Where are you at on the Career Mastery Curve?

Where are you at on the Career Mastery Curve?

A framework that can be helpful to think about when it comes to your career planning and trajectory, as well as how you’re feeling in your current role, is a concept called the career mastery curve. It’s something that’s rarely spoken about, but I know from working with thousands of women inside the Women Rising program, it can be incredibly illuminating. Let’s investigate and as we do, reflect on what this means for your own career journey, and where you are at right now.


This is the model from inside our program. The career mastery curve plots competence on the vertical axis and time on the horizontal axis. And there are three core phases along what is commonly known as an ‘S’ curve. The ‘novice’ phase, the ‘experienced’ phase and the ‘mastery’ phase.

In the novice phase, you might be early in your career, new in your role or working on a project that you’re not very experienced in. You may have changed functions or industries, which in some ways has put you back at the bottom of the learning curve. You may have been promoted into a management or leadership role, and even though you have core subject matter expertise, you don't have expertise in management and leadership.

I often refer to this stage on the mastery curve as the white-knuckle period. It's where you are really holding on, sometimes for dear life, as you are learning and growing. You need self-compassion and grit as you start working your way up from novice towards the experienced phase of the curve. The novice phase is something you can experience no matter how far through your career you are because there can always be aspects of your role where you’re back at the novice stage. In fact, this stage is often a good sign that you’re continuing to learn and grow and take on new challenges.

The second part of the career mastery curve is the experienced phase. This is where you have a solid level of expertise, and a level of comfort in both the strategy and the execution of your role. Others see you as an experienced operator, and you're confident in your ability to get the job done. You still have a level of excitement and challenge in the role that you're in and you can still see growth ahead of you.

As you reach the top of the curve, you reach the mastery phase. At this stage you’re at the top of your field or excelling in your role and you are considered an expert. You may be familiar with the 10,000 hour rule, which came from research by Anders Ericsson, Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, who studied what it takes to be the best in the world in domains such as music, chess, medicine, and sports. Ericsson found that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice was required to reach expert level in any skill.

Whilst this number and research has been contentious in recent years, it still points to the fact that deliberate practice is necessary to get to expert level in anything, including our professional roles. For practice to be considered deliberate, it must involve trying activities beyond your current abilities, having well-defined goals, as well as a teacher or mentor who provides feedback and helps you achieve those goals.

When you reach the top of the mastery curve you’re also in a position with your level of expertise that you can teach, mentor and advise others, and you can see broadly and integrate across areas.

At this point in your journey, you may be starting to seek out new challenges, or different opportunities and areas for expansion. And often you may be starting to feel stifled or a bit bored. You may have lowered your engagement levels and lost some enthusiasm in your role. When I see this with women in our program who are wondering why they are feeling apathetic, where before they were so passionate, it often turns out that they are right at the top of the mastery curve, and are simply ready for their new challenge. They're ready to jump to the next mastery curve and start back at the bottom to learn and grow again.


It's always interesting to look at where you’re at in relation to these three core phases, and it's important to note that you can be at different stages of the mastery curve in different parts of your role. As per the previous example, you may have been promoted into management or your next leadership level, and whilst your skill level and your subject matter expertise is at mastery which is likely why you've been promoted, you’re also back at the novice or early experienced phase, learning how to manage and lead a bigger team.

Another important factor here is that people may think you’re at a different mastery level than you’re actually at. I was sharing on a coaching call recently an example from when I was at IBM, and I had just been promoted from head of marketing for the consulting business (that had come in through acquisition from PricewaterhouseCoopers) to director of marketing for the entire IBM business. I'd been in the business for just 18 months, so I was still fresh at IBM, a big complex organisation, and learning how to navigate it could be really challenging.

I was an expert in marketing. I'd been head of marketing locally and globally in numerous organisations for a decade. So as a marketing executive, my skill level and my ability to execute was at mastery. But as a new IBM General Manager - being a direct report to the CEO, sitting on the executive leadership team, and with responsibility for a team of more than two hundred people and a budget in the tens of millions in a complex business I didn’t yet fully understand – I went from the top of the mastery curve down to somewhere between novice and experienced.

Whilst my peers and team members looked at me with my level of expertise and background and assumed that I was at mastery, I was way back down in the white-knuckle period in many aspects of the role, hanging on for dear life. It was a humbling experience to say the least.


It's important to realise and acknowledge where you’re at on the career mastery curve, even if it’s different from what other people's expectations are. It’s a significant level of maturity that you can bring into your career understanding, acceptance and planning. It also allows you to question if you are where you want to be, or if there is a shift that needs to take place.

I’ve included some questions below for you to reflect on as you begin to explore this concept more. I hope you find them helpful.


1. Where are you at on the career mastery curve?

2. How do you feel about your current role or career stage?

3. Are you excited? Bored? Challenged? Ready for a change?

4. Are there aspects of your role you can identify where you’re at a different stage on the mastery curve?

5. Would you like to be at a different stage on the mastery curve in certain aspects of your career? If so, what actions can you take or what would help you to move towards that stage?

6. Write a list of your skills, achievements and experiences over the past 5 years. It’s time to celebrate where you’re at!

7. What do you value most about what you’ve done and who you’ve become over the past 5 years?

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