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How to Have a Career Conversation – a Toolkit for Managers

How to Have a Career Conversation – a Toolkit for Managers

Engaging in career conversations with employees may seem like a simple task. So why do so many managers overlook this important topic?

Performance goals, yearly targets, feedback reviews… These are all top of mind for managers throughout the year. But when it comes to retaining employees for the long haul, it’s regular career conversations that really make the difference.

We chatted to ELMO’s Jason Portelli, known as JP, to share his tips for embedding career conversations into the employee experience. Having begun developing his leadership skills within ELMO’s pre-sales team almost a decade ago, JP has championed many employees through various career moves. In fact, he’s embarked on a number of lateral career changes himself, moving from sales into solutions consulting, the partner team, and now in his new role as Culture & Engagement Manager.

What is a career conversation and why is it important?

A career conversation is an opportunity for an employee to discuss their professional goals with their manager in an open and meaningful way. Career conversations are different to performance management reviews because they focus on an employee’s own professional goals, rather than desired outcomes for the business. 

Career conversations can and should include long and short-term aspirations, both within the employee’s current department and elsewhere in the business. They can also be skill specific, rather than purely based on roles. For example, an employee may know they want to develop their coaching skills or they may want to try their hand at managing projects, but they’re less concerned about which department or area of the business they do it in.

These conversations should be employee-led with managers taking the role of coach and facilitator. So why do they matter so much?

“It’s crucial to have career conversations because if you don’t expect people to be thinking about their next move, then when they do eventually make that move, it’s going to sideswipe you,” JP says.

“But beyond that, it helps build that relationship and trust with your employees if you can create a psychologically safe space to have those conversations and ask: ‘Where do you see yourself in the future?’”

“They might say ‘I want your role’ or they want to progress up the channel, but you’d be surprised how many times they want to explore a totally new area of the business.”

Key tips for a successful career conversation with your employees

1. Steer clear of business goals

If career conversations are uncommon within your organisation, simply springing them upon your employees may not go down too well. As JP says, psychological safety between managers and their direct reports is an important element to encourage genuine and honest conversations.

“It’s hard to have that conversation if it is the first goal or development-oriented conversation you’ve ever had as a manager because it can feel like an attack for your employee,” he says.

“For example, if my manager has never asked me a question about my development for three years and then January comes and they say ‘what’s your next move?’, they may be alarmed. Instead, frame it as a question about their goals and keep that conversation separate from business aims or KPIs.

“A good starting question is what are your goals for the year?”

It’s worth noting that while these conversations are important all year round, the start of the year tends to be a heightened period when employees are considering their next career moves. Both job adverts and job searches tend to increase in January, according to several career sites. In fact, GlassDoor reported a 22% increase in the number of job applications that were started in January compared to the average rate.

That’s why it’s so important to embark on meaningful conversations early in the year, before employees begin their search elsewhere. 

For more reading on different types of goals, check out our blog: Do FAST Goals Trump SMART Goals?

2. Consider long-term career aspirations

Some employees may struggle to articulate the goals they hope to achieve, especially if it’s the first time they’ve been asked the question. However, most of us have an idea of where we’d like our career to go in the next 12+ months. Encourage employees to be ambitious with this question, and then work backwards to establish a path towards their ultimate goal.

 3. Ask: What help do you need to achieve your goals?

This is a crucial question in any career conversation. It underlines the manager’s role as a facilitator for their team members, even if it results in their employee moving into another team.

Without asking this question, employees may feel the conversation is a tokenistic attempt to keep them happy or worse still, they don’t have the support needed to achieve their goals. A good manager will not only create trust for their employees to be honest about their career goals, but they’ll actively champion their next move.

“If someone feels comfortable and safe to tell you they’re interested in another role, then that’s a positive reflection on you as a manager,” JP says.

What if employees want a role that isn’t available?

For many managers, this is one of the hurdles that puts them off having a career conversation with their team. For example, an employee might be looking to move into a management role but there are not any openings in the team. Or perhaps they want to progress into their manager’s role. 

It’s easy for managers to assume that if they can’t facilitate the move immediately, their employee is simply going to leave. But in reality, JP says there could be many other opportunities to expand their responsibilities and work towards their goal.

“Having that conversation doesn’t mean they’re leaving straight away. Hopefully it doesn’t mean they leave at all but instead, the manager explores what can be done to develop their skills in preparation for that next move,” he says.

Development examples include taking ownership over a certain area, being asked to manage a project, or reporting results to more senior members of the business. Employees could be tasked with leading a change management program or spearheading new ways of working. They could also develop their management skills through mentoring other staff in the business. 

While managers aren’t expected to find opportunities right away, it is important to offer a realistic timeframe for progression. Without it, employees might lose faith in the process. 

“I’ve been in the situation where several members of my team wanted to move up into management positions. I couldn’t give them an exact date but through conversations with the leadership team, I had a rough idea of when that second tier of management would come into place,” JP says.

“In that situation, it was about saying what can we do between now and then to build your skills and make sure you are the right person for that job?”

Importantly, taking a staggered approach gives employees the chance to dip their feet in the water and assess whether they like the role before they commit. All too often, career progression is seen as a vertical journey through a hierarchy of roles when in reality, a lateral move could prove to be a better option. For many people, leading and managing others is not something they enjoy. But that doesn’t mean career progression is off the table.

Want to read more? From ladder to lattice: Rethinking career paths

Other career development tools for managers

Beyond embedding career conversations into the employee/manager relationship, it’s equally important to document and record progress. Using a Learning Management System is a great way to set structure around goal-setting and each employee’s development journey. ELMO Learning Management offers access to 400+ online courses that can easily be customised to suit unique business and department needs. What’s more, ELMO Learning Management integrates with other ELMO solutions such as Performance Management and Succession Planning. The integrated solutions allow users to streamline their learning, performance, and development needs to nurture employees using a single platform. Visit ELMO’s product pages or request a demo to see the platform in action.

ELMO Software is a cloud-based solution that helps thousands of organisations across Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom to effectively manage their people, process and pay. ELMO solutions span the entire employee lifecycle from ‘hire to retire’. They can be used together or stand-alone, and are configurable according to an organisation’s unique processes and workflows. Automate and streamline your operations to reduce costs, increase efficiency and bolster productivity.