“How do I, as a manager, develop my people for the long-term?” That’s the question I explore in this article. As a leader and manager, over my career so far, this has been one of the most important aspects, if not the most important. Indeed, it is why Protagion exists today – to multiply that positive impact of professional growth and evolution across organisations and countries as much as possible, and inspire more professionals to actively manage their careers.
This is the third article in the series prompted by The Six Conversations of a Brilliant Manager* by Alan J Sears. The first article covered my thoughts on the book overall and four of the six conversations: coaching, taking responsibility, addressing performance/behaviour, and performance appraisals. The second article focused on delegation as a manager, and applied that conversation framework to the employee perspective too. Read more for the rest of the third article.
While aimed at managers, the ‘career path’ conversation in this article is helpful for others offering support too, including mentors. It is all about helping the employee to see the big picture and take responsibility for their own career. Regular readers of my articles will know that Protagion often emphasises that professional growth is not as straightforward as doing a good job and earning promotions – while building ‘performance currency’ (as Carla Harris calls it) can be a strong strategy as a junior employee, you quickly need to do other things too to keep developing. The key is that it’s about career planning: where you want to go, what type of work and sort of roles you want to do, and what really gives you satisfaction. If you’re passive about your career, the very real risk is that you’ll end up where you didn’t want to go...
...People who systematically plan their careers tend to not only be more successful, but also to feel much more positive about their careers than those who don’t”
Your role as a manager
More ambitious employees will regularly push you as their manager, which demonstrates their drive to succeed, although it can put pressure on you. They may ask what else they can do to get them noticed – they know that the fast-track isn’t about doing more of the same. And, in fast-growing organisations, there are opportunities to take on bigger roles, although they may not (yet) be aware of them. Part of your role is to help them see the opportunities, and direct their energies into areas where they can contribute most to the organisation, even if this might be outside your direct team!
Cynics will argue that employers are very supportive of shifting responsibility onto employees because it lets them off the hook… Not quite: the organisation, and its managers, still need to support and develop their employees, else they will lose great ones they have and not attract new ones. Part of deserving a reputation as a great place to work is helping those who choose to work with you reach their fullest potential i.e. a partnership in which both parties help each other succeed.
But what if they leave?
The risk of helping an employee to see broader opportunities and understand what really lights their fire is that they might leave in order to get more exposure to the things they want (which your organisation might not offer). Yes, that can and does happen. It’s better than the alternative of starving their development to keep them, leading to stagnation and frustration on both sides. Instead, treat your people well, and they may come back to the organisation later (because they loved working with you before), bringing valuable external perspectives and experience with them when they do.
It’s highly unlikely we will work for the same organisation for our entire careers. And, there is no longer a reason to simply serve time in order to gain “experience” - there are numerous opportunities to learn new things, including work outside paid employment (side hustles, volunteering etc). Career development in the past related primarily to on-the-job work experience. Nowadays it is influenced by family, personal and community roles i.e. far more holistic than previously.
In our world, it’s a lot more fluid. You can gain experience by working on different projects, getting seconded to a special assignment, maybe even arranging a job swap… There’s a whole raft of things any of us can do outside work to develop ourselves, learn leadership skills, get technical qualifications online [and more...]”
Career Path Conversation
The steps in a career path conversation involve conveying to your employee that they need to:
1) Build their knowledge by learning as much as possible about every aspect of the business and other businesses, and not just about the job they’re currently doing.
2) Broaden their experience and raise their profile as much as possible e.g. seeking exposure to other departments and senior leaders, and expanding their networks outside and inside the company.
3) Look for new responsibilities proactively, rather than being too head-down in their current role – this is an ‘and’ situation: they need to do their current role well to create capacity to add more responsibility, rather than ignore parts of their current responsibilities to seek new opportunities. Possible sources of inspiration for new responsibilities are: activities that will add value for the organisation, projects which will help you as their boss, or aspects which are top of your team’s agenda.
4) Ask for feedback to understand other people’s perspectives on their style, impact, performance and potential.
5) Confront themselves – work out what they are really good at, accepting that we all have limitations, and be honest with themselves about what kind of work they enjoy and what they really want, recognising that these can naturally change over time e.g. customer-facing versus internal roles, or specialist vs generalist roles.
They may ask for your guidance or assistance with these things – a good sign – but be careful to ensure that the responsibility remains with them. You may, for example, follow the coaching conversation structure summarised in the first article in this series. Alternatively, you could suggest they find a coach or professional mentor(s) to help them actively build their knowledge, broaden their experience, consider new responsibilities, or work on their self-awareness.
A related point is that there will naturally be aspects of their careers and professional development that they will be reluctant to discuss with you as their manager, given that you also determine their salary and bonuses etc. Because you represent your employer, they won’t be comfortable talking with you about everything, especially things they struggle with or people they don’t get along with. How deep your discussions go will depend on the trust you’ve built up with them over time, and who they feel you are as a person. Sadly though, it’s not often the case that trust is very high between managers and their employees, which is why Protagion recommends professional mentors outside of the organisation too, who provide the additional benefit of an independent perspective. In other words, we see the career path conversation with your manager as one of the inputs to a comprehensive professional development strategy, albeit a very necessary one.
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