Updated: Dec 13, 2022
Francine Thompson is the Founder of HungryHairdressers.com and brings over two decades of experience to her roles as a salon owner, educator, and coach. Her unique style of coaching blends the power of simple systems with personalized strategies to achieve lasting change. Francine is passionate about helping new and struggling stylists actualize their dreams and achieve their goals. She is committed to sharing her wisdom and experience to further the growth of her community of beauty professionals.
It’s funny, isn’t it? To observe a hairstylist at the arc of their career. How they ascend and peak; how some can sustain that momentum, and how some are crushed by it. As a salon owner, I’ve seen different iterations of this same journey countless times. It’s always the same general course and outcome, seasoned by personal choice. It’s something I affectionately call The Lifecycle of a Stylist. Give me 5 minutes with a hairdresser, and I can tell you what phase they are in and what challenges they are most likely facing. For me, as an owner, it is critical to my relationship with my employees to understand this pathway and to be able to provide the right kind of guidance and environment for them at each phase of growth. Below, I break down the 4-Phases: Employment, Growth, Mastery, and Discontent.
Phase one: Employment
Many new stylists lack direction after they graduate cosmetology school. Let’s face it; it’s really hard to know how you want to pursue your career when you have never worked in the industry and have no experience in any role. There are many options for new stylists, and it’s very easy to get overwhelmed or just leave a position for something else the minute it becomes uncomfortable. The reality is that EVERY job is uncomfortable in the beginning. The goal is to stay as consistent as possible during this phase. Regardless, a few viable choices for a new stylist are:
Work as an assistant
Rent a booth or suite
Your main focus should be finding a salon with good continuing education, a supportive boss, a well-known reputation, and a client surplus. Take your time interviewing as many salons as possible to ensure you have the most supportive foundation possible. This will expedite this phase considerably.
Some of this work may be very low-paying, and financial supplementation may be needed. It is very common to find a bridge job to ease the financial burden of building a clientele. I like to describe a bridge job as employment that takes minimal mental energy and time, while providing the means to pay your bills. Think waiting tables, babysitting, cleaning houses, driving uber, etc.. I know this doesn’t sound glamorous, and it’s probably not what you had in mind when you set out to be a world-famous stylist, but it is a means to an end. It is helpful to sign on to a bridge job for a specific time frame to know there is an end in sight. This will also allow you to make time-specific career goals based on when your bridge job will end. Example: I will wait tables 3 nights a week for 1 year or until I have 50 clients.
During the Employment Phase, the stylist likely has no reputation and few clients. There is no real momentum for growth; it can feel depressing and even desperate. It is very important to stay consistent and not jump around to different jobs during this phase. Building your career is comparable to building a house. In the beginning, the foundation is the salon you choose to join. When you leave one salon for another, you are essentially wiping out your foundation and starting to build all over again. This is why your main focus should be finding a salon with good continuing education, a supportive boss, a well-known reputation, and a client surplus. Take your time interviewing as many salons as possible to ensure you have the most supportive foundation possible. This will expedite this phase considerably.
Phase two: Growth
Consistency is key to client growth. By consistency, I mean:
Showing up on time
Dressing like a professional
Having a thorough consultation
Having a good attitude
Performing an excellent service
Giving product recommendations
Documenting and sharing your work
The clients are, in most cases, more loyal to the salon than they are to the stylist during this stage.
Do this with EVERY client EVERY time.
When you make it your mission to exceed every client's expectations in your chair, you will start to build a solid reputation. It usually takes about 2 years to reach this stage fully. Momentum will start to pick up, and like blowing on an ember, the flames of your career will start to flicker brighter. Toward the end of this phase, a stylist will start to be able to live off of their earnings; they can now give up financial supplementation and fully commit all efforts to their career as a stylist. At this point, the support of a reputable salon and staff is paramount to retaining client growth. The clients are, in most cases, more loyal to the salon than they are to the stylist during this stage.
Phase three: Mastery
This phase is where it feels like you have arrived. It is when you are experiencing the momentum of the past 2-3 years building momentum, and things are starting to fall into place. Like a snowball careening down a hill, your career has now picked up enough speed that you don't feel as though you are constantly pushing it from behind, and, in some cases, you are busier than you can handle. If you have chosen your employment wisely, you will be supported at this point to increase your prices, as you create more demand for your services. This is the sweet spot in any stylist’s career and a goal that we all hope to achieve. Life is good; things are easy, and all of a sudden, the job is fun! Your relationship with your salon has changed at this point. If you are employed, you are now contributing on a greater level to profits, and if you are on your own, you have to reconstruct your time to allow for all of your administrative tasks to be complete, and you may be looking for help.
Phase four: Discontent
This phase seems inevitable for most stylists and can be either dangerous, destructive, transformational, or empowering. Being self-aware during this phase is very helpful in navigating it. Having an expectation and a plan for handling it can allow only the most positive transformation.
The key to benefiting from this phase is being aware of your thoughts. Observe how they change from gratitude to overwhelm or even resentment. This is the crucial tipping point; at this juncture, we all must either blame our circumstances or acknowledge the feelings as our own need for something more. Once a stylist gets to the point in their career when they feel like they are winning consistently, it is very common to have thoughts like: “Why should I give my employer half my income; All I do is work; I deserve better pay or more recognition; No one appreciates all my hard efforts.” It is very common in this phase to combat bitterness, entitlement, and resentment. All of this is very normal. It is what you do with these feelings that matters most.
You can either blame those around you (boss, co-workers, clients, etc.) for making you feel this way or realize that these feelings aren’t a reaction to anything external but a deep reflection of your need for growth.
Once you take ownership of your feelings, you can be empowered to do something about them. Feeling bitter, resentful, or unappreciated is often just a sign that you have outgrown your current situation. The remedy for this can be to leave your current situation for a new one or create real change in your current environment. Ask yourself what the driving factors were in phases 2 and 3 that kept you passionate, engaged, and driven. Most of the time, your answer will be that during those phases, you were being challenged in some way. You were attempting to do something new and acquiring the skills to do so with excellence. That experience promotes a sense of accomplishment and pride in your work. In phase 4, it’s time to get that feeling back! By increasing prices; asking for a raise, and bringing in new services, you can experience that all over again. This will keep you on a constant path toward growth and away from complacency.
BEWARE: I have seen this phase crush careers and relationships. How you handle yourself during this phase can alter your career trajectory. To avoid sabotaging all you have worked for, commit to owning your feelings and not blaming others. Have the tough conversations you need to and communicate with those around you to make the changes you desire.
A lot of stylists leave their salons to go out on their own at this point, thinking it is the only option. For some, this may be true. But, if owning your own salon doesn’t make you want to dance down the street, there are many ways to grow your micro-business and brand as an employee. Owning a salon isn’t for everyone, and most of the time, an owner would rather work with you toward your own personal goals than lose you. Have a conversation about how you can reach for growth within your current environment. The outcome might surprise you!
Nevertheless, aligning yourself and your environment with your goals starts with knowing what they are! Ask yourself the right questions and get specific about where you want to go while also taking into consideration the realities described above.
As much as the awareness of this lifecycle can be pivotal to a salon owner, it can also be very beneficial for any stylist to identify with the stage they are in and to create a plan for transitioning into the next phase.