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Confronting the career-development conundrum: 5 tips for busy managers

This article originally appeared at SmartBlog on Leadership in August 2012.

Career development appears at the top of many lists. Unfortunately, they tend to be lists focused on what employees desperately want but are not getting from managers.

As for managers, most appreciate the value of career development and really wish they could do it more frequently and more effectively. But let’s face it: A manager’s day-to-day reality is a kaleidoscopic blur of meetings, responsibilities and shifting priorities. Helping employees to develop and grow is one of many activities that is continually pushed out in time to that elusive “someday” that too rarely comes.

How can managers get past this conundrum? How can they make career development happen within the pressure-cooker reality that is business today? The answer is definitely not new systems, checklists, processes or forms. Those have actually contributed to the problem.

Instead, the answer lies in a new mindset — a different way of thinking about what career development is — and a few key behaviors:

Transfer ownership. Managers don’t own their employees’ careers. Employees do. All that managers can (and should) feel accountable for is guiding, encouraging, collaborating on and supporting the effort. When a manager really internalizes this reality, it can produce a powerful energetic shift. The weight of responsibility lifts, allowing managers to approach this task with greater energy and creativity than when it was another of their many “duties.” This transfer also ensures that employees have some skin in the game. Personal ownership enhances their engagement, interest, commitment, and results.

Cultivate curiosity. When ownership for development is transferred to the employee, career conversations suddenly become a lot easier and less stressful for managers. Managers don’t need to have all the answers. But they must be ready to pose the right questions. Questions are the most powerful tool managers have to support career development. And cultivating a genuine sense of curiosity and interest in others and their goals sets the tone for the most productive conversations possible.

Iterate the IDP. Many organizations have formal individual development planning processes, during which managers engage in a lengthy annual analysis and career discussions with each employee. For the manager, it’s a huge time sink, and for the employee, it’s frequently like drinking from a fire hose. So, break it up. Do a little bit each month — or better yet, each week. These smaller, iterative chunks better accommodate the cadence of business. Perhaps more importantly, they better accommodate how development really occurs: little by little over time.

Engineer experiences. Many managers avoid career development conversations because they believe that to make employees happy, the goal of such conversations is to provide ideas about how to move up or around in the organization. That’s simply not part of today’s de-layered, leaner approach to business. So how then does development occur? Through experiences that leverage talents and build the skills that employees need. It might be leading a team, analyzing data, or getting to know new customers. Jointly arriving at development experiences is smart business because while the employee is developing, important work gets done simultaneously.

Seize coachable moments. Career development opportunities occur countless times each day, but only when managers are sensitive to the cues around them and are willing to seize coachable moments. When an employee shares a new interest, is starting a project, has just come back from training or has experienced a set-back — all of these are career development cues. A 1-3 minute conversation in the flow of the work that needs to be done can help employees reflect, analyze, consider and plan their career development. There’s no need to wait for some big career meeting (that likely won’t occur anyway).

Managers who consistently find the time to engage in career development that employees appreciate don’t have more time than others. They have a mindset that allows them to deploy the little time they have toward efficient high-value conversations that drive employee ownership, reflection, motivation, and action.

In fact, it’s the busiest managers who realize they don’t have the time not to develop those around them.


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