3 Tips for Career Conversations That Energize and Engage Employees

Guest Post by Julie Winkle Giulioni

Recently Forbes Magazine cited a study reporting that a majority of employees are dissatisfied and that “many feel stuck in their jobs, unable to consider a career move even if they’re unhappy.”

This is not good news if employers want an upbeat and engaged workforce. The article concluded with these suggestions: “offer more training and education. Also it pays to try to find a path up the ladder for current employees, and to help them know it’s available to them.”

Companies can and should offer targeted programs for employee growth, but the real power in employee engagement remains in the relationship between the employee and their boss.

The most effective and easiest way to help employees feel valued and find a career path is for their manager to hold regular “career conversations.”

Here are 3 tips for holding a great career conversation:

Tip #1: Ask juicy questions.

You don’t have to worry about having all – or really any – of the answers.  What you need to bring to the table are questions.  Good, juicy, insightful, thought-provoking questions.  Questions that make employees squint up their eyes a little bit, look off in the distance, and really ponder.

While coming up with these sorts of questions comes easily to some, most of us need to spend a moment to consider what you’re trying to find out and how best to get it.  It’s OK to ask hard, provocative questions.  In fact, these are the juicy questions that fuel the most productive career conversations.

Tip #2: Make silence your friend.

If you’re asking the right questions, you’re going to be making people think. They will be digging through their experiences, making connections, and reflecting deeply on who they are and what they do.  This might take more than a nano-second.  But often managers – whether motivated by the press of other priorities or out of a genuine desire not to make others uncomfortable – don’t allow more than a nano-second for others to respond before they jump in with their own responses or more questions.

Just slow it down. Give employees the space and silence to consider the question and formulate a thoughtful response.  You’ll realize a rich return on your investment of a couple of seconds.

Tip #3: Prove that you’re listening.

I’m not referring to the nodding, smiling, ‘uh huhs’ and ‘tell me mores’ you might have learned in active listening training.  What is more important than what you do during the conversation is what you do afterward. Many employees have been conditioned to expect career conversations to go nowhere.

So surprise them by actually using what you’ve learned.  Make notes after even the most informal of career conversations using whatever system makes sense to you. Routinely glance at those notes and find ways to reference them – in your feedback, as you give assignments, or just in general.

These reminders powerfully refocus employees on their development… and open the door to more conversations.


About Julie Winkle Giulioni

September 18 celebrates the launch of Julie’s new book with Beverly Kaye, Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want.  Julie has spent the past 25 years improving performance through learning. She consults with organizations to develop and deploy innovative instructional designs and training worldwide. You can learn more about Julie’s consulting, speaking, and blog at juliewinklegiulioni.com. Follow her on Twitter @Julie_WG

A personal note from Jesse:

Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go is an excellent book on an important subject. Last week I wrote about why managers need to be directly involved in development of employees. Bev and Julie show how to do this. They offer clear, practical advice that makes it easy for managers to hold the needed conversations. I strongly recommend this book for leaders at all levels…and the people who support them.  Keep it nearby. It’s a resource you’ll be referencing often!

Uncompensated endorsement.

23 comments to 3 Tips for Career Conversations That Energize and Engage Employees

  • Thanks for sharing information on this new book. I love the title, as it’s not just catchy, it clear what it’s about. Having conversations with employees about their careers is so important and I believe many managers don’t do it for fear it will give the employees ideas about leaving. Isn’t it ironic that the opposite is likely to happen?

  • You are so right, Robin. Talking with managers across the country and across industries, that’s the second most frequent excuse we hear for not engaging in career development. (Right after ‘not enough time’.) But, development is on people’s minds. The only thing more dangerous than having the conversations… is NOT having them. I suppose a career conversation could give people the idea to leave… but more frequently, it gives people the ideas that they’re valued… which builds engagement and loyalty. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • Conor Cusack

    “Just slow it down”. Love it! Too often employees and organizations are under pressure to “speed it up” to meet the pace at which technology is advancing and being deployed, or adjusting to internal or external organizational demands that may or may not be within their control. I am certain that Help them Grow or Watch them Go is highly relevant for today’s climate in which so many employees feel the need, the need for speed! Bravo!

    • Yes, that need for speed is killing us… on so many fronts. We might need to cry ‘uncle’ soon and acknowledge that the human dimension of work simply cannot keep pace with technology. We need time to think, innovate… and converse. Yet in an effort to be efficient, we short-circuit genuine exchange, shut down our curiosity, and fail to fully utilize the gifts and talents employees bring to the workplace. Thanks so much for highlighting this, Conor.

  • Keith McMahen

    I look forward to reading your book. I think your 3 points can be summarized in – to have an engaged, energized work force you need to be an engaged leader. When I think about engagement in this posts context I think of an engagement that is a meaningful and mutually beneficial relationship based on mutual benefit, mutual respect, and mutual accountability. I think one of the crying needs of everyone (whether at work or among friends and family)is to be valued by being taken seriously and listened to. Applying this to a career conversation as outlined here is a very overlooked area and I think this could provide an opportunity to align an employee’s growth with an organization’s vision and values, providing a greater buy in (engagement) of the employee. If the questions include something along the lines as to how can your career path (vision) fit in/be utilized by the organization it then opens up the possibility of using the talents and unique abilities of the employee within the organization to help it grow as well.

    Thanks again for the post.

    • Absolutely, Keith. I love the way you’ve expressed that. It strikes me that space where what the employee loves and wants to do overlaps with the needs of the organization is the most fertile soil for development. That area of mutual benefit is what leaders need to consider and get creative around…. because when they do, they’ll unleash tremendous power! Thanks so much for your post.

