8 Stages of a great career conversation


1. Take time to prepare

If you don’t know the individual, see if they are happy to send you their CV or their LinkedIn profile. Tell them in advance if there are questions you would like them to think about. Emphasize that the conversation is confidential.

Key tip: Have a few powerful questions ready to start the process or move the conversation along.

Example question: ‘Is there anything in particular you would like to get out of our meeting that you would like me to prepare for?’

2. Set up the conversation

Begin by setting a positive and supportive tone for the conversation. Choose a comfortable environment, ensure privacy, and create an atmosphere of trust and openness.

It can be helpful to frame these conversations by managing expectations. That means emphasizing that the individual is responsible for managing their career. Your role is simply to help them manage it better.

Key tip: Prepare an opening so that you can quickly build rapport and develop trust.

Example questions: ‘What is going well in your current role? What do you not want to change?’

3. Establish trust

Establishing trust is a process and one that can’t necessarily be achieved in a few minutes. You probably already have a relationship with the individual, so the trust might already be there.

If it’s a new relationship, then you might want to take time to establish trust before you ask them to open up. A lot of that trust-building might be achieved through sharing information about your own career and experience.

Key tip: Think about your own career journey and the lessons you have learned along the way.

Example questions: ‘What are you most proud of achieving? What is it about that achievement that you found satisfying?’

4. Agree on the desired outcomes from the conversation

Establish an open feel to the conversation. Put the other person at ease. Show your interest, listen carefully, and check that you understand what they say to you.

Key tip: Start by acknowledging the employee's contributions and expressing appreciation for their work.

Example questions: ‘Suppose you could wave a magic wand and develop your career in exactly the way you’d like, what would you be doing day to day? Where would you be working?’

5. Explore the situation from their perspective

Encourage the employee to reflect on their aspirations, interests, and long-term career goals. Help them identify their passions and areas where they see themselves growing.

Discuss the employee's strengths and areas where they excel. Additionally, identify areas where they can further develop and grow, aligning their aspirations with the organization's needs.

Key tip: Consider the individual’s strengths and growth areas so you are ready with examples if required. Use open-ended questions to delve deeper into their motivations and desires.

Example questions: ‘What useful experiences have helped you get where you are today? What valuable skills have you developed? What positive qualities will help you make progress?’

6. Share information

In a career conversation, employees are often looking to you for guidance and information. Explore potential opportunities within the organization that align with the employee's aspirations and development needs.

Discuss different career paths, lateral moves, or projects that can broaden their skill set. Help the employee understand how their goals align with the organization's strategic objectives.

Key tip: Remind yourself of the organization’s strategy and priorities so you can signpost growth areas or projects as development activities. Where appropriate, suggest other people to talk to.

Share success stories of employees who have successfully transitioned into new roles or taken on exciting projects within the organization.

Example questions: ‘What knowledge and skills do you need to gain to make progress? What behaviors and achievements do you need to demonstrate? What relationships do you need to develop?’

7. Agree on actions

Finally, you want to agree on actions. Those actions might be observational, like reflecting on what they’ve enjoyed about their work that day. Maybe they’ll go and talk to other people. Maybe they’ll research options. Maybe they’ll make a decision.

Ultimately, if they’re going to be taking ownership, you want them to do something because of the conversation.

Key tip: Encourage the employee to think about opportunities to grow in their current role as well as longer-term career goals. Provide access to learning and development resources, mentorship opportunities, or external training programs to support the employee's growth.

Example question: ‘How might you make your current role more satisfying and enjoyable? How might you broaden your role?’

8. Close the conversation

Leave enough time to bring the discussion to a close and agree on what happens next. Establish regular check-ins to review the employee's progress.

Provide constructive feedback, celebrate milestones, and make adjustments as needed. Continually monitor the employee's growth and offer support when necessary.

Key tip: Encourage the employee to keep a record of their accomplishments and challenges to facilitate progress tracking.

Example question: ‘What steps will you take in the next three months to progress towards your short-term milestones?’

Empowering career conversations helps employees envision their future, discover growth opportunities, and take ownership of their careers. Following the eight stages in this article, HR professionals and managers can foster meaningful dialogue, build relationships, and promote continuous learning.

Remember, career conversations are a journey, not a one-time event. Invest time and effort in cultivating these discussions to unlock your employees' and organization's full potential.

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