The Three Stages of Your Career

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Apr 09, 2024

The Three Stages of Your Career

By Charlotte Beers

During my career, I often had a hard time getting the proper context for work when I counted on my various job titles and the expectations of others. I had bosses who reneged on their responsibility for taking charge, even though it was their job. They were indifferent, scared, or incompetent. From time to time, I was given a title but no authority to do the work. Most distressing was being treated like an alien simply because I had moved up a notch.

As soon as I became a management supervisor at J. Walter Thompson, the same people who had once applauded me were scowling at me because I had not managed to deflect the clients’ hostile attitude. When did that become my job? What they were asking of me felt like a sea change, but it was really only a job cycle change at work. As a manager, I had a different job to do with that grumpy client.

Eventually I made my own distinctions about what’s expected of us in order to assess the unspoken expectations that arise when we move to another position. Relationships as well as the work itself will be altered, no matter what the job description reads. I classified work into three cycles:  Doers, Managers, and Leaders. Though there are many sublevels in each cycle, the way we engage with others rather than our titles separates into three big cycles:

Doers are the PRODUCERS of work.

Managers create a positive ENVIRONMENT.  Managers exist in a political, competitive universe that is concerned with relationships as much as the work. They have to directly affect the way work is received.

Leaders invent the FUTURE.  Leaders often find themselves alone, going out ahead of the crowd to see what’s coming, to greet the new.  Business manuals may not agree with my sharp distinction between managers and leaders, but the blurring of these roles makes for some unhappy CEOs or division heads. There’s a time to lead and a time to manage; if this distinction is not recognized, a managerial style will fail caught in a leading cycle.

There are differing relationship skills required by each cycle:

  • Doers coordinate.
  • Managers collaborate.
  • Leaders originate.

These differences are more acute when you study what behavior is expected of each:

  • Doers emulate others.
  • Managers motivate.
  • Leaders influence and persuade.

These are very different terms of engagement because there’s not much peril in emulating when you’re a doer, and as a manager, motivating others to get the work out can be a very satisfying accomplishment. But deliberately seeking to persuade others to a new cause or action as a leader is potentially disturbing and a far more demanding cycle.

There are three reasons why understanding what’s required in these cycles will help you see the big picture.

One:  You need to know which cycle you’re in, for you can experience them all throughout your career.

Two:  All day long, in any one position, you may need to follow, then manage people and projects, and, more rarely, lead. One moment we dig in and work . . . the follower. The next, we direct and motivate .. . the manager.  Sometimes we initiate and persuade . . . the leader.

Three:  No one is a leader all the time. Trying to spend all your time in the leader mode is not much better than missing it altogether. Leadership is not a full-time role for anyone—not even CEOs or presidents. A leader initiates and then propels change forward. Change has an expiration date. No one wants to live in such flux, and no one wants the burden of leading all the time; leaders are happy to revert to managing when they can.

Though there are always overlapping duties, each cycle determines what others expect of you and how they rate you.


Doers engage by:

  • Organizing
  • Executing
  • Being efficient
  • Mastering the work

Job 1 for Doers: Step Out of the Narrow Job Boundaries
Normally the doer cycle is prominent in our earlier stages of work, but we all revert to doer, digging in when we have to get on top of the new work. When I went to the State Department, I swung between doer, buried in the government lingo and mountains of briefing documents, to leader, inventing a new way to dialogue with Muslims.

The doer specialist is known for her mastery of complex work. You see such specialists in law and science, but this can lead to great frustration. But in special cases, doers become experts. That cycle can last a long time. Companies tend to lock in their specialists, pay them well, and keep them in gilded cages.

Managers engage across broader endeavors and categories of people; they are more generalists than specialists. Managers essentially try to control the weather at work. They are held accountable for creating an environment in which the best work can go forward.

Managers are expected to:

  • Hire
  • Fire (sometimes the one they hired)
  • Collaborate widely
  • Motivate (often indifferent workers)
  • Select key tasks (and there’s never time to do them all)
  • Direct

Job 1 for Managers: Create a Good Environment for Good Work
To improve the work climate, managers may have to do any number of things—muffle an unfair client, make sure someone is recognized or gets a raise, and lobby higher-ups on behalf of their group and their work.

