by David Sturt and Todd Nordstrom 



“I think I need a new job,” a close friend who leads a regional office for a large global organization told us. “I used to love working for my company, but either I’ve changed or the company has changed. I just don’t feel appreciated like I used to.”

As leaders, we know change is unavoidable. Not all of us will love our jobs, our work or our companies throughout an entire career. Your path to leadership hasn’t always been easy. You took your bumps and bruises on your way up the ladder. And, throughout your career you’ve changed as well. You’ve grown. You’ve evolved. And, even though you might not sit and think about your evolution, as a leader you should—because the people you lead today are experiencing those very same changes.

“But, I’m a great boss,” you might think. “My team doesn’t know what I suffered through.” Sure, you probably remember your horrible bosses—the bosses who made you feel anxious, small, or insignificant. Those bosses taught you exactly who you didn’t want to become. And, you also might reflect fondly on your best bosses—the one’s who inspired you to become who you are today.

However, there’s more to anyone’s leadership story than just good bosses and bad bosses. What about all the managers who weren’t all that good but weren’t all that bad either? These are the bosses people stick around for as long as the work is interesting, the pay is decent, and there’s some sort of opportunity to grow. But, these are also the types of leaders that can easily transform an employee’s mindset from “Meh, they’re an alright boss,” to “Wow, I’ll follow this boss any day.” Why? Because we can all become great leaders by making an effort to understand what an employee is thinking and feeling at different stages of their career, and then use that knowledge to transform any employee’s day-to-day work experience by showing our appreciation for their work and the career stage they’re in.

But, what are those stages? And, what do they mean?

Curious to understand how we can all be better leaders, the O.C. Tanner Institute conducted a global study of people who had been at their jobs from one to thirty years. The study focused on finding out exactly how time has changed them. The data from the study shows:

Credit: O.C. Tanner Company

Credit: O.C. Tanner Company

Year 1: This Is The Learning Phase

In the first year employees are soaking up knowledge, details about various personalities, and insights into their likes and dislikes about the company, their manager, and their team. Yet, they are still unsure of what the future holds.

Year 3: Feels Like I’m Fitting In

Employees are beginning to feel like part of the team. They understand the dynamics of the people they work with. They have seen how their contributions impact others. And, they start to get curious about their future opportunities if they decide to stay.

Year 5: I Have Achieved Expertise

Confidence is high. Research shows the five-year mark is a vulnerable time as people start wondering, “What’s next?” They might also be looking for some excitement—the learning has slowed, and a fresh challenge seems appealing.

Year 10: I Belong Here

Employees see their company differently—a psychological shift has changed their perspective. Coworkers are almost like family. Employees feel committed to the cause and treat the company’s goals as their own. 

Year 15: I’m Invested

Employees are psychologically invested in building a history with the company. The company has become part of their identity. They treat the company with a personal sense of ownership. Employees feel grateful now and want to give back.

Year 20: I Lead Like A Veteran

Employees realize they have witnessed a ton of change—both in their personal life and within the company. They’ve bonded with other employees and their families. They want to show younger workers what great work looks like, and why the organization is a great place to work.

Year 25: The Triumph Phase

According to the research, this is an employee’s most significant milestone. It is a time when employees celebrate past and present victories. They are determined to pass along what they know to the next generation.

Year 30+: I Am A Mentor

Employees report an extreme sense of gratitude and indebtedness. They recall mentors and moments where their work was recognized. Moreover, they have a sincere desire to become the mentor, and leave a legacy before they retire.

Understanding how each of these career stages was critical to your success as you became a leader gives you a deep insight into what your team members might be thinking and feeling at different points in their careers. But, beyond just understanding people and what they might be thinking, these markers give you, as a leader, a killer opportunity to recognize their contributions and properly celebrate employees in accordance to their career stage. For example, you wouldn’t give an employee who’s celebrating Year 1 with your company the same amount of celebration as a Year 25 employee—because these two employees view the company differently. And, the same is true with all stages because, like we mentioned at the beginning of this article, we all change throughout our careers, and so do the nuances that make us all feel appreciated.

We’re all in this game of life together. We all face constant change. And, when clear markers reveal the changes we all experience in our careers, as leaders, we need to take every opportunity to appreciate the people around us.

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