June 1994 // Volume 32 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA2

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Growing Through the Stages: A New Look at Professional Growth

In rapidly changing environments, both organizations and the people who make up those organizations must engage in continual growth, or risk becoming obsolete. All too often, professional growth is a hit-or-miss process. Learning opportunities selected are often those that meet immediate needs rather than future needs. Most professional development programs do not acknowledge a learners' career stages in helping individuals make choices regarding professional development. In this article, the authors' introduce a model for professional development currently being used by the Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service, which recognizes that professional development needs vary according to an individual's career stage and long-term career goals.

Roger A. Rennekamp
Extension Specialist
Program and Staff Development
Internet address: rrenneka@ca.uky.edu

Martha A. Nall
Extension Specialist
Program and Staff Development

University of Kentucky
Cooperative Extension Service
Lexington, Kentucky

In rapidly changing environments, both organizations and the people who make up those organizations either change with the times or risk becoming obsolete. So as Extension positions itself to address contemporary issues affecting society, professional staff members will need to engage in lifelong learning in order to maintain professional expertise in relevant areas (Martin, 1991).

The Personnel and Organization Sub-Committee of the Extension Committee on Organization and Policy (ECOP) echoes these sentiments in a 1992 report:

     Career development and enhancement for the individual
     employee are part of the overall (change).  To move
     through the 1990s, this part of human resource
     management should be synchronized with other
     organization restructuring strategies.  The continuing
     professional development of faculty and staff will be
     necessary to meet the demands and expectations of the
     new workplace (Extension Committee on Organization and
     Policy, 1992).

But all too often, professional growth is a hit-or-miss process. Participation in professional development opportunities is seldom done to meet a specific need articulated in advance. The growth that occurs is often serendipitous and may or may not strengthen areas of real need. In this article we introduce a model for professional growth currently being used by the Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service that encourages advance planning and focuses on the individual agent. The most unique feature of this model is that it acknowledges variation in professional growth needs at different points in one's professional career.

A Career Stage Approach

In many careers, employees progress through a number of upward job changes. For example, an employee may move from sales associate to department manager to store manager to regional manager. However, professional careers often do not have such a structured career ladder to follow. Recognizing the unique characteristics of professional careers, Dalton, Thompson, and Price (1977) introduced a career stage model for professional growth that identifies and describes four distinct stages of professional careers. Associated with each career stage are identifiable characteristics and needs that guide thoughts, behaviors, and actions at that particular stage.

Building upon the work of Dalton, Thompson, and Price, we have modified and adapted the original model for use in the Cooperative Extension Service (Rennekamp & Nall, 1993). The model suggests that there are four distinct stages in Extension careers. The four stages in Extension careers are labeled, "entry," "colleague," "counselor," and "advisor." Each stage includes a distinct set of motivators that can drive professional development at that point. These motivators provide both the impetus for participating in and the criteria for selecting from among various professional development opportunities.

The Entry Stage

The entry stage corresponds to a time in one's career where the individual first enters the profession or a new job within the profession. It is essential that all professionals move out of this stage to attain career satisfaction.

The entry stage is characterized by psychological dependency. Central motivators for professional development include attaining the foundation skills required to do the job and understanding the organization's structure, function, and culture at that point in the organization's history. Motivators for professional development at the entry stage include: (a) understanding the organization's structure, function, and culture; (b) attaining base level technical skills; (c) giving relevancy to previous training; (d) exercising directed creativity and initiative; (e) moving from dependency to independence; (f) exploring personal/professional dynamics; and (g) building relationships with professional peers.

The Colleague Stage

The colleague stage can be a satisfactory level for many professionals for a number of years, as long as growth in expertise or responsibility continues. Some people never need to move beyond this level, thriving on independent work (Simonsen, 1986). Individuals in the colleague stage have been accepted as members of the professional community and independently contribute their expertise to solving problems and carrying out programs.

