Ensure Effective Career Development Conversations in Your Company with 12 Powerful Best Practices
Things can't change for the better if you don't talk about them.
Career development conversations help your employee understand where their efforts are ultimately leading them. They'll help organizations gain clarity on where to utilize their talents best and how to support their continuous growth – without focusing on promotions.
Before chatting to your workers about their aspirations, you need a plan.
So let's go through how you can have effective, enjoyable career development conversations that make a real difference for your employees and your bottom line.
💬 What are career development conversations?
Career development conversations are talks held between managers and employees about the latter's career aspirations.
During a career development conversation, employees discuss:
- what they want to aim for, and
- what they can do to achieve their goals.
👀 Note: Although they might mention performance, development conversations are separate from performance evaluations. They look more towards the future than the past or present.
🏆 3 Reasons why development conversations matter
Career conversations are a medium for self-awareness in the workplace.
When your people know what they are aiming for, their self-evaluation process can be much more focused.
These are crucial for employee engagement, the inspired state of being at work, motivated and confident about their work's impact. Add this to employee enablement, and you've got an empowered employee ready to do their job with passion and skill.
Motivation and purpose
Conversations about worker development inspire better performance. When workers feel their efforts are recognized and their employer cares about their career, they'll be more motivated to work hard.
But these conversations also give specific goals and action plans to achieve them, which employees will put additional effort into to gain their desired outcome.
Retention and attracting talent
If you're not giving development conversations the attention they need, you're potentially missing out on insights and concerns that could impact retention/attrition.
Tip: Ambitious employees that feel their career doesn't matter to their company are more likely to look elsewhere for a step up.
Conversations are a vital part of overall career development, an attractive trait for companies that want to draw in and keep the best talent in their industry.
🙅 5 Shortcomings of career conversations today
They focus too much on promotions
Career growth is a broad discipline. It's not just about opening pathways to promotion, despite that being a common outcome.
It's easy for managers to assume employees just want promotions, but that's not the case. Instead, gaining new skills, knowledge, connections, and experience are equally desirable.
Tip: Employee development conversations have to look at the bigger picture.
They're too impersonal
Approaching development conversations with a check-box mentality misses the point.
While everyone should take them seriously, they're not interviews or interrogations – they're conversations.
Tip: Opening a dialogue involves making a human connection on some level if you want it to be productive and valuable.
They're not official enough
Making development conversations more official does not have to contradict the above point. Making development talks formal doesn't mean you lose the personal touch.
Instead, it means documenting everything said and having a proper process to review them across the appropriate timelines. It also means doing them regularly rather than randomly throughout the year.
Tip: Without some formal structure, development conversations just won't be taken seriously enough to make a positive impact.
They're mistaken for performance reviews
Regular performance reviews are essential to help employees understand how they're doing. But they should be kept separate from development conversations. In these, you should look to the future with an eye on how things have been going.
Tip: Career development conversations are not the time to comb through KPIs or give detailed feedback.
They focus on the short-term
A career can last a lifetime, and one cannot make changes in a matter of weeks or months. So there's no point in keeping the conversation's focus too short-sighted.
Short-term goals can be mentioned as stepping-stones towards more significant aims, as long as you put them in context.
Tip: If you're focusing only on the short-term, you're not including your employee in the company's future, and they won't feel as valued.
🔍 4 Types of talent conversations
Your employee development conversations will go differently depending on who you're talking to. Some will be average performers, and some will bring their A-game every single day.
Some might not be interested in development at all.
➡️ For more insights into employee performance and potential types, check out the 9-box model.
Here's how some of your talent conversations might play out.
The Top talent conversation
When dealing with your top talents, you'll want to start by acknowledging their outstanding performance. Then you can propose potential outcomes if they maintain or even exceed current levels.
But remember, this isn't a performance review, and you should look toward the future.
Discuss how you'll be able to challenge them further and help them lean into their high potential.
Tip #1: Workers like this thrive on being able to push themselves, so you'll need to support that if you want to keep them around.
Tip #2: Networking and mentoring senior employees is usually a smart option for these types.
The Solid performer conversation
Sometimes you'll encounter workers that are just fine with the way things are. They're meeting all their role requirements but not particularly excelling.
In this case, you'll have to help them figure out whether career development is part of their plans or not. If so, it's time to learn new skills and gain new experiences to start stepping up.
If they're not ambitious and want to stay where they are, that's fine too. Not everyone needs to chase career mobility or promotion, of course.
But development isn't just about changing job titles; it's also about maintaining and improving the results of their work.
Tip: So it's up to you to figure out the best way to make that happen while accommodating their working preferences.
The Potential performer conversation
You might see unrealized talent in one of your employees. But they might not be aware of their potential. If this is the case, let them know!
