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Leader’s Role as Career Coach

Look at any employee opinion or satisfaction survey and you will see that the one thing that employees want more than anything else from those who lead them is a relationship. They want to have an open, honest, two-way dialogue about their abilities, interests and options. They want their managers to listen to their perspectives, offer the managers' points of view and provide encouragement and support.

They don’t expect their managers to have all the answers, but they really want to have a two-way conversation with their leaders.

Leaders who want to more effectively and successfully manage the talent on their teams need a set of skills for career conversations. Here are five key areas that drive good talent talks.

1. Leaders Must Listen for Skills, Interests and Values

As busy leaders, it is easy to assume that we know the skills and abilities of the people who report to us. Unfortunately, this is not always the case; as a result, valuable corporate assets (the talents of our people) are underutilized or misdirected. The more accurately you can deploy the talent on your team, the more you will be able to match a business need with an appropriate and timely response and the more likely you will be able to meet or exceed your business objectives.

The concept of matching people (their skills, interests and values) to positions (duties, responsibilities, competencies and skill requirements) is known as career fit. Career fit suggests that when people “fit” with their positions, the results are increased job satisfaction, quality, productivity, morale and a greater likelihood that they will continue to grow and develop.

Your job is to help your talented people understand, clarify and articulate their unique attributes and how these qualities contribute to the organization. Probe more deeply into their career aspirations and dreams. Challenge them to think about their potential for growth and development, and help them talk about any concerns they may have about their current position or their future career aspirations.

Try the following questions:

  • Which assignments have most challenged you? Least challenged you? Why?
  • When you are having a really good day at work, what values, skills and interests are present?
  • What part of your education or work experience has been the most valuable to you over the years?

2. Leaders Must Level About Strengths and Developmental Needs

Talented employees want constructive, developmental feedback, provided on a regular basis throughout the year, which focuses on their strengths and lays out opportunities for growth and development in the future.

This want demands a two-way dialogue. As a leader, you need to be open and honest about how your employees are performing in their current positions, how they can improve and what they need to do to achieve their career goals. Employees need to ask questions to ensure their understanding and reflect on what is said and on the areas they know they can improve. Your feedback and the feedback of others will help employees make better career decisions and establish more realistic career goals.

Some questions you might ask to begin this conversation include:

  • If you asked three people in the organization to give you feedback on your greatest strengths, what would they say?
  • If you were to list your number one strength and number one liability, what would each be? How do you know?
  • What would you say are the most critical areas I would select as essential in your current position? How would you rate yourself in these areas?

3. Leaders Must Look Ahead at Trends and Business Needs

Looking ahead is critical for development. Talented employees must know their company’s business strategy and direction, where the industry and profession is headed and how they can identify future competency and skill requirements to align their development with business needs.

The important point about looking ahead is that you work with your employees on an ongoing basis to identify and share information that would be useful for or relevant to career planning and development. Then, you help your employees use this information to prepare realistic plans that are aligned with the business direction, and you use it to provide them with better coaching, guidance and support. This information sharing can also help you with talent retention. Frequently, just knowing more about what the future may hold will keep employees around. On the other hand, a lack of information and uncertainty may cause them to leave for imagined “greener pastures.”

You might ask these questions in a look-ahead conversation:

  • Have you read the organization’s annual report? What new directions stand out? Does this suggest any important skills areas that you need to develop?
  • Are you optimistic about the organization’s future? What are the specific reasons you feel this way? Do you see new opportunities for yourself?
  • What do we need to get better at? Faster at? Smarter at? What implication does this have for your career?

4. Leaders Must Leverage Options and Goals

Leveraging is helping your employees identify multiple realistic options for their development. Given the rapid pace of change in today’s world, it is imperative that talented employees have multiple choices and corresponding goals and plans. This way, when changes occur, they can simply switch gears and move to the next logical option. Without multiple options, employees risk running into dead ends. Our research suggests six distinct areas as options:

  1. Enrichment or growing in place
  2. Lateral or moving across
  3. Exploratory or looking around
  4. Realignment or moving down
  5. Relocation or moving out
  6. Vertical or moving up

Leaders need to help their talent understand the importance of written career development plans. The best development plans list specific goals for learning and growth in their current positions as well as options for the future. All of the research that has been done regarding career success factors underscores the importance of establishing written goals with corresponding actions and timing. Some questions to ask at this phase include:

  • What are some of the career goals you are thinking about?
  • Which goals seem most in sync with where the organization is going?
  • Which goals will position you best for the future?

5. Leaders Must Provide a Link to Resources

Finally, talented employees need information, contacts, opportunities for growth and channels for development. Savvy leaders provide the guidance, encouragement and support.

The key to effective linking is for you to understand that your employees’ ongoing growth and development is good for them, good for you and good for the company. Employees keep their skills marketable and achieve their career goals. You establish a reputation as a development-minded manager, so talented employees want to work for you.

These questions might help you to link your talent:

  • What training programs or educational opportunities most align with your goals?
  • If you could give yourself the perfect assignment, what would it be?
  • Who would you like as a mentor or coach? How can I help you enlist his or her support?

Talent talk need not take a long time, but it should be regular and frequent. Individuals will interpret inconsistent attention to their development as indifference. When individuals feel that the organization and its leaders don’t care, they withdraw their commitment and energy. Employees are not asking for decisions or answers. The skill sets described here demand that leaders truly understand their employees’ talents and that they challenge and channel their energies appropriately.