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Giving Career Development a Fresh Focus

Career development is one of those supervisory responsibilities that frequently drops to the bottom of a manager’s to-do list. And it makes sense. Today’s managers are more time-pressed than ever before. Scary spans of control. Ever-escalating expectations. Demands to balance short-term and long-term results. Shadow work (think of how you currently act as your own banker, travel agent, and grocery clerk… and imagine all of the human resources, quality, and other workplace tasks that managers have absorbed).

grow in lightbulbBut, it’s been more than just busy-ness that has undermined a focus on career development. It’s also been trepidation. According to research I conducted with Beverly Kaye, one of the primary reasons managers give for avoiding career conversations is the anticipation of employee expectations that can’t be met. They fear disappointing employees who want promotions… a commodity that’s in short supply in most organizations. And, as a result, they withhold career conversations and development.

Just in time for spring-cleaning, there is some new research that may allow managers to sweep their minds clear of old and erroneous assumptions. In a study I recently conducted with Olivia Gamber, employees were asked to rate the following items in terms of their importance:

  • Achievement and accomplishment
  • Appreciation
  • Coaching/mentorship
  • Compensation
  • Connections and relationships with others
  • Empowerment
  • Fair treatment and respect
  • Growth and learning
  • Having a boss you respect and trust
  • Interesting work
  • Job flexibility
  • Open/transparent communication
  • Opportunity to make a difference
  • Promotions
  • Security

And surprisingly, of all of these factors and priorities, ‘promotions’ shows up as least important to employees – across all generations in the workplace. That’s right. Managers are shying away from engaging in career conversations based upon a complete and total misconception.

In fact, in this same study, we found that ‘growth and learning’ is among the top three priorities for both Millennials and GenX employees, while all employees (including Baby Boomers) prioritize ‘interesting work’ within their top four.

This is hopeful news for managers everywhere. It’s an opportunity to reframe the career conversation – in terms that are no longer frightening or intimidating. It’s an opportunity to engage in a different kind of development dialogue with employees – one that no longer focuses on positions and promotions, but rather on learning, growth, challenge, and interest.

But, all of this requires that managers break some old, limiting habits and incorporate some new approaches.  For instance…

  • It’s time to eliminate that tired and over-used career conversation introduction: ‘Where do you see yourself in 5 years?’ Why lead with promotions and positions – which matter less to employees? It limits the possibilities and it limits the conversation. Instead, let’s try a fresher probe: ‘What are you excited about learning next?’ or ‘Which part of your work do you find most interesting?’
  • Shift the focus from what employees want to ‘be’ to what they want to ‘do’. This naturally lends itself to a conversation about learning, growth and interesting work. And it’s easy to do with questions like: ‘What would you like to accomplish?’ or ‘Where does your next big challenge lie?’ or ‘What problems do you yearn to solve?’
  • Managers who think globally about the work to be done and worry less about the boundaries among roles give themselves the most latitude and runway when it comes to helping others develop. If an employee wants to learn or do something that’s imbedded in another job title, why stand on ceremony? Being able to elevate capacity and engagement concurrently is well worth a little flexibility and agility.

This spring might be the ideal time for managers to consider planting a few career development seeds in the form of some different kinds of conversations – and then get ready to watch their employees (and the organization) blossom.

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