Sometimes all it takes is a few words of encouragement to open someone's eyes to the possibilities in front of them.
Use development conversations as your chance to lay out the options available for them if they follow a disciplined, thoughtful plan for growth. They might be closer to a big jump than they realize.
Tip: Shadowing a senior employee with a similar background is an effective way to get them to see themselves in an advanced position.
The Underperformer conversation
Development conversations with underperformers could be trickier: this is a talk where you might have to give negative feedback if they're underperforming the expectations of their role. However, a performance review would be a better environment to work through causes and solutions in this case.
But it's important to have career development talks because a lack of perceived growth opportunities might be what's causing their low motivation.
For example, a change in role might light them up and motivate them.
Tip #1: Don't deny underperformers career development as a punishment for poor performance – use it as a motivator.
Tip #2: You can use the development conversation to set the groundwork for a performance improvement plan (PIP). But remember to communicate that this is not a punitive action but a support tool to aid learning and development.
💡 12 Best practices for holding meaningful career conversations with your employees
1. Don't limit the conversation to promotion talk
Your employee shouldn't come out of the meeting with the promise of a promotion in exchange for specific achievements.
You don't have to avoid the subject – a step up may well be what they want – but promotions are significant events for everyone involved. They're far from the only way to develop at work.
Focusing on promotions will restrict the possibilities of your employee getting better at what they do and learning within their role.
Development is a continuous, holistic process, not a series of job title changes.
Tip #1: Try understanding your employee's broader goals and how they tie into their lifetime aspirations.
Tip #2: Look at the bigger picture, with promotions only part of the possible outcomes.
2. Focus on who they are, what they want, and why
Tip #1: You could start by looking at the past. What's your employee's background?
How did they arrive at their current role? Who were their early-career mentors or heroes?
Topics like these will help you understand what intrinsically drives them – the why behind what they want.
Tip #2: You don't have to get too personal, but it's always good to know a little about their life story. Of course, this leads naturally into the future – what do they want from life? How can their career enable them to realize their dreams?
You can then use these big ideas and aspirations to build a plan for the present and near future.
3. Let your employees take the lead
Instead of being in control of the meeting, it's time for you to sit back and listen for a while.
Jim Campbell, CEO of HoneymoonGoals.com, takes this approach with his workers:
"When I hold career development conversations with my employees, I always like to let them lead the meetings and conversations at first. I do this because only the specific employee can know what they want to do with their career progression, and if I start telling them what they can do before they tell me what they want, it can sound preachy. It is important to be there to listen to what they want."
Tip: Make sure to use open-ended questions that let your employees explore their ideas in greater detail, and try not to intervene with your thoughts too much.
4. Know the impact of your role
As a manager or leader, you are responsible for employee enablement: giving them the tools, environment, and self-belief to grow and achieve their goals.
But remember: You're not there to plan employees' entire career trajectories. You're there to:
- guide them,
- give support and
- make suggestions.
Tip: Ensure your employees are clear on your role in their development and how they can ask for help along the way.
5. Enable clarity of direction
Although your role is primarily as a listener, you'll have to make an effort to keep things on track. This is especially important if your employee is particularly talkative or if there are some heavier topics to work through.
Tip #1: You might only have an hour to get through the important stuff, so you have to stay on topic as much as possible.
Tip #2: Think of the way a good therapist guides a conversation through essential topics without being overbearing or prescriptive.
6. Don't give abstract and broad prompts
One of the most critical parts of these talks is firing up your employee's passion for work and their career.
You can achieve this by asking questions that serve as a springboard to productive answers – not clichéd, jargon-laced abstractions.
John Li, Co-Founder & CTO of Fig Loans, a financial lending company, explains why:
"Don't ask broad, sweeping questions about career aspirations. While "Where do you see yourself in 10 years?" might excite the most focused employee to describe their plans in detail, most won't have an answer. Those employees who are already unsure what lies ahead may feel totally deflated, making it hard to continue productively."
Tip #1: Questions need to be broad enough to spark creativity and passion but narrow enough to be relevant.
For example, something better might be: "What kind of work experiences would you like to have over the next few years?"
Tip #2: The objective is to get ambitions into the real world. And to do that, you'll have to be clear in your questioning.
7. Discuss how short-term goals affect them in the long term
Your role as career development shepherd means it's your job to help join the dots for your employee between what they're doing now and where they want to get to.
Ruben Gamez, CEO of electronic signature software SignWell, says that working backward is a great way to do this:
"We reverse engineer their [i.e. employees'] career development by discussing their biggest aspirations, then working backward with a series of short-term goals meant to land them there. It makes future development conversations a breeze as you track progress, encourage them through short-term achievements, and adjust the plan as necessary."
For example, you could go through some possible scenarios for the next 6-12 months. If they do [X activity] once per week until the new year, then [Y result] is a possibility.
