Employee Growth

Strategies for Effective Career Development Conversations

January 24, 2024
March 8, 2024
Deanna deBara and Rosanna Campbell
Lattice Team

Part of managing an employee is making sure that they’re productive and effective in their role. But there’s so much more to successful management. If you want to bring out the best in your staff, you also have to continually support their growth as employees — and as people.

One of the best ways to do this is by having career development conversations. Development conversations are crucial for identifying your employee’s goals, supporting their career 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 career development conversations that will set your employees up for success and enable them to achieve their professional goals — while making you a better, more effective manager in the process.

Why Career Development Conversations Matter

Career development conversations show your team that you’re invested in them beyond just their daily to-do lists. When you discuss employees’ career aspirations and offer advice to help them get there, employees feel supported. These discussions can also shed light on what your employees need to feel fulfilled and engaged at work.

But these talks aren’t just important for morale. According to one survey of HR professionals, this kind of coaching leads to improved individual employee development and overall organizational performance as well. 

Career development discussions also have the potential to improve employees’ sense of belonging. Gartner research found that only 25% of employees felt confident about their career path at their current company, and fewer than a third of employees said they know how to advance their career in the next five years. This is where career development conversations can help.

But that same research found that only half of employees said their manager offers feedback based on their desired career path, and employees are increasingly looking for new roles elsewhere. To help your employees pursue their long-term career goals and keep them content at your organization, make time for career development conversations.

It’s a win-win: These conversations help foster not only your employee’s training and development but also your company’s growth — and ultimately success — through employee engagement and retention. 

How to Kickstart a Career Development Conversation

If you’ve never had a career development conversation with an employee before, it can be hard to know where to start. Here are four steps to help you set the tone for a great career development conversation: 

1. Set the stage.

Before diving in, clarify the purpose of the conversation and outline your role in it. As the manager, you’re there to provide support for the employee’s development and offer some accountability to make sure that they focus on meeting their own professional goals. 

You should also take responsibility for making sure that they’ll have time to work toward their own development, rather than getting overwhelmed with work. 

2. Let the employee lead.

As the manager, your aim is to support employees in their career planning — not tell them what their goals should be. Let them direct the conversation while you act as a sounding board and source of information and knowledge. 

During career development conversations, focus on helping the employee figure out their motivators, strengths, and areas for improvement.

3. Outline a development plan.

Once you’ve explained your role and placed the conversation in context, it’s time to get specific with an individual development plan

Start by guiding your direct reports toward setting actionable goals for their own progress. The SMART goal framework can be a handy way to make sure their goals are realistic and that you’ll be able to track their progress together. Or, if you’re already using objectives and key results (OKRs) as a team, those can help create ambitious goals with organizational alignment.

You’ll also want to set up some way of documenting goal progress — either within your usual performance management system or more informally in a shared document.

Then, after you’ve set some goals, it’s time to work with your employee to identify development opportunities that align with their objectives. 

You can use the three E’s (experience, exposure, education) to come up with a comprehensive range of learning and development opportunities: 

  • Experience refers to actual, hands-on time spent performing a new task or learning a new skill. Help the employee identify gaps in their experience, and then create opportunities to address those gaps. If they’ve never given a presentation, for instance, ask them to present in a low-stress environment such as a weekly team meeting. 
  • Exposure is the opportunity to spend time watching other people perform the target skill. To use our presentation example again, the employee could shadow some more experienced team members when they give presentations, take notes, and discuss their learnings with you at their next career development meeting.
  • Education refers to formal training and development. To support our budding presenter, you could help them find an online workshop on public speaking or creating high-impact slides. 

4. Conclude with clarity.

Make sure that you wrap up your career development conversation with clearly defined next steps. By the end of the session, you and your direct report should have: 

  • Recapped their motivations for pursuing development goals
  • Reviewed the goals that they are going to pursue
  • Created an action plan (with next steps for both of you) 
  • Set a date for a follow-up meeting, so you can review their progress and make any necessary adjustments to the plan

6 Tips for a Successful Career Development Conversation (With Examples)

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

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

1. Encourage varied growth paths.

Professional growth means different things to different employees — and it doesn’t have to mean working toward a promotion. Emphasize that career advancement can occur in numerous different ways within their current role — through developing new skills, working on new projects, or taking on new challenges — not just through promotions or role changes.

What to ask: 

  • “What would growth look like to you?” 
  • “What is most important to you, when it comes to your career?” 
  • “Of these three possible goals, which would be most personally meaningful to you? [Give three goal examples.]” 

2. Ask targeted career development questions.

General, future-focused questions aren’t always easy to answer. Instead, be more precise. Ask your employees specific questions about the tasks they find most energizing, or specific next actions that will help with their career progression in the short term. 

Inquire about under-utilized strengths, role expectations, and key development areas. Focus on skills enhancement and potential mentorship opportunities within the organization. Discuss roles or responsibilities that align with the employee's career aspirations and professional strengths.

What to ask: 

  • “What tasks do you find most stimulating?” 
  • “What specific skills do you want to work on in the next month?” 
  • “Which areas of weakness are currently affecting your work on a daily basis?” 
  • “Who would you like to seek mentorship from?”
  • “Which responsibilities seem most appealing to you to take on in the future?” 

3. Encourage employee autonomy.

Let employees lead the conversation about their career paths, and avoid imposing your aspirations on them. 

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

What to ask: 

  • “How do you define success?” 
  • “Where would you like to see yourself in two years?” 
  • “How can I help you get where you want to go?”

4. Create a roadmap for growth.

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 it 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-dos to support that growth, like making introductions within the company or helping the individual identify and get involved with new stretch projects,” said Randi Braun, CEO of leadership coaching firm Something Major and author of Something Major: The New Playbook for Women at Work.

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,” Connors suggested.

What to ask: 

  • “What is the next action you can take toward this goal?” 
  • “What’s a reasonable timeline for completing the goal?” 
  • “What small step could you make toward your goals this week?” 

5. Emphasize consistent engagement.

An employee’s goals, ambitions, and career trajectory will change over time. So as a manager, if you truly want to help employees develop their careers, you need to have development conversations regularly.

“Don’t just reserve these conversations for once a quarter or, worse, twice per year,” said Connors. Build these career development discussions into your continuous feedback cycle to make sure your employees know that their professional development is a priority to you. 

During these discussions, it’s important to stay focused on your employee’s development — and not lump the development conversation into an employee performance review. “Make [employee development conversations] a meeting where it’s the sole item on the agenda, not piggybacked onto a larger check-in meeting,” Braun advised.

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. 

What to ask: 

  • “What progress have you made toward your goals this week?” 
  • “When would you like me to check in with you next about your progress?” 
  • “What will you be focusing on in the next two weeks, when it comes to your career?” 

6. Use goal-setting software.

The right software can make career development conversations more consistent and effective. Look for a solution that supports goal tracking and aligns individual progress with organizational objectives.

Lattice OKRs & Goals could be a great option here. Our unified goal-setting software provides an easy way to connect individual goals to department and company-wide targets. That way, your employees can see exactly how their own progress will tie into their career path and the company’s success. 

Make career development conversations simple with Lattice.

Career development conversations help you, as a manager, support your employees in achieving their professional goals. But these conversations — coupled with an effective performance management system based on OKRs or SMART goals — 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 LaShawn Davis, founder of HR consultancy The HR Plug. “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.”

Now that you know how to have effective, productive career 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.

If you’d like to know more about how Lattice could help you have more effective career development conversations, set up a demo today.