Career Planning – Own It! (part deux)

I planned to take a break from this blog but it turned out to be far longer than I expected.  I didn’t stray for any particular reason except the business that life in general throws at us.  In any event, I am back and will strive to post on a more regular basis!

This entry is the follow up to this post that I wrote back in March about career planning.  That post was on career planning from the individual contributor’s perspective and went into detail around approaching your manager, what to plan, etc.  Take a look for more info!  This post will approach the same conversation from the opposite side of the table.  From the manager’s perspective, what can we do to enable our employees to succeed in their career?

I strongly believe that a manager’s primary purpose should be to develop your people to their fullest potential.  Engaging with employees in career planning is a critical piece of that development.  This planning cannot simply be an annual review.  “What do you want to do over the next year?” is simply not sufficient.  It is important that this be an ongoing conversation because people change, new interests arise, and people can become bored at any point in time.  Staying engaged in a dialogue will help you, as a manager, stay better in tune with your team and show them you are committed to their success.

The first step in participating in employee career planning is creating a safe space for the discussion.  The daily tasks and deadlines we all face often get in the way of planning conversations.  1:1s are consumed by project updates or other tactical topics and rarely focus on the bigger picture.  It is important to convey to the employee that the time to talk about their career is whenever they are comfortable.  Take a couple minutes to talk about his or her goals – open ended questions are fine because the real aim is not the specific answer but to get both of your minds thinking on the topic.  What does the person like or dislike about their current role?  What would he like to do more?  What would she like to jettison?  All of these give you as the manager an idea of what keeps this person coming in every day.  Understanding that is the first step in career planning.

It is important during these conversations to set expectations.  Career planning is something that takes time and requires involvement from both the manager and the employee.  It does not progress overnight and will not move forward in a vacuum.  Organizations have certain goals and if you’d like to be an interior designer, a tech company isn’t the best place to achieve that.  That is an extreme example but if you wanted to sharpen you Linux skills in a Windows driven environment, there’s not much a manager can do – very little to justify training dollars or time for such activity.  That doesn’t mean those ideas should be dismissed.  They should be remembered because there may come a time when a project comes around that does require Linux and now you have a ready and eager participant already lined up.  Setting these expectations is important.  You must be honest with the employee around potential opportunities for growth.  If for example, someone wanted to go into project management but you know he has a tough time managing his own schedule, you might suggest working through personal organization as a first step.  That sort of feedback, while potentially taken negatively is important.  You want your employees to be successful and putting someone in a situation where they are likely to fail isn’t aligned with that goal.

Another important step in the process is to document the discussion and turn the notes into a plan for reference at subsequent conversations.  This is not a rigid timeline but rather a living document that will evolve over time.  It serves as a record for both of you so that opportunities do not slide by without consideration.  If someone shows interest in a certain technology or needs to develop a certain soft skill for advancement, the plan could be referenced explicitly citing a current project as a means for doing that.  It raises the awareness of the employee that her manager sees the effort as a growth opportunity and also shows that the leader is providing the opportunity promised.  The worst thing a manager can do in this space is putting up X as a roadblock to success and then not giving the employee a chance to work on X.  That is disingenuous.  At the same time, if opportunity is given but not taken, the employee must realize that the burden of success lies on them.  The plan serves as an objective reference point.

The key to successful career planning is to have both the employee and manager engaged in the discussion.  When a common understanding of goals and the path forward is reached, the only thing left to do is execute.  As leaders, we should coach along the way but it is the employee who is ultimately responsible for his or her own success.

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