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How to Have Successful Employee Development Conversations

June 25, 2020
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Part of managing an employee is making sure that they’re effective and productive and getting their work done. But there’s so much more to successful management. If you want to bring out the best in your staff, you have to continually support their growth as employees — and as people. One of the best ways to do this is by having employee development conversations.

Employee development conversations are crucial for identifying your employee’s goals, supporting their growth, and helping them reach their full career potential. But if you’re new to management, it can be difficult to know how to navigate these discussions.

Let’s take a closer look at how to have the kind of productive employee development conversations that will set your employees up for success and enable them to achieve their career goals — while making you a better, more effective manager in the process.

Why Development Conversations Matter

Before we dive into how to have effective employee development conversations, let’s explore why these conversations are so important in the first place. From your employees’ perspective, development conversations show your team that you’re invested in them beyond just their daily to-do lists.

“Employee development conversations...show the employee that their manager and leadership care about their development at the company beyond just the day-to-day work,” said Christopher Connors, executive coach and author of Emotional Intelligence for the Modern Leader.

Career development conversations also shed light on what your employees need to feel fulfilled and engaged at work.

“[If you don’t] develop employees to understand their full potential and help them grow...employees will leave organizations due to boredom, become subpar performers, or merely ‘show up’ to collect a paycheck,” said LaShawn Davis, MSHRM, SHRM-SCP, founder of The HR Plug, a company that provides a variety of HR services to both employers and employees. “[As a result], companies will lack competitiveness, innovative solutions, profitability, and the ability to thrive.”

Taking the time to have employee development conversations can help you structure your employee’s role to support their goals, which in turn will enable you to improve retention and keep top talent on your team. This is a win-win: It will not only foster your employee’s growth, but your company’s growth, and ultimately success, as well.

How to Have These Conversations Successfully

Having career development conversations with your employees is a must. But just haphazardly doing them isn’t enough. If you want these conversations to provide the information you need to truly support your employees’ growth and career goals, you need to do them right.

Here are a few expert tips for conducting effective and productive employee development conversations.

1. Connect with employees about their development.

An employee’s goals, ambitions, and career trajectory will change over time. So as a manager, if you truly want to develop their career, you need to be having development conversations on a regular basis.

“Every manager should have a [development] conversation — even if for 15 minutes — once per week with the people they lead,” said Connors. “Don’t just reserve these conversations for once a quarter or, worse, twice per year.”

In addition to regularly scheduling employee development conversations, during these discussions, it’s important to stay focused on your employee’s development — and not let other work-related issues bleed into your meeting.

“Make [employee development conversations] a meeting where it’s the sole item on the agenda, not piggybacked onto a larger check-in meeting,” said Randi Braun, executive coach and founder of Something Major, a company that provides support to organizations in the form of executive leadership, professional development, and business development advisory services.

Having regular, focused employee development conversations will enable you to stay informed about where your employee is and what they’re working toward, and provide the support and development they need to get there.

2. Let your employees take the lead.

When you see potential in your employee, you might be tempted to use an employee development conversation as an opportunity to share what career path you think they should follow, or where you think they would excel. But if you want these conversations to be successful, it’s necessary to resist that urge.

“The biggest mistake managers make is leading with their own aspirations for the individual,” said Braun.

When you tell your employee what you think they should do, it can make it harder for them to share what it is they truly want to do.

“However well-intentioned, high-potential performers can sometimes be ‘pleasers,’ making it uncomfortable, awkward, or difficult to share their own aspirations for themselves if they're different from what the manager envisioned,” said Braun.

This can make it challenging to get the information you need to optimally support your employee’s growth and development. If you want your employee development conversations to be productive (and actually lead to career development), let your employees take the lead. Allow them to tell you how they want to grow, and then dig in to figure out how you can best support their goals and efforts.

“Managers should provide structure and expectations, but allow employees to define success for themselves,” said Connors. “Serve as a partner and coach in guiding the employee, but [don’t take] ownership of defining all goals for them.”

3. Know your audience — and adjust accordingly.

In order for your employee development conversations to be effective, you need to tailor the conversation to the employee you’re speaking with.

“Don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach,” advised Connors. “What works for one employee won’t necessarily work for [another].”

For example, some employees might want direct, constructive feedback on the areas in which they need improvement, while others might take that same feedback as criticism and get discouraged. Some employees might know exactly where they want to go with their career and will want your support in getting there, while others might feel stuck and need help figuring out their next step.

As a manager, you want to use your employee development conversations as an opportunity to better understand who your employee is, what they’re working toward, and how you can support them in getting there, and then tailor the conversation accordingly.

4. Create an employee development plan.

Talking to your employees about their career aspirations is great. But if you really want to support them, then these conversations need to be followed by action — or, more specifically, an action plan.

“Conversations should end with more clarity on what the individual is aspiring toward, concrete next steps, and to-do's for both parties involved,” said Braun.

Think of an employee development plan as a road map: It helps your employee figure out how to get from where they are to where they want to go, and helps you, as their manager, discern what steps you can take to help them get there.

“While the individual should lead this [process], an invested manager should also walk away with to-do's to support that growth, like making introductions within the company or helping the individual identify and get involved with new stretch projects,” Braun said.

The key to creating an effective employee development plan is to make it actionable; it should break down your employee’s larger goals and career path into small, manageable steps.

“Keep the big picture goals in mind, but coach them on how they can successfully navigate the shorter-term and help them eliminate [or] remove roadblocks,” said Connors.

Once you and your employee have created a plan that outlines their big-picture goal, the steps they have to take to achieve that goal, and the actions you need to do to support them in achieving it, make sure to schedule regular check-ins to follow up on their progress — and adjust the plan as needed.

The Benefits of Development Conversations 

Employee development conversations help you, as a manager, support your employees in achieving their career goals. But these conversations really empower your team members to be their best at work, and build careers that feel fulfilling and authentic.

“Development is not just about a promotion or the next position,” said Davis. “It's about stretching the abilities and talents employees have. It's about challenging them to think differently, take bold risks, and develop themselves, which by default will bring value to the organization. It's about reminding them who they are, what they bring, and what they can accomplish, and coaching them to produce and strengthen and develop those skills.”



When you hire a new employee, you’re bringing them on to do a specific job. But as a manager, it’s your responsibility to help them reach their full potential.

Employee development conversations are essential if you want to help your employees identify their goals, realize their potential, and grow as professionals. Now that you know how to have effective, productive employee development conversations, you’re armed with the information you need to engage in the kinds of discussions that will inspire the best in your team — while bringing out the best in you as a manager.