (1980). A life-span, life space approach to career development. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 16(3), 282-298.

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