Like all professionals, agile talents want to know, “What do I need to do to be successful at attracting top clients, interesting work, and earning higher rates?” The Career Stages of development offers a helpful perspective. For individual freelancers, it describes high performance over a career. For managers or HR professionals who need freelancers, it offers a way to define the “right stuff” they are looking for, and whether the freelancer has it. For executives in the talent platform space, it provides a way to accurately matching freelancers with clients.
The Career Stages grew from research by HBS professors Gene Dalton and Paul Thompson. Why, they asked, were some scientists and engineers highly valued past their technical prime, while others were not? They found career high achievers changed over time in skill, behavior and role, transitioning through four distinct stages of contribution. As they moved from one stage to the next, successful professionals shed behaviors that previously mattered, in order to pick up new skills and ways of working needed for high performance at the next stage.
Stage One freelancers “build credibility.” High performers at this stage help, learn and earn the trust of clients and colleagues. They demonstrate the skills necessary for proficiency at the assignment for which they were hired, and general competence at their craft. High performers at this stage learn to do the right job at the right pace and in the right way.
Stage One freelancers begin their journey to build an independent reputation and client base. They are typically offered smaller tasks and less critical work. They are managed closely and often feel as though they are a directed “pair of hands” until they show what they can achieve independently, without oversight. Eagerness to assist, and a willing acceptance of direction are essential in Stage One. He or she accepts their limits and works through them. The best performers understand the norms of client organizations and operate accordingly. Stage One creativity and initiative are valued, but only after basic competence is assured. Until the individual shows mastery of the fundamentals, they lack the standing to credibly recommend alternatives.
How long can a freelancer remain in Stage One? Not long. Freelance career success requires a reputation for independent contribution and established expertise. That’s Stage Two.
Stage Two freelancers “contribute independently.” This is our typical view of high-performing freelancers. They have four qualities we value:
- A reputation for technical expertise in an area of importance to clients
- The ability to operate independently (and often remotely) and produce expected results
- Strong planning and project management skills
- Good team and interpersonal skills; easy to work with
Technical expertise is the necessary condition for success in Stage Two. But, strong Stage Two freelancers bring more. They must be comfortable operating with limited supervision and support, able to get the job done within the timeframe, finding solutions to problems, and overcoming obstacles. The most successful are easy to work with, and have good business and interpersonal skills. Accountability for results completes the performance cycle; at this stage, successful freelancers know “you are only as good as your last performance.” They have learned to accept responsibility for disappointments as readily as they do accolades for success, and must be excellent at learning from these experiences and remaining up to date.
It’s difficult to remain in Stage Two over time. Tech changes. New competitors come up. Recent graduates offer more advanced techniques at lower cost. Some do make it: we call them “Super Stage Two’s.” It’s a challenge in fast moving technical fields to remain on top over time, and keep up with new advances. There is another way to continue to be successful.
Stage Three freelancers “help others grow and perform.” Super Stage Two is a challenge. An alternative path is to shift in contribution from individual contribution to contributing through others. Stage Three freelancers may still write code, but they play a more senior role for clients as a project or task lead, an expert advisor, an innovation leader, or as a formal or informal mentor. To deliver this higher level of contribution, they must:
- Grow in technical breadth and perspective; seeing the “bigger picture”
- Support the development and performance of more junior colleagues or client staff
- Learn to lead, teach and coach, formally or informally
- Broaden their professional and industrial networks
Stage Three freelancers have their finger on the pulse of their tech, and see the broader implications of key trends and developments. In Stage Three individuals break free of the limitations of individual effort by formally or informally leading others, or mentoring junior professionals, often including client project leads. Their contribution to developing professionals, and the reputation they earn within their professional community, is how their network grows.
Stage Four freelancers “help shape future direction.” It is entirely possible to have a successful freelance career without progressing beyond Stage Three. However, some freelancers continue to increase their achievement by providing a more strategic contribution to their clients. Stage Four is the stage of “helping to shape future direction.” It is the most valued Career Stage, and Stage Four freelancers deliver by:
- Developing a deep understanding of the W.O.T. of their client organizations
- Building strong and often lasting relationships with clients
- Helping shape and influence a client organizations’ strategic tech or business direction
- Managing change: As one CEO put it: “Change leadership is the essential skill of Stage Four freelancers.”
Stage Four freelancers are often former executives and typically serve as executive coaches, advisors, or strategic consultants. Freelancers who are successful at this stage may lack formal power but know how to influence important decisions. The value of Stage Four freelancers is their skill in bringing together technical expertise, business savvy, and the ability to connect with decision makers. Because they are influential, they also recognize their responsibility as role models for more junior professionals.