Embracing the Career Conversation

In the age of COVID-19, as always, some companies are doing well and some industries are on the upswing. Company leaders are embracing how important employee engagement is to business success in today’s quick-changing, competitive, and largely remote environment for two reasons.

  1. Work has evolved to become more challenging and less scripted, requiring a much more self-motivated workforce.
  2. These days most employees expect workplaces to continually engage their minds and build their skills through compelling projects and stretch assignments. If sharp employees don’t see that happening, they leave € “especially if they are in the early or mid-stages of their career.  According to Deloitte’s report, corporate learning trends, training and development opportunities are the most popular benefits an employer can offer today’s employees.

As a result, HR professionals are in a unique position to promote a culture of engagement, one that supports employees’ desires by taking a proactive stance toward their growth and development. By the nature of their work, HR professionals play a more “whole company” role. They can facilitate top managers’ ability to hold fruitful discussions with their direct reports and on the other side of the coin HR can encourage employees to take more ownership of their careers by talking more openly about their aspirations and career plans.

The Goal is Alignment

Supporting employees to take ownership of their career paths has multiple benefits. Encouraging employees to take a hard look at their skills, motivators, and aspirations challenges both employees and managers to align employees’ career plans to the organization’s future needs and strategic goals. Where are their best skills most valued? What do they need to learn/develop in order to move to the next role in their plan? Are there other parts of the organization where they can transfer their talents to make a bigger impact and experience more satisfaction? Seeking answers to these questions can lead to increased employee engagement, and increased productivity, the classic win-win scenario and HR can lead the way.

To enhance employee engagement in your company, initiate career conversations using the right mindset and the SPUR framework.


It’s important to prepare for the conversation believing that:

  1. Employees can learn just about anything, but really want to learn and get better at things that they desire to learn and get better at; and
  2. It’s the employees’ responsibility to plan their lives and their careers; HR is simply coaching them to be able to do what they want to do so that it is in alignment with future workforce needs.

Uncovering areas where the employee wants to improve, supports the alignment previously noted. In order to coach the employee, HR professionals must play the three roles of a coach in the conversation:

  • Expert when you need to give direct knowledge and advice
  • Resource when you can point out and connect the employee to others who can provide more information or who would be a good connection
  • Facilitator when asking open ended questions intended to get employees to think for themselves and explore options

Insist that the employee bring at least a rudimentary career plan to the conversation so that a discussion ensues with coaching rather than proscriptive direction. Even just a sense of what has been learned so far, what aspects of their work they enjoy, what role they think they would like to do next, and projecting potential roles in their future will start the conversation.

Leveraging the SPUR framework, managers can engage employees in conversations that will spur positive action.

The SPUR Framework

  • Self-assessment: Gaining clarity on skills, aspirations, and motivators
  • Perceptions: Uncovering and taking more control of personal brand and reputation
  • Uncovering connections: Identifying allies and mentors
  • Reality testing: Mapping out goals, time frames, and trying out the ideas in the market

During an initial conversation, managers can quickly test for focus with selected diagnostic questions and then listen for how employees identify themselves. This allows managers to offer appropriate insights, point employees to resources, and help the employee create targeted action plans that have the highest potential in moving them forward.

Once you know more about the employee’s triggers for the discussion, pain points, or aspirations, you can decide how to intervene. The questions in the guide below are samples of the kind that can serve as starting points for your SPUR discussions:

Self-assessment -Clarifying skills, aspirations, motivators

  • What aspects of your work would you put at the top of the list of things you do well and enjoy? What’s missing/isn’t satisfying?
  • What do you want to learn more about? What skills would you like to develop?
  • What would career success look like for you now? What do you want to do and achieve in your next role?  How about the one after that?

Insights to offer

  • Repeat common themes you hear re: motivators, strengths
  • Prepare them to negotiate with their manager to do more of what they need to do to prepare for their projected next role
  • Where in the organization their skills could transfer, or what roles use their strengths? How would developing these skills benefit the company and its business objectives?

Perceptions -Understanding how they are perceived; reputation & brand

  • What are you known for? What do people rely on you for?
  • What feedback have you had from others/your manager?
  • What do you want to be known for?

Insights to offer

  • Issues/feedback/positive perceptions they should know about
  • Gaps you see between where they are now and where they want to be
  • Opportunities you see for them to enhance their brand, or gain visibility

Uncovering connections – Building their network, internal connections

  • What areas of the business do you want to learn more about?
  • Who do you want to meet with to uncover insights? Where are you hitting roadblocks in networking?
  • Have you had/do you have mentor(s), people who have advised and assisted you in your career to date?
  • How connected are you to others in the field of your next job and the one after? (Professional organizations? Colleagues? Networking groups?)

Insights to offer

  • Identify where you think they need to develop relationships and expand their network
  • Current or anticipated needs of the organization they should pay attention to
  • Assisting them in making connections inside the organization. Who else could you connect them to as they investigate roles they are curious about (other managers? professional organizations? web tools? internal job/career path info?)

Reality testing -Mapping out goals, time frames, and how to try out ideas

  • What have you tried already? What happened?
  • What have you been trying to achieve?
  • What are possible development opportunities?

Insights to offer

  • Identifying actions they are willing to commit to in order to work their plan and achieve their goals
  • Specifying support they would need from you and others
  • Determining specific, measurable goals, checkpoints, and timeframes

The Next Step to Competitive Advantage

In almost every company the increasing implementation of AI, mergers, and offshoring are reducing the number of jobs comprised of more routine, repetitive tasks, to a very small number. In the very near future, the critical work necessary to make companies successful will be more complex, more puzzle-like, more creative, and will change forms even faster than it does today. Organizations will need people who love to do, and are self-motivated by, that kind of work. HR professionals can create a competitive advantage in the marketplace by facilitating employee development and retention as long as it’s a win-win proposition for both parties.

Organizations that adopt a career coaching mindset and process like the one above -moving the right people into the right roles -will be ahead of the pack with significant competitive advantage.

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