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How to engage managers in career conversations

16 December 2016, by Lesley Vanleke
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  • #Career Discovery Trajectory
  • #talent development

In many companies, team managers are the first formal point of contact for career conversations. In my experience, managers are often reluctant to engage in these types of conversations for a number of reasons. In this blog I’d like to explore why this is the case and offer some alternatives for approaching these meetings.

When managers are probed about their reasons for not engaging in career development conversations, the reasons boil down to the following:

  1. When addressing development and careers, I often touch very personal and profound aspects of people’s aspirations. Hey, I am an operational manager, not a professional coach! The question raised here is: Am I competent to do these conversations? I can understand this objection. Career guidance is no longer about helping an employee to make a choice (Do you want to be a specialist or a manager?), but rather a quest to find one’s true identity and purpose in life.
  2. Talking about careers and development one day and evaluating the next? People will not be totally open to me. The question here is: Is this really my role? Again, a very understandable objection. What are the odds that an employee with a dream to open a B&B in the south of France is going to tell his manager?
  3. To what result should I hold these meetings? Expectations tend to get raised to a maximum and in the end, I end up with a frustrated employee and a monkey on my shoulder. The concern here is: I don’t control career opportunities in our company. Also, this objection is valid. Careers cannot be managed anymore, only facilitated.

The fact of the matter is that these concerns are often justified. No matter how much HR trains and develops managers to do these types of conversations, chances are the overall results of these meetings will be mediocre at best.

In my opinion, it would be worth it to radically rethink the way development and career conversations are held. Rather than using the classical career model as a starting point (careers are linear and predictable), more contemporary career models (careers are dynamic and unpredictable, with a focus on self-management) should be applied.

These are my arguments:

  1. The traditional approach is trying to find an answer to the following questions: What do I want professionally? What am a capable of? What can I do to reach my aspirations? Professional career coaches put in at least 8 hours and usually up to 15 hours with a coachee to get to the bottom of these questions. How can we expect managers to reach results in the required 1,5-hour conversation following the performance cycle? Hence objection 1 in the list mentioned above.
  2. The fact that a manager raises the theme of career aspirations somehow gives the impression to the employee that the manager/company is taking responsibility for the “content” of the career of the employee (f.ex. “I want to become a general manager in the finance department one day”). This might have been the case 15 years ago, but today companies are no longer able to “manage” careers, due to the dynamics of business today. Hence objections 2 and 3 on the list above. More than ever, career success comes to those who are able to spot opportunities and act upon them. It’s probably more useful to help people to develop the skills to actually to self-manage their careers and become more independent of the company that currently employs them.
  3. Managers would probably be more motivated to have career & development conversations if they could start from a simple, yet powerful meeting structure that puts people into an action modus concerning their development & career.

Here are my tips on how to support managers to hold career and development conversations that make a difference:

  1. Train managers to make the development of self-management the focus of development and career conversations. This way, managers can stay away of the ‘content’ of the aspirations on which they have no real impact.
  2. Make self-management in the career tangible by introducing Career Management Attitudes. The four career management attitudes are simple, comprehensible and they offer a clear objective for development. Furthermore, they are meta-skills for development, meaning that if your organization successfully develops career management attitudes, people will develop a whole set of other competencies and skills they need to both stay relevant and experience personal career success as a result.
  3. Support managers in their efforts by setting up a companywide dialogue concerning the desired talent management culture, one with a focus on self-management.

In conclusion, I would like to state that if we adopt contemporary career models (careers are dynamic and unpredictable, with a focus on self-management) as a starting point, we can help managers to approach development and career conversations in such a way that a 1,5-hour meeting can actually make a difference.

Contact us to learn more about the Career Discovery Trajectory for developing a talent culture with a strong focus on development, growth, and self-management in the career.


About the author

Lesley Vanleke

Lesley Vanleke holds over 20 years of experience in HR. In 2014 she co-founded TalentLogiQS, where she searches to understand all different aspects of customers’ challenges and needs. She strives to be a sounding board and bring about connections that deliver added value for all parties concerned.