Elevating Employee Success: The Leader’s Guide to Powerful Career Conversations

A clipboard with the words "career growth" on it.

Imagine a workplace where every team member feels seen, heard, and valued—an environment where quieter voices are not overshadowed, but instead, encouraged to shine. This is the essence of effective leadership that goes beyond the surface level and delves into the core of individual potential.

In the dynamic realm of leadership, one fundamental element stands out as a cornerstone for fostering growth and retaining talent: engaging in meaningful career conversations. As managers, it is not just about overseeing tasks and projects but also about nurturing the professional development and aspirations of our team members.

By recognizing the importance of providing feedback, offering learning opportunities, and building trust through open dialogue, we pave the way for a thriving workplace environment where everyone can flourish. Plus, you’ll keep them longer!

Why Growth and Development Matters

A 2023 Culture Amp report found that if a manager doesn’t show interest in the career of their employees, the direct report is two times more likely to leave within 12 months. In addition, companies where managers show an interest in their direct report’s career aspirations have employees that are more likely to recommend the company to others, more likely to see themselves working at the company in two years time, and less likely to be job searching.

A 2022 McKinsey survey found similar results. A lack of career development and advancement was the top reason for quitting a previous job. They also found that not having adequate career development and advancement was a factor for attrition.

But as a busy leader, it’s easy for these conversations to fall by the wayside among your other duties. Fortunately, career conversations can be a positive part of your job and also something that your team looks forward to.

Guiding Principles for Career Conversations

To support all employees and foster growth within your team, there are five guiding principles to consider.

First, as a leader, you are responsible for initiating and supporting career discussions. It’s not your responsibility to drive their careers. In other words – you are responsible for starting the conversation and supporting them in their growth and development and they are responsible for taking action. Set the expectation that they are in the driver’s seat to move their career forward and you are are in the passenger seat, helping them navigate when they get lost.

Secondly, trust is at the foundation of any conversation but especially when it centers around career growth. If your team doesn’t trust you, they won’t be honest about what they want out of their careers. Trust takes time to build but even if you suspect you have work to do in this area, you can use these conversations as trust builders.

What if they want what I can’t give them?

This is a common fear of leaders. It’s normal for you to be concerned a direct report will ask for a raise or a promotion when you’re not able to provide one or they haven’t earned one. But having uncomfortable conversations is part of your job. That’s where the third guiding principle comes in – clear is kind.

Tell your directs what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. The worst thing you can do for your team is give them false hope that they’ll get promoted if it’s not possible. By being clear and transparent with them, you’ll build trust.

Don’t forget the quiet ones

Within any team, you’ll have directs that are more vocal than others. While it’s easy to focus on the louder ones, just because someone isn’t bringing up their career growth, doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in advancing their career. All team members deserve a career conversation.

Finally, as a leader, you role model growth and development. A 2022 LinkedIn Skills Advantage Report found that 91% of employees say it’s important for managers to inspire learning and experimentation. Be open about where you are trying to grow as a leader and share your progress with your team. Build a growth mindset to build a team culture of continuous learning and improvement.

Now, that you have the guiding principles of a career conversation, how do you get started?

5 Essential Steps for Successful Career Conversations

A successful framework for career conversations can be distilled into five essential steps.

  1. Tell them why you want to meet with them. Nobody likes a surprise meeting on their calendar, especially from their boss! Before scheduling time to talk with them, tell them why you’re scheduling the meeting. Check out the sample email in our Career Conversations Guide.
  2. Preparation is key. Ensure you have enough time to have a conversation without being rushed to get somewhere else. Before the meeting, spend two minutes setting an intention that you’ll listen more than you’ll talk. Remember you’re there to learn about what they want out of their career, not dominate the conversation.
  3. Ask open-ended questions that invite reflection and dialogue, creating a safe space for honest communication. For key questions to ask, download our Career Conversations Guide.
  4. Get curious. Remember you are seeking to understand what they want out of their career. If you don’t understand what they’re after, ask! Clarifying questions are also included in our Career Conversations Guide. Before you end the meeting, summarize what you heard. This helps clarify key action steps and ensures alignment between expectations and aspirations.
  5. Keep the conversation going. Career conversations aren’t a one-time event. Regular dialogue and ongoing support are the foundation of employee satisfaction and development. Before you end the meeting, ask when they’d like to meet again. Task them with scheduling a time for that next discussion.

The power of career conversations in leadership cannot be overstated. By following our five steps to a successful career conversation, you’ll be prepared and laser-focused on your team’s success. As a leader, you can foster a culture of growth and innovation where every team member has the opportunity to shine.


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