Don’t underestimate how seductive a doer’s role is; you may want to cling to it. It’s extremely gratifying to conquer the work. I have heard many a manager refer longingly to her old job, the one she knew how to do because it wasn’t as laced with unruly relationships, like managing the difficult or disagreeable client or situation.

Leading is a cycle of choosing managers, judging people, and initiating disruptive changes. It’s going on ahead, alone. Many managers who were asked to initiate abrupt change, to step out and lead, preferred instead to stay tucked in their bunker.

Leaders engage by:

  • Selecting managers
  • Setting standards
  • Persuading
  • Originating
  • Changing

Job 1 for Leaders: Go Toward the Future, Alone
There appears to be only a subtle distinction between the manager’s job of collaborating with other power bases and motivating the troops versus the leader’s role of compelling and persuading others. In fact, there is a huge difference. If you cannot be forceful enough to change a wrong situation, then you have failed that moment of leading.

I Missed the Lead
The division of public diplomacy and public affairs in the U.S. government used to be a freestanding unit of great power and reach—the United States Information Agency (USIA). When I came to head it, USIA had been transferred to the State Department for some two years, and I quickly realized that our charter, to create mutual understanding with foreign countries, had been diminished and spread thin in its new home at State. Our desire to speak directly to the masses in these countries naturally made the diplomats and civil service experts at State uneasy. Foreign affairs experts must concentrate on intimate and secretive dialogue with a few other elite players in their respective foreign countries. No one in this group wanted anyone taking a message directly to the people in, say, Egypt or Indonesia.

So I was overjoyed when a task force consisting of top government experts put together a brilliant white paper on the role played by our public diplomacy messages, which were really from the American people, to the peoples in foreign countries. Importantly, these experts questioned whether this function should stay in State, laying out the advantages of returning to a separate, freestanding structure. This was inspiring to me; at last, an elite group was saying that moving USIA to the State Department might have been a mistake. I went home that night feeling peaceful for the first time in months. The report offered a wise and balanced assessment, with solutions that would improve our ability to build mutual understanding, not only with country officials but with the people of foreign countries, which was the only way we would ever get a dialogue started.

Then nothing happened. Months later, when I pressed the chair of the committee, he told me, “Our job is complete; the paper is written and distributed.” I was appalled. “You mean this report is not a call to action?” He smiled pityingly at me. “No, it’s a white paper,” he said. “You’ll get used to it.”

I never did. I was invited to testify before the Senate in 2004, after I’d left my undersecretary position, about yet another study that discussed how to make public diplomacy, especially to Muslim countries, more effective. I brought up the implications of that earlier white paper—the need to make public diplomacy a separate, freestanding entity—along with my fervent belief in the solutions it posed. But I was speaking as a private citizen; it was too little, too late. I should have tried to be persuasive when I had clout as an undersecretary.

I missed that moment of leadership, when I could have translated the passion I felt about the report into concrete change. I had the same excuse you do: I was busy managing the thousands of pieces of paper and people and didn’t see that moment of leading pass me by.

Jumping into a leader cycle is unnerving. There’s no proof it will work or gain applause in the interim, and not everyone welcomes the disruption. But it’s also called growth, and the disruption doesn’t last forever.

One day, after pushing against a strong wind of resistance, your cycle of leading will be accepted as the new reality. Then you can go back to mastering your work as a doer or creating a great work environment as a manager.  My goal is to get you to the leader cycle, for even a day. It’s important to stretch to get there because you care . . . and because you can.

Adapted from I’d Rather Be in Charge: A Legendary Business Leader’s Roadmap for Achieving Pride, Power, and Joy at Work.

About the Author(s)

Charlotte Beers was the first woman senior vice president at J. Walter Thompson Advertising. Later she was CEO of the advertising agency, Statham-Laird & Kudner and then chairman and CEO of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide. From 2001 to 2003, she served as Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy & Public Affairs, where she was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, the State Department’s highest honor.