The colleague seeks to build at least one area of expertise for which he or she is noted and often shares that expertise on developmental committees and through other special assignments.

Motivators for professional development at the colleague stage include: (a) developing an area of expertise; (b) becoming an independent contributor in problem solving; (c) developing a professional identity; (d) gaining membership in the professional community; (e) expanding creativity and innovation; and (f) moving from independence to interdependency.

The Counselor Stage

Professionals who have reached the counselor stage are ready to take on responsibility, either formal or informal, for developing others in the organization. At the same time, they must not neglect their own personal growth and development. To accommodate personal development needs counselor-level professionals often seek to develop additional areas of expertise beyond those they currently possess.

Counselors often chair committees or take on leadership roles in professional associations. Rather than being independent contributors they understand the need for an interdependent role and accomplish much of their work through others. They are boundary-spanners and often have extensive networks both within and outside the organization.

Motivators for Professional Development at the counselor stage include: (a) acquiring broad-based expertise; (b) attaining leadership positions in professional circles; (c) developing networks with other organizations; (d) stimulating thought in others; (e) counseling other professionals; (f) developing coaching and mentoring relationships; and (g) facilitating self-renewal and rebirth.

The Advisor Stage

Individuals in the advisor stage play a key role in shaping the future of the organization by "sponsoring" promising people, programs, and ideas. The advisor has often developed a distinct competence in several areas of expertise and often has a regional or national reputation. Advisors have a thorough understanding of the Extension organization and can be a catalyst for positive change. They are capable of exercising formal and informal influence in the decision-making process.

Motivators for professional development at the advisor stage include: (a) becoming involved in strategic organizational planning; (b) achieving the respect of others in the organization; (c) engaging in innovation and risk-taking; (d) understanding complex relationships; (e) achieving a position of influence; (f) "sponsoring" individuals, programs, and people; and (g) increasing responsibility.

Putting the Model to Work

We believe the model provides an excellent base from which professionals can begin to focus and articulate their plans for growth. Below we outline five key steps for using the model as a guide for planning professional growth.

  1. Identify your career stage. Read the descriptions for the four career stages. Select the one career stage that best describes where you feel you are at this point in your career.

  2. Identify the motivators driving your professional development activities.

  3. Verbalize your professional development goals. Clearly and concisely state your long-term professional development goals. Examples of professional development goals might be to gain knowledge and skills necessary to work more effectively with culturally diverse audiences or to expand expertise in natural resources programming.

  4. Select appropriate developmental opportunities. For each professional development goal, list those professional development opportunities you wish to pursue that will assist you in reaching those goals. For example, an agent may indicate his or her intent to enroll in a workshop on cultural diversity, a training session on recycling, or a graduate program in a particular field of study.

The Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service is committed to enabling all professional staff members to reach their fullest potential both as individuals and as members of the Extension system. We believe that by supporting staff members in professional growth we improve job performance as well as increase levels of personal satisfaction.

In planning for professional growth, we encourage the use of a career stage approach. The approach requires a long-term perspective and encourages work toward clearly articulated professional development goals while being flexible enough to accommodate shorter-term changes in roles and program focus. A long-term perspective enables us to more efficiently and effectively use the time we are able to devote to professional development. The short-term flexibility allows us to respond to the changing needs of society and the continual evolution in the way we perform our jobs.


Martin, D. (1991). Professional growth: A personal journal. Fort Collins: Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Service.

Extension Committee on Organization and Policy (1992). The 21st century professional in the midst of organizational change. Washington, DC: United States Department of Agriculture.

Dalton, G., Thompson, P., & Price, P. (1977). The four stages of professional careers: A new look at performance by professionals. Organizational Dynamics, 6, 23.

Rennekamp, R. A., & Nall, M. (1993). Professional growth: A guide for professional development. Lexington: University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service.

Simonsen, P. (1986). Concepts of career development. Training and Development Journal, November, 70-74.