  • Beth

    Employee’s relationship with their boss helps with engagement, but I would also suggest that it also influences their ability to be a high performer or to have high potentional. I am looking forward to reading your book as employee engagement is a huge passion of mine. Thanks for the article.

    • Thanks, Beth. That employee/boss relationship influences so much… doesn’t it? And the research underscores this. Engagement. Performance. Retention. Satisfaction and happiness. Yet managers don’t really appreciate that. Just a small investment in relationships with employees may yield the biggest overall return possible to managers and their organizations. Thanks for raising this important issue.

  • Ellen DeMar

    Great title for a great topic! People really are a company’s most valuable asset. Nurturing growth and promoting opportunities is key to creating and maintaining the kind of environment that keeps employees motivated, engaged and loyal.

    • Well said, Ellen. And the kind of environment you describe is exactly the kind of environment I want to work in as a leader. So, everyone wins in the process. So, here’s the rub… how do we help organizations move from espousing that ‘people are our greatest resource’ to actually acting on it?

  • Thanks as always for excellent content Jesse -

    Julie, the tips you’ve listed remind me that being a good coach is one of our most important duties. Being in the moment with each member of our team creates a working environment where growth and change can occur.
    Thank you for your work.

    • I’d agree. Being a good coach is probably job #1. And you bring up the notion of ‘being in the moment.’ That’s probably where it all begins. Yet, in the press of delivering on ever-expanding workplace expectations, it’s so easy to be anywhere but in the moment. Then there’s the problem that we reward those who aren’t… the ones who can send an email while on a teleconference, while writing a review. Cultivating that sense of presence – in a world that may not yet be prepared to value it – may be a leader’s greatest challenge. Thanks, Carl, for sharing your comment!

  • Ron

    If we don’t engage employees, they will leave. Managers and leaders must engage employees in the conversations about their wants, needs, etc. Failure to do so results in disengaged employees who use company time to search for another opportunity.

    I see it, but getting other managers and leaders to invest the time, well, that’s another story.

    Loved the tips and thanks for your book to support those of us that try to preach it and teach it!

    Ron

    • I know what you mean, Ron. We’ve got some work to do with a lot of managers who don’t see the breadcrumb trail that connects career development directly with engagement… which then drives discretionary effort… that can be deployed against any number of pressing business priorities. When managers start to see the connection, that helps. The other thing that we’ve found helpful is working with managers to redefine career ‘progression’ or ‘advancement.’ If we think of career development as leading to another position up the food chain, no wonder we avoid it. (In today’s environment, those upward opportunities are few and far between.) But, if managers understand the option of developing in place, using experiences rather than moves to drive development, suddenly it’s a lot more do-able. Thanks for joining the discussion, Ron.

  • Jenn

    This is true. I do Leadership development training for a company that is trying to fill a large # of leadership vacancies. We nearly always promote from within…it’s one of our core values. We recently had a leader promote so several people. Although we were thrilled, we were concerned bout whether it was for the right reasons or “filling them just to fill them.” When we asked her about it she said “I simply TALKED to them.” Many didn’t know it was an option for them and others just had limiting self beliefs.

  • I love that, Jenn! The power of a conversation. It unlocks so much… interest, desires and capabilities. And it dispels so much… concerns, confusions and self-limiting beliefs. Sounds like that leader may be destined for great things!

  • Great post Julie. I look forward to reading your book for additional insights into this important topic. In my coaching training one of the best pieces of advice I received was to “Wait for silence to formulate the next question.” Being intentional about true listening is something that we all need to work on to perfect this most important attribute of coaching and leadership. Having these types of conversations with employees will most certainly illustrate that you as a leader truly care about the employee, you value their worth to the organization, and by the shear nature of the conversation you are encouraging their personal growth. That will build self esteem, enhance the relationship and will lead to personal and organizational improvement. Thanks for all your hard work and effort in this area!

    Mark

    • You’re really right, Mark. I’m convinced that a leader can completely botch it from a skill standpoint… be completely clumsy and inelegant. But if he/she genuinely cares, is genuinely trying to connect, and demonstrates genuine curiosity, the employee will feel it. That feeling then leads to the sense of value, self-esteem, relationship, etc. that you so correctly point out drives improvement. The key is helping managers understand that there’s value in just jumping in and doing it! After that, layer on a few skills, and there’s no stopping them! Thanks for your comment, Mark.

  • Stephen Melancon

    Hi Julie, this is a wonderful post. I love your three tips.

    Quite a while back, I had the opportunity to see your first two tips in action during an employee review with a senior manager. An employee was transferring from my department to the senior manager’s department so we were doing a review/changing of the guard. For the most part I was driving the discussion, and the other manager would drop in these fantastic questions that really had the employee thinking. At the same time, he was very comfortable with the silence while the employee pondered his answers. I actually found myself becoming uncomfortable with the silence and wanting to help out the employee… but I maintained my cool. In the end, it was a great discussion for all parties and I really learned the value of asking “juicy questions” and how to “make silence your friend”.

    I really enjoyed your post, and you are spot on with your advice. Great reminder. Thank you!

  • It is necessary to keep in mind that it is essential to have career
    conversations with the team members; they are definitely making these
    discussions with somebody, even though it may be with their companion
    while drinking a coffee! An employer by failing to express interest in
    somebody’s prospect and supporting his progress is a certain way for
    losing his best members of staff.

    • You raise an important point. Employees are already having career discussions with team members, companions and others. By joining the conversation, managers demonstrate their interest and concern to their team, a key factor in engagement and retention. Thanks for adding to this conversation, Clarissa.

  • Combination #1 and #3 works best to energize and engage employees. But, be sure not to ask something irrelevant or ask too often.

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