You Need Results. They Want a ‘Career’ Conversation
Effective Career Coaching Isn't Just About Employees' Needs
You may be eager to put the recession behind you, refocusing your team and cranking up productivity. After a cautious 12 to 18 months, you and your fellow leaders are aligned, confident and ready to pilot your organization boldly forward. But is your workforce ready?
Don’t be surprised if they’re stepping back to get their bearings after months of overtime and the ghost work of laid-off colleagues. They may be thinking, as a relative calm begins to settle across your organization, that it’s about time to consider their future and their careers, not your business strategies. Don’t be alarmed. The two goals are not mutually exclusive.
It may be time for career coaching
Career coaching helps employees get where they want to be and where the organization needs them to be. Yet many leaders we’ve talked to wince when the subject comes up. They worry that although the recession may be over, this is a jobless recovery. What kinds of career coaching conversations are possible in today’s environment? Our response: Plenty.
The career landscape was changing long before our economy’s latest nosedive. BlessingWhite’s research over the last decade indicates that ‘career’ no longer means the quest for the next promotion or raise. It’s about continued personal success and satisfying, meaningful work. Because careers are not exclusively about advancement, they are much more fluid and dynamic than they used to be. Think ‘body of work’ or ‘series of assignments’. That’s exciting for employees — and sometimes intimidating. There may be fewer restrictions, but there are also fewer clear-cut paths for growth and development on the job.
|“In the past, choosing a career was like buying a one-way train ticket from Rome to Copenhagen on a local train that made all the stops along the way … Today choosing a career is more like buying a lifelong Eurailpass, with no set final destination, no fixed travel agenda, and no timetable.”— Professor Ed Lawler, The New American Workplace|
The challenge for managers is that, unlike raises and promotions, which are clearly delineated, the definition of personal success and satisfaction is different for every employee. There isn’t one career coaching conversation that you can apply with every team member.
And you may be wondering, “Aren’t employees responsible for their own careers?” Sure, but it makes good business sense for you to take a more active role.
Career coaching aligns interests and drives mutual success
The message of individual accountability was around long before the disappearance of 30-year anniversary gold watches and company-funded pensions. Buck Blessing and Tod White coined the term “You, Inc.” in the early 1970s. Amid the downsizings of the early 1990s the Baby Boomers got the message of lifetime employability not lifetime employment. Later in that decade, Tom Peters made a splash on the cover of Fast Company with “The Brand Called You.” Still career ownership is an easy concept to understand but not always easy to live.
Besides, you don’t really want your employees pursuing their career agendas and building their skill sets for future employability on your payroll without regard to your needs, do you? Career coaching is the perfect opportunity to align your interests with their passion and aspirations. Dan Pink’s Free Agent Nation is not the goal here.
To conduct career coaching conversations that drive mutual success:
- First consider your organization’s strategy, future talent needs, your most pressing team priorities, and the work that needs to be done today. In other words, be crystal clear on what matters most to you and your organization.
- Then consider what you know of your employee’s talents, experience, interests, goals, and preferred working conditions. Clarify your understanding during the coaching conversation. Ask questions to get to the motivation behind statements like “I want more responsibility” or “I want to do something new.”
- Consider the work that needs to be done — on your team or elsewhere in the organization. Which assignments fit that person’s skills and interests? BlessingWhite’s research indicates that about half of employees are looking for meaningful or interesting work in their next career move. Only 8% want a promotion, and only 14% want more money. Those findings support our experience that successful career coaching conversations often result in changes to the employee’s current job scope, not an official change in position.
Still bothered by nightmare scenarios of unrealistic employee expectations or dead-end dialogue? Check out the advice below for handling some of the trickier career coaching scenarios.
Tips for handling common Concerns
Concern #1: There are no open positions and no obvious future opportunities. First, don’t pretend there are any. Brainstorm ‘unofficial’ career development and personal growth in your team member’s current job: special projects, stretch assignments, expanded responsibilities or training. There may also be non-traditional lateral moves to explore. Consider how to raise awareness of this person’s strengths and abilities with other leaders by involving him or her in high-visibility presentations and projects. And if the employee can’t articulate career or development goals, read on.
Concern #2: The employee desires ‘career progression’ but has no idea what he or she wants. Start by discussing this person’s current job satisfaction. It will help the employee understand what to look for in future opportunities. It also sets the stage for reshaping current responsibilities to increase satisfaction and personal growth.
- What aspects of the current role are most satisfying?
- Why does he or she like or not like particular tasks or challenges?
- What talents are under-utilized or can be developed further?
Use mind-opening questions to explore ideas for expanding responsibilities and gaining recognition in the employee’s current role. It’s the employee’s career! As their manager, you don’t need to have all the answers. Encourage the employee to take advantage of organizational resources (e.g., training or online tools) to clarify career aspirations, differentiating talents and drivers of job satisfaction.
Concern #3: You really depend on this employee’s contribution to your team and don’t want to lose him or her. Get over it. If your employee is clear about career aspirations and drivers of job satisfaction he or she will pursue them with or without you. So be supportive of career conversations. Clarify your understanding of what this person is looking for: A change in responsibilities to try something new? Development of a certain skill? Experience in leading a project or people? Something to challenge them? Then think about what your team needs to deliver. What projects or tasks can you assign that might satisfy this individual’s aspirations? Often, managers can adjust job responsibilities to provide growth opportunities to increase an employee’s job satisfaction. This approach is especially useful with less experienced team members because it gives them a relatively safe way to take on responsibilities that they often think they should have (and then find out they dislike). It is also an approach that can take work off your to-do list.
Concern #4: The assignment or role in which the employee is interested may not match his or her skills or experience. If you and the employee share the same perception of skills and experience, be candid in your belief that there is not a fit. Give specific examples of the employee’s skills as well as the requirements of the new role. If your reaction is based on limited information about the role being discussed, suggest that the employee meet with someone who has more hands-on knowledge of the job requirements. Sometimes the issue is timing: You don’t believe the employee has been in the current role long enough to acquire critical experience. Be candid about that perception. Don’t say “wait your turn.” Brainstorm ways to build experience more quickly. And remember: If you are perfectly comfortable recommending a team member for a new role you’ve probably waited too long! Talent management and succession planning involve risk. It’s better to encourage and support stretch assignments than lose your top talent.
Concern #5: The employee’s perception of talents and weaknesses differs from yours. Keep asking questions to clarify the employee’s views. Acknowledge that you don’t necessarily agree with those perceptions. Don’t turn this conversation into a performance appraisal. Keep the conversation broad with a focus on understanding the employee’s perceptions of their talents and weaknesses as well as their aspirations for development and career progression. Then try to find some positive action that you and the employee can take to increase job satisfaction or develop skills in the current job. And don’t forget to schedule a separate, long-overdue conversation to discuss performance.
Career coaching should not be seen as a ‘nice thing to do’ for your team members. It’s not about helping employees pursue their interests exclusively. It’s a critical leadership tool for building employee engagement and delivering the results your organization expects from you. It’s worth taking the time to work together to align your employees’ interests and talents with the organization’s priorities. Ultimately, employees want to believe they have a promising, satisfying future with your organization. When you set aside the word ‘career’ and focus on the opportunities for meaningful, interesting work, you’ll find the possibilities seem endless. After all, there is much work to be done.