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By Theodore Kinni

Theodore Kinni has written, ghosted, or edited more than 20 business books. He was book review editor for strategy+business for 7 years.

There are plenty of plausible excuses for managers who don’t want to be bothered helping employees enhance their careers. There’s no time. People should “own” their own careers. If I give an inch, they’ll want a mile. Career development is only for so-called high potentials.

The only problem with these excuses, according to employee development experts Beverly Kaye and Julie Winkle Giulioni: “Study after study confirms that best-in-class managers—the ones who consistently develop the most capable, flexible, and engaged teams able to drive exceptional business results—all share one quality: they make career development a priority.” In other words, if you are being called upon to meet ever-expanding expectations or to continuously improve quality or to deliver the next big thing (and who isn’t), you better be thinking about how to help your people help you achieve those goals.

The best way to build career development into your managerial repertoire, write Kaye and Giulioni in their book Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want (Berrett-Koehler, 2012), is by becoming an expert at holding career conversations. These are conversations that “facilitate insights and awareness, explore possibilities and opportunities, and inspire responses that drive employee-owned action.”

Continuity—in the form of shorter, more frequent, iterative talks—is the key to effective career conversations. Most managers relegate such discussions to the annual review process—which renders them about as effective as New Year’s resolutions. Instead, say the authors, “when you reframe career development in terms of ongoing conversations—rather than procedural checkpoints or scheduled activities—suddenly you have more flexibility and the chance to develop careers organically, when and where authentic opportunities arise.”

Not sure what to talk about? Kaye and Giulioni make it easy by providing blueprints for three types of career conversations: hindsight, foresight, and insight conversations.

Hindsight conversations enable managers to help employees move ahead by reviewing the past—who they are and how they got here. In these conversations, you should ask questions that prompt employees to inventory their skills and strengths, values, interests, dislikes, preferences, and weaknesses. More importantly, you should provide an external view—based on your perceptions, the perceptions of other team members, and performance statistics—that ensures that their answers are objective.  “Clarity around these factors allows for intentional movement toward career objectives,” write the authors. “Otherwise, people may engage in lots of activity that’s not focused or that takes them in directions that aren’t consistent with who they are and what they really want to do.”

Foresight conversations are focused on how employees can align their career goals with the current and future economic outlook on both company-wide and industry-wide levels. It’s all well and good to have an explicit and ambitious career plan, but we all know how quickly such a plan can go south if it rests on assumptions about corporate or industry growth that aren’t realistic.

“Foresight conversations open people’s minds to the broader world, the future, organizational issues, changes, and the implications of all of these,” say Kaye and Giulioni. “Foresight helps others focus their career efforts in ways that will lead to satisfying and productive outcomes. (It also delivers the benefit of context and perspective that enhances day-to-day work. Another twofer.)”

Insight conversations exist at the intersection of hindsight and foresight. In these conversations, managers help employees set positive career goals and formulate practical action plans to achieving those goals. Many managers shy away from these career conversations because they think that the opportunities they can offer employees are limited. But insight conversations take a more comprehensive and realistic view of workplace opportunities.

“Hindsight and foresight overlap to reveal insights into a whole world of development possibilities that exist for employees,” say the authors. “Some involve moves, but (and here’s the best-kept secret that will liberate development-minded managers everywhere) the vast majority do not. Growth isn’t limited to movements over, up, or down. With the right support, people can grow right where they’re planted.” Growth in place is a powerful career development strategy, and managers can tap into it by finding ways to grow talents, explore interests, and build capacity within the context of employees’ current jobs.

If it still sounds like adding career development to your job description is too much trouble, ask yourself this: Can you succeed if your employees don’t?

Queue it up: Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want by Julie Winkle Giulioni and Beverly Kaye


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