With the changing nature of careers in today’s society, it is more important than ever for employees to manage their careers effectively. As downsizing, right sizing and offshoring become the norm, employees are often concerned about what they would do if they were made redundant or chose to leave their current employer. Many also want career plans that extend outside their current workplace and into new career areas. And rightly so. For these individuals, who are developing their capabilities and progressing their careers, career conversations become the foundation of a career in their own hands.
What are career conversations?
Simply put, a career conversation is a meaningful discussion between an employee and another party - most often a manager -about aspects of their career which the individual feels is of significant positive value.
A career conversation, when understood and conducted properly by both parties, allows the employee a chance to ensure their career goals and ambitions align with the organisation’s objectives and vice versa. For the employee, the career conversation should answer their most pressing questions about their career and prompt strategic thinking about their own individual career journey.
With expectations that individuals could have between 12-15 careers in their lifetime, the traditional view of a career as a ladder has been replaced by a more modern version, now resembling something of a rock climbing wall, where advancing a career involves moving up and sidewards towards the individual’s own definition of career success. For individuals, this means actively managing their career at all phases.
For HR professionals with competing priorities and time poor managers, it’s easy to assume (or hope!) that a brief chat about an employee’s career can be squeezed into a performance review meeting and that this is enough to keep an employee motivated and satisfied. However, most employees are looking for more information and advice about a wide spectrum of topics related to their careers, including skill sets, experience and performance, opportunities and career progression on a more regular basis (as regularly as the employee finds useful) and from a broader range of people.
Whose responsibility is a Career Conversation?
We argue that the responsibility for effective career conversations falls equally between the employee, the manager and the organisation. Organisations should foster an environment in which career development is valuable to employees, provides access to up-skilling and delivers the workforce flexibility they need. Research tells us overwhelmingly that this type of environment results in a more productive workforce, with committed and engaged employees who genuinely enjoy coming to work.
Enter, career conversations.
In an organisation that chooses to encourage career growth, a career conversation is where the accountability of both the organisation and the employee intersect for the individual's career. Organisations that ignore the need to address the career development needs of their employees do so at their own expense.
For a career conversation to be successful, it is essential that it is championed at three separate levels: the individual employee, the manager, and the organisation.
Employees are responsible for asking for and (graciously) accepting feedback – a skill that defines successful and effective individuals. When seeking career feedback through a career conversation, it is an employee’s responsibility to gather information related to the 3 areas below:
- Their abilities and perceived value to an organisation;
- Their roadblocks to success; and
- Their environment, including the individual circumstances that allow for the greatest contribution for the employee.
It is also important that an employee seeks feedback on soft skills, technical skills and key peer differentiators for long term career success.
Managers are responsible for guiding (rather than conducting or directing) the career conversation. It is their job to help create a transformational environment for the employee and to allow the employee an opportunity to share and make sense of their experiences.
Career conversations will never gain momentum and credibility if the organisation does not support the process. Senior leaders must ensure that the career development initiatives, including career conversations, are aligned with organisational objectives and that appropriate and relevant time and resources are provided as necessary.
Why are career conversations important?
Unfortunately, many organisations are yet to realise the benefits of effective career conversations for their employees and the wider organisation. It is common for managers, and organisations in general, to avoid or ignore the importance of career conversations. This is due to a number of reasons, including a lack of skill in conducting these conversations or a fear of talking about career progression with employees and not being able to follow through due to constraints on resources such as time and money - more on this soon.
Research within career management literature supports this, with a common view that there is a lack of effective career discussions happening in today’s workplace, with much more emphasis being (mis)placed on formal career management procedures, such as the annual review. Much of the literature on career support in organisations has focused on the provision of discrete interventions, such as development centres and career workshops. Less attention has been given to support provided on a more ongoing basis, such as career conversations.
In a recent study, only 12% of employees said they have ongoing conversations with their managers about their career. One of the key reasons career conversations are not taking place more regularly is that managers are dodging them at all costs – but why?
- Managers expect that having career conversations will ultimately lead to expectations they cannot fulfil due to constraints on resources such as time and money. Often though, the expectation from the employee is that they simply grow in their current role and be given an opportunity to move laterally if and when the right opportunity presents itself.
- Managers fear that facilitating career conversations could prompt employees to realise that they want to move on to bigger and better roles, leaving an empty role to fill. In fact, in a career conversations study of 118 employees by Hirsch, Jackson & Kidd (2004), only 3% of employees reported wanting to leave their current organisation as a result of their conversation.
- Many managers lack the training required to conduct career conversations and effectively support their employees' individual career journeys
- Most managers do not understand the essential cost benefit element to having career conversations and are not incentivised or held accountable for doing so.
What are the benefits of a career conversation?
Organisations benefit when their employees are equipped to take on new challenges and opportunities and are engaged in their work. At the end of the day, an organisation succeeds when its employees succeed.
Benefits for managers and organisations
- Increased awareness and alignment between organisation and employee
- Improves attraction, motivation and retention
- Assists with growth, downsizing, lateral moves and succession planning
- Develops professional skills and HiPos
- Increases employee performance
Benefits for employees
- Provides a sense of direction
- Builds alignment with the organisation
- Increases personal and professional development
- Enhances motivation
- Improves performance and skills
Ultimately, the career conversation process must be given more thought than the rushed, obligatory career discussion tacked onto the end of a performance review. The career conversation is a valuable one-off or series of conversations with a range of people (both managers and non-managers) designed to guide the future decisions of an employees working life.
Genuine and meaningful career development is made possible through effective, ongoing career conversations. When designed correctly, career conversations should promote insight and awareness into oneself and allow the exploration of future possibilities and opportunities. In prompting these activities, organisations are likely to benefit from inspired responses that drive employee behaviour.
Our Career Conversations Blog Series