Your Career S-Curve – What Is It & Why Does It Matter?

What Is It?

The S-Curve is a powerful career management tool that highlights the importance of strategically starting a new growth curve well in advance – 6 -12 months – of your next promotion opportunity.

It’s a model that was initially used in the business world to highlight the importance of timing in disruptive innovation and continued market leadership.  

The same wisdom holds true for our career paths.  Every role that you occupy in your career will have it’s own S-curve, consisting of a beginning, rapid-growth, maturity and decline phase.  And just like in the world of innovation, you too, are well advised to initiate a new curve at a point well in advance of the next promotional opportunity you seek.   Awareness of this, is a great competitive advantage.

Starting a new curve will give you great agency over both the pace of your career progression and your readiness to successfully win that promotion when the opportunity arises. 

Why Does It Matter?

Far too many talented executives make the mistake of starting their new curve far too late.  From my experience three of the most common explanations for this are:

  • Over-Confidence – Some managers, have a misplaced over-confidence in their abilities.  They wrongly believe they are already doing the job that they are seeking to be promoted into. This is very dangerous thinking and should be a red-flag for anyone putting themselves forward for a more senior role. You may indeed be an exceptional performer in your current role which is undoubtedly a great starting point, but make no mistake this will also create high expectations from management regarding the future value-add you will bring to a more senior role.
  • An Over-Focus on Your Job at the Expense of Your Career – Other managers, regrettably fall into this trap which was brilliantly codified by Marshall Goldsmith and Sally Helgesen. These managers often have very good intentions of building the new skillsets required for the job they covet, but they end up always putting the demands of their current job first and never quite get out of the starting blocks.   Paradoxically, this admirable intense commitment to their current role can end up sabotaging their future career progression.
  • Underestimation of the Leadership Step-Up  – Finally, some managers underestimate the time required to develop the mindset-shift and new skillset required for their future role. For example in moving from a Senior Manager to a Divisional Leadership or Director’s role, the operational delivery skills that were previously very important to your success are now less important that your ability to:
    • Visualise and articulate the bigger picture.
    • Think strategically.
    • Invent and lead change.
    • Inspire and influence strategic stakeholder groups.

      Developing these leadership skills requires time and real-world practice. 

Do any of these pitfalls resonate with you?

Why A Good Development Plan Matters

Because senior promotions are incredibly competitive, coveted and capped in an ever decreasing thinning pyramid of available positions.   So when an opportunity does arise it’s so important to be ready.  To know that you have used your time wisely and have competently shown how much leadership potential you have.

Showing your potential will require that you not only develop the new skillsets required for the future role, but that you also demonstrate them so that you positively influence people’s perception of you.  This is critical.  

People will be used to thinking about you in a certain way and it’s your job to help them shift that perspective so that going forward they can easily imagine you at the helm of a senior leadership role within the organisation.  Staring a new S-Curve while still in your current role is the best strategy for ensuring this.

A new S-Curve where you are:

  • Developing the right leadership mindset and skillset required for the future role.
  • Using the material of your current job as your training ground for practicing these new skills grounded in the objective of delivering greater strategic value to the leadership team.
  • Leading with your strengths and your signature leadership style, very clear in your own mind on the value they add and how to optimise them for maximum impact.
  • Proactively bringing new strategic initiatives, ideas and point of view to the executive table.
  • Elevating the level of your conversations in meetings by asking more strategic-level questions.
  • Relating with and positively influencing the stakeholder groups critical to the strategic agenda.
  • Reflecting, learning and growing in competence with each focused learning action.

There are many ways to achieve the above and talking with your HR /L&D team or with a mentor will give you plenty of ideas on how to get started.  The key take-away is that whatever plan you design for yourself make sure it’s heavily focused on the demonstration piece, on work initiatives that matter and contextualised in a 6-12 month time-frame that enables you to show your potential and positively influence others perception of your leadership abilities.   It’s for this exact reason that I created our Creative Leadership Programme – a six month tailored development action plan grounded in the above skills.   If this sounds of interest to you get in touch I’d be delighted to hear from you.

The Health Of Your Career S-Curve Is Up To You

Your career vision, strategy, speed and proactiveness of your learning is yours to decide.  If you are fortunate enough to work in an organisation with a strong L&D remit use this to the maximum.  Be proactive.  Talk to your manager and the HR/L&D teams about the specific skills you want to invest in that are unique to you.  You know your development needs better than anyone else so become a strong advocate for yourself.  Make your business case and use all the resources available to you to accelerate your learning.   Do this well and it will be the best curve ball you can throw to your competition.

Wishing you well,


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