Tip: Noting down these scenarios makes for beneficial motivation when working through demanding everyday tasks.
8. Encourage your employee to build their professional network
Offering to connect your employee with others in the company in a coaching or mentoring arrangement can be helpful. It's a great way to improve their skills and build relationships throughout the company, which makes it a common discussion point for development conversations.
Becoming more visible through the company can also improve others' willingness to participate in 360-degree feedback. This means they'll receive feedback from a broader range of different roles and levels of hierarchy.
Tip: There's also the option of getting employees to attend industry conferences, where they can learn from others, discover useful intel, and make new connections.
👀 Note: Networking with others in their industry could potentially open them up to opportunities elsewhere. But the benefits generally outweigh such a risk – and either way, you're making your company more attractive to work for by enabling this.
9. Explore competence development and reskilling
In your employee development conversations, competence development is a handy concept to cover.
Competencies are the knowledge, skills, and traits someone needs to perform a role. They develop over time throughout employees' careers, but it's essential to recognize which ones are necessary to achieve the desired outcome.
Competence development is a formal activity to help this happen.
➡️ Check out our 8-step competence development process to see how you can build your own.
Reskilling is a related but slightly different approach. When reskilling, employees learn specific new skills to enjoy new challenges and roles within the organization.
Tip #1: Providing opportunities for reskilling is beneficial for your employee, as they'll grow and enjoy more variety.
Tip #2: Plus, reskilling is a cheaper and easier talent management strategy for your business as it reduces the burden of hiring new staff.
10. Provide different levels of support at different times
Sometimes, like a proud parent, you'll have to step back and let your developing employee make their own decisions and mistakes.
You can't hold their hand throughout the journey, but it is essential to be there when they need you.
Tip: Make it clear during your discussions that your level of support will be flexible throughout their journey, and ensure you're on the same page about how it will work.
11. Never forget what you discussed and decided
No matter how casual the talk may feel, it's super important to document what was said.
If you don't, both you and your employee are liable to forget crucial parts of the conversation. As a result, you won't be able to hold each other to high standards or follow up reasonably on promises.
You could simply take notes of your discussion. Still, everyone would benefit more from having meeting notes recorded as part of an employee development plan.
Development plans are structured, targeted action plans for employee development. Combining them with face-to-face discussion makes employees more likely to achieve their goals.
12. Follow up and provide feedback along the way
Schedule a follow-up down the line to see how things are going.
Tip #1: You'll want to discuss whether the short-term goals you set have been achieved or not and give your feedback on how they've performed. But you'll also want to find out how the employee feels about their development journey so far.
Have any outside factors affected their aspirations?
Have they found their new career-focused activities fulfilling, or were they different than expected?
Tip #2: Whether booking another formal career development chat or an informal catch-up, ensure that you follow their progress and support them throughout the journey.
Tip: Incorporate 360 feedback as part of your development conversations. Feedback from peers, as well as self-reflection will enhance your development efforts.
➡️ Enhance your development conversations with Zavvy
Formalizing these potentially informal discussions might seem a little counterintuitive.
But employees need reassurance that you'll follow up on your promises to support them, and they need easy-to-follow plans to keep them on track. Using the right development system is what enables this to happen.
Zavvy has a unique and powerful approach to employee career growth. Our employee development software helps you build plans, record progress, and connect employees so they can support each other.
Book a free demo to see how Zavvy can make your development discussions inspiring and productive.
❓ Employee Development Conversations FAQs
How often do you hold employee development conversations?
There's no set timeframe for employee development conversations. However, holding one every six months with each employee is a sensible minimum – this gives enough time to see the results. However, if you leave it any longer between talks, your employee might find themselves on a different path.
A check-in every four months could be a reasonable alternative.
What do you talk about during development meetings?
Most development meetings discuss the employee's working background, recent history, and career aspirations. They'll also include planning the next steps they need to take to advance their career within the company.
How do you prepare for career development conversations?
As a manager, you'll want to take a look at your employee's development plan and familiarize yourself with their journey so far.
Read through the notes of your previous development conversations with them to refresh your memory and see which goals you set together back then.
In small teams, it shouldn't be too difficult to prepare, as you'll know a good deal about them already.
But if you're managing a lot of people, you need to do your homework and get up to speed with this employee beforehand. If you turn up to a meeting not knowing who they are or what they do, it'll severely impact trust. Plus, employees will be more unlikely to open up in an honest conversation.
If it's the first time you're having one of these talks with your employees, look at what projects they've contributed to recently.
- What are their current responsibilities?
- Can you spot any recent wins or challenges they might have overcome?
Tip: Write some notes with your observations so you can share thoughts on how employees are doing, and use these to prompt them as they take the lead.