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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

The Power of Frequent Career-Building Chats

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Richard Mia

At many federal agencies, career development comes up in one of two situations: when it’s performance review time or when an employee announces plans to leave. In Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2012), authors Beverly Kaye and Julie Winkle Giulioni say with only a few minutes of conversation a day, managers can dramatically improve employee engagement, retention and results. 

According to Kaye and Giulioni, career development tends to center on forms, checklists and annual processes. Feedback that should take place daily is compressed into one long annual meeting where nervous employees are told where they’ve fallen short, and they in turn promise to remedy shortcomings in the year to come. The more effective approach, Kaye and Giulioni write, is to engage in short, frequent conversations with employees. These 10-minute discussions offer a number of benefits. They fit easily with the cadence of the business day, communicate a genuine commitment to the employee, and act as an ongoing reminder of the agency’s dedication to learning, growth and progress. 

These conversations should reframe career development so that responsibility rests squarely with the employee, Kaye and Giulioni say. The manager’s role is to prompt, guide, reflect, explore ideas, activate enthusiasm and drive action. “This role centers around talking about rather than actually doing the heavy lifting of development,” they write.

Iterative conversations let employees slow down enough to reflect, develop and verbalize deep insights and to consider how to leverage their growing capacity. By encouraging these processes, managers reflect an agency’s commitment to the employee and recast development from simply promotions and transfers to experiences and challenges. 

There are three distinct types of conversations the authors say are particularly important to keep employees happy, and they focus on hindsight, foresight and insight. Hindsight conversations are meant to help employees look backward and inward to reflect on who they are, where they have been, what they love and where they excel. This kind of conversation requires employees to be self-aware and deeply engaged, but managers can facilitate by providing thoughtful feedback. “Helping people look back and inward also provides a reservoir of information that allows employees to move forward and toward their career goals in intentional ways that will produce satisfying results,” Kaye and Giulioni say.

Foresight conversations should guide employees to look outward toward the changes and trends they want to see in the bigger picture of their careers. These conversations help employees apply what they’ve learned about themselves through hindsight conversations and put that in context of what is going on around them. “When you help your employees develop the ability to scan the environment, anticipate trends and spot opportunities, you provide a constructive context for career development,” the authors write.

Insight conversations bring together the fruits of hindsight and foresight. They involve employees and managers working together to determine future actions to achieve career objectives, with managers guiding employees into practical steps toward their goals. Kaye and Giulioni say managers should help employees learn to grow in place, replacing “onward and upward” with “forward and toward.” The challenge is for managers to broaden career conversations beyond just jobs, promotions and raises and to focus on what employees need to experience, know, learn and be able to do. 

Elizabeth Newell covered management, human resources and contracting at Government Executive for three years.

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