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The Manager’s Role in Career Development

By Zach Curtis, Leadership Development Consultant

“Career” doesn’t mean the same thing as it used to. The traditional quest for predictable promotions and rhythmic raises is giving way to different measurements. People are interested in crafting careers composed of meaningful experiences, interesting work, and work-life balance. 

The good news is that this means there are more ways than ever to help employees find fulfillment and satisfaction in their jobs. The challenge is that the path to career development is much less obvious now – and often much less linear.

In this fluid environment, employees need someone in their corner who understands their values, strengths, interests, and goals. They need someone to provide insight and honest feedback. They need someone who is connected to people and opportunities across the organization and can help brainstorm new ways to develop and apply their skills.

Spoiler Alert: This is where the manager comes in.

Research shows that employees who are able to move toward personal goals at work – while helping to serve the larger organizational needs – are both more satisfied with their jobs and more productive. To achieve this balance, they need somebody to talk to about their career to help influence the kind of work they’re doing and offer individualized guidance and support.

But there’s a problem: Managers often avoid having career development conversations with employees. In a recent survey done by BlessingWhite, 77.5% of employees indicated that they want to talk to their managers about their careers at least quarterly, but the majority of the time, these conversations are happening annually…at best.

This discrepancy exists for myriad reasons. Often, managers fear that employees simply want a raise or a promotion that the manager can’t provide.

However, knowing that the vast majority of the time employees want to talk about other things, managers can relieve the pressure they put on themselves and focus on their role: to guide, support, and shepherd the employee along their career journey by understanding individual aspirations and aligning them with organizational targets.

So let’s talk about a few practical ways to make career development conversations easier:

  1. Know the person.

People want to do more work that resonates with who they are as – well – people. Human beings. Each employee has their own identity. In fact, that’s the challenge. Each employee has a different set of values, strengths, interests, and goals, which means each employee will experience different work as meaningful and interesting (which we know from the research is a key driver of their engagement and productivity). This is why the starting point in supporting career growth is for managers to understand the people – the individuals – on their teams. There’s a lot a manager can learn about their team members simply by observing their behaviors and asking good questions. Think about some behaviors you’ve noticed on your team recently, good or bad, that stand out in your mind. What might those behaviors suggest about the individual’s identity or career goals?

And when it comes to asking questions, there’s no secret. Often, it’s simply a matter of being intentional enough to dig a little deeper than status updates and small talk. For example, try asking something like this: What do you enjoy doing? What are you curious about? What would an ideal job look like to you?

Getting to know the person is the starting point for managers to support their team’s career development. Until managers know what matters to their people, what they’re good at, and what they enjoy doing, they won’t be able to help align their personal goals with what the organization needs from them.

  1. Give perspective.

Providing perspective is a vital component to the manager’s role in career development management. The manager’s perspective is necessary in order for individuals to achieve alignment between who they are (their identity), what they want (their goals), and what the organization needs from them. That perspective is most important when team members are experiencing gaps. One type of gap arises when an employee’s perception of their identity differs from their reputation (i.e., how their manager and others perceive them). Gaps also arise when an individual’s goals are misaligned with the organization’s reality. Even when small, these gaps can have significant implications on an employee’s career development, and it is the manager’s responsibility to communicate these gaps with their team members and offer perspective on how to close them.

  1. Create possibilities.

The third way that managers can help support their team members’ career journeys is by creating possibilities. Managers have a unique vantage point within the organization. They work closely with their team members each day, which allows them to develop a good understanding of their values, strengths, interests, and goals. At the same time, they are also in position to be aware of the larger organizational strategy as well as to work with people that their team members may never come across in their day-to-day responsibilities – whether it’s senior leaders within the same department or managers and leaders across the organization. Because of this, one of the best ways to add value to their team members’ career development is to intentionally create possibilities for them, both by connecting them to new opportunities within the organization as well as to people they might not otherwise meet.

Aligning individual aspirations with the constant pressure of organizational expectations can be a daunting task. For many managers, it can feel like two jobs in one. However, the three simple steps we reviewed above can go a long way to demystifying the process and creating a more engaging and productive team culture. To learn more about career development management, check out our coaching services.

About the Authors

GP Strategies Corporation
GP Strategies is a global performance improvement solutions provider of sales and technical training, e-Learning solutions, management consulting and engineering services. GP Strategies' solutions improve the effectiveness of organizations by delivering innovative and superior training, consulting and business improvement services, customized to meet the specific needs of its clients. Clients include Fortune 500 companies, manufacturing, process and energy industries, and other commercial and government customers.

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