Embracing the Career Conversation

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Encouraging employees to take a hard look at their skills, motivators, and aspirations challenges both employees and managers to align employees’ career plans to the organization’s future needs and strategic goals.

Company leaders are embracing how important employee engagement is to business success in today’s quick-changing and competitive environment for two reasons. 

One, work has evolved to become more challenging and less scripted, requiring a much more self-motivated workforce. Two, these days most employees expect workplaces to continually engage their minds and build their skills through compelling projects and stretch assignments. If such employees don’t see that happening, they leave—especially if they are in the early or mid-stages of their career. According to Deloitte’s report, corporate learning trends, training, and development opportunities are the most popular benefits an employer can offer today’s employees.

Therefore, HR professionals are in a unique position to promote a culture of engagement, one that supports employees’ desires by taking a proactive stance toward their growth and development. By the nature of their work, HR professionals play a more “whole company” role and can facilitate top managers’ ability to hold fruitful discussions with their direct reports and encourage employees to take more ownership of their careers by talking more openly about their aspirations and career plans.

The Goal Is Alignment

Supporting employees who take ownership of their career paths has multiple benefits. Encouraging employees to take a hard look at their skills, motivators, and aspirations challenges both employees and managers to align employees’ career plans to the organization’s future needs and strategic goals. Where are their best skills most valued? What do they need to learn/develop to move to the next role in their plan? Are there other parts of the organization where they can transfer their talents to make a bigger impact and experience more satisfaction? Seeking answers to these questions can lead to increased employee engagement and increased productivity—the classic win-win scenario—and HR can lead the way.

To enhance employee engagement in your company, initiate career conversations using the right mindset and the SPURframework.


It’s important to prepare for the conversation believing that: 

1. Employees can learn just about anything, but really want to learn and get better at things they desire to learn and get better at.

2. It’s the employees’ responsibility to plan their lives and their careers; HR simply is coaching them to be able to do what they want to do so that it is in alignment with future workforce needs.

Uncovering areas where the employee wants to improve supports the alignment previously noted. To coach the employee, HR professionals must play the three roles of a coach in the conversation:

  • Expert when you need to give direct knowledge and advice 
  • Resource when you can point out and connect the employee to others who can provide more information or who would be a good connection
  • Facilitator when asking open-ended questions intended to get employees to think for themselves and explore options

Insist employees bring at least a rudimentary career plan to the conversation so a discussion ensues with coaching rather than proscriptive direction. Even just a sense of what has been learned so far, what aspects of their work they enjoy, what role they think they would like to do next, and projecting potential roles in their future will start the conversation.

Leveraging the SPUR framework, managers can engage employees in conversations that will spur positive action.

The SPUR Framework

  • Self-assessment: Gaining clarity on skills, aspirations, and motivators
  • Perceptions: Uncovering and taking more control of personal brand and reputation
  • Understanding how connections work: Identifying allies and mentors
  • Reality testing: Mapping out goals and time frames, and trying out the ideas in the market 

During an initial conversation, managers quickly can test for focus with selected diagnostic questions and then listen for how employees identify themselves. This allows managers to offer appropriate insights, point employees to resources, and help them create targeted action plans that have the highest potential in moving them forward.

Once you know more about employees’ triggers for the discussion, pain points, or aspirations, you can decide how to intervene. The questions in the guide below are samples of the kind that can serve as starting points for your SPUR discussions:

Self-Assessment—Clarifying Skills, Aspirations, Motivators

  • What aspects of your work would you put at the top of the list of things you do well and enjoy? What’s missing/isn’t satisfying?
  • What do you want to learn more about? What skills would you like to develop?
  • What would career success look like for you now? What do you want to do and achieve in your next role? How about the one after that?

Insights/Resources to Offer

  • Repeat common themes you hear re: motivators, strengths
  • Prepare them to negotiate with their manager to do more of what they need to do to prepare for their projected next role
  • Where in the organization could their skills transfer, or what roles use their strengths? How would developing these skills benefit the company and its business objectives?

Perceptions—Understanding How They Are Perceived; Reputation and Brand

  • What are you known for? What do people rely on you for?
  • What feedback have you had from others/your manager?
  • What do you want to be known for?

Insights/Resources to Offer

  • Issues/feedback/positive perceptions they should know about
  • Gaps you see between where they are now and where they want to be
  • Opportunities you see for them to enhance their brand or gain visibility

Understanding How Connections Work—Building Their Network, Internal Connections

  • What areas of the business do you want to learn more about?
  • Who do you want to meet with to uncover insights? Where are you hitting roadblocks in networking?
  • Have you had/do you have mentor(s), people who have advised and assisted you in your career to date?
  • How connected are you to others in the field of your next job and the one after? (Professional organizations? Colleagues? Network groups?)

Insights/Resources to Offer

  • Identify where you think they need to develop relationships and expand their network
  • Current or anticipated needs of the organization they should pay attention to
  • Assist them in making connections inside the organization. Who else could you connect them to as they investigate roles they are curious about (i.e., other managers, professional organizations, Web tools, internal job/career path information)?

Reality Testing—Mapping Out Goals, Time Frames, and How to Try Out Ideas

  • What have you tried already? What happened?
  • What have you been trying to achieve?
  • What are possible development opportunities?

Insights/Resources to Offer

  • Identify actions they are willing to commit to in order to work their plan and achieve their goals 
  • Specify support they would need from you and others
  • Determine specific, measurable goals, checkpoints, and timeframes

The Next Step to Competitive Advantage

In almost every company, the increasing implementation of artificial intelligence (AI), mergers, and offshoring are reducing the number of jobs comprising more routine, almost boring tasks to a small number. In the near future, the critical work needed to be performed to make companies successful will be more complex, more puzzle-like, more creative, and will change forms even faster than it does today. That work needs people who love to do, and are self-motivated by, that kind of work. HR professionals can facilitate employee development and retention as long as it’s a win-win proposition for both parties.

Organizations that adopt a career coaching mindset and process like the one above—moving the right people into the right roles—will be ahead of the pack with significant competitive advantage.

Dave Denaro is vice president of Keystone Associates (@Keystone_Assoc). Denaro advises executives, managers, and individual contributors on career planning and transition, as well as leading the Keystone consultants in the Burlington and Nashua offices. He has successfully coached hundreds of clients who wanted to change careers or find a similar job, and those who have considered consulting. He uses a variety of assessment tools when his clients are in the mission and purpose phase, and draws on his corporate and agency recruiting background when they are in the campaign, interview, and negotiation phases. He is a CPI Master Career Transition Consultant and a Certified New Horizons Coach. Prior to joining Keystone in 2008, Denaro recruited and advised leaders, individuals, and teams in financial services and technology firms ranging from partnerships to large global enterprises. He also worked for several years as an agency recruiter. Denaro holds a BA in Sociology from the University of Massachusetts.