Development Planning 2.0: How to Stop Dreading Career Conversations!

Hearing “I want to have a career conversation” can strike fear into managers’ hearts as can knowing that annual career development conversations are around the corner. Why are these conversations, which are supposed to be easier, more pleasant, and more positive than annual performance reviews, so hard?

It is not that managers think these discussions are unimportant to engagement and retention of key employees. This is hard to miss when study after study says that employees leave most often because of lack of opportunity for growth, or lack of caring/understanding about what they do (in other words, conversations) from their managers. In fact, it is often tough because we are well aware of just how critical they are.

It is more that managers have a hard time with three main questions:

  1. What should we cover?
  2. What if I can’t give them what they want?
  3. What if they want to leave?

#1: What should we cover?

Employees wonder about this too, often trying to decide how much to share with their managers. People are most engaged when they feel their managers care about them and their success, when their work matters, and when it uses their best skills in areas that interest them. Letting them know you want to talk not just about their current role but their future, their aspirations, and what could help them feel more successful and valued in their role is a good start.

Then, it can be as simple as:

  • “What do you want?”
  • “What is it about that that matters?”
  • “What do you need to get there?”
  • “What can I do to help?”

However, employees are often not clear about what they want. Giving them a list of questions and possible topics to consider prior to the meeting often gets them thinking and helps them trust that you actually want to hear what they have to say. Some examples of questions that we have found work well include:

  • What would career success be for you now?
  • Other than money, what do you value about what you do? What do you believe you do that adds the most value to the company?
  • What aspects of your work excite/interest/ energize you? Has this changed?  Are you getting enough of those?
  • How well does the current work match your strengths, motivators or values? What would create a better match? What would you want to use more/less?
  • What would you like to do/learn about but have not had the chance?
  • What would you want to be known for/ recognized for in your role?
  • What do you want to achieve in the next 2-3 years? What long term career goals do you have?

#2: What if I can’t give them what they want?

You do not own their career, they do. In most cases, you cannot give them what they want – they will have to do something to get it. This question is tough in two diametrically opposed situations:

  1. If there is a strong performer who is outgrowing the role or even the organization
  2. If the person wants to do something you (or others in the organization) do not believe they have the talent to do

The simple fact is this: it is better to have a motivated employee for a short stint than one who is lagging for a lifetime.

Strong Performers Outgrowing Their Role

If what the person wants is not achievable in your department/company, you can keep them engaged by helping them build skills and experience needed to move on to their dream job, and by being straightforward about the options. For example, many small companies have a sharp divide between the professional-level roles – which may require advanced degrees or technical skills – and the administrative or entry-level roles, so there is not a clear career path. Using tuition benefits or development budgets to pay for them to gain skills can benefit their department in the short run and help transition those highly motivated to get to the professional roles to larger companies who have more mid-level roles. Hiring back talented alumni once they have the credentials and experience is one long-term gain – as is, at a minimum, creating ambassadors for the original department and company as a training ground.

Employees Unlikely to Achieve What They’re Looking For

For the employee who wants more but you believe is not likely to get there, you do not have responsibility to talk the person out of their goals. You do have a responsibility to help that person understand the blockers to their success and help them strategize on how best to handle them. If it is a skill or experience issue, lay out the steps they would have to take to gain and demonstrate those. If it is a style issue, providing straight feedback and offering internal or external coaching could be what is called for. Political issues take more finesse and often support from HR to handle. They can sometimes be resolved through conversations but may ultimately only be resolved by helping the person move on.

#3: What if they want to leave?

Your best performers will move on whether you help them or not. Talking about their career goals will not cause a departure; but, ignoring the issue will only accelerate it. If you can keep them in the company, it’s a win-win. So, helping them figure out their potential next move(s) and helping them get there is to your advantage – as is catalyzing the development of others who might be ready to take their place, so you are not left with a talent gap.

The most forward-thinking companies reward managers for developing their people or moving them into other company roles. However, managers who are sought after by employees because they are known for mentoring and career development often attract the best employees, and gain that way, even if they are not evaluated on it. Either way, it is to your benefit to increase your comfort with career conversations and to invite your employees to initiate them as well.

Interested in learning how Keystone Partners can help with your career management and leadership development-related needs? Contact us today to learn more about our services.

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