When Is it Time for a Career Coaching Conversation?

My wife, Margie, says managers have three roles—doing their own job, working with people to help them develop and accomplish their current goals, and talking with people about their career aspirations.

The third role Margie cites is one that is often either forgotten or squeezed in at the end of an annual performance review meeting. As a manager, why would you want to talk with your people about their career aspirations? It’s not necessarily because you have a promotion in your back pocket. It’s because you care about them and want to know where they see themselves in one, three, or five years—where they would like to be in their career.

Career coaching is an organizational strategy that retains high performers and increases bench strength over time. Why? Because people get energized when their manager wants to talk about their future—it shows them their manager is interested in them and it makes them more willing to share their thoughts and plans.

Several signals can indicate that it’s time to start having career conversations with a direct report:

  • When they continually exceed expectations
  • When they ask for more responsibility
  • When they bring up the topic of their career aspirations
  • When they have mastered the basics of their current role

Some managers are hesitant to have career coaching conversations with a valued team member because they fear losing the person to another department or organization. But consider this: research from world-renowned coaching expert Marshall Goldsmith shows that one of the most common reasons people leave a company is because nobody asked them to stay. Look at each coaching conversation as an opportunity to let your direct report know how much you appreciate them and their work.

Another reason managers are hesitant is because they don’t have a potential promotion to offer or a good idea of new opportunities in the organization.  The idea is to have the conversation without thinking either of you have an answer—yet.  One of the questions you could ask is What are two or three positions in this organization that might be of interest to you in the future?  The person’s reply may give you clues about their general interest or intent. It may even lead to a conversation about how they can find out more about those positions.

Managers, I urge you to sit down and discuss career aspirations at least two or three times a year with each of your direct reports. A regularly scheduled one-on-one meeting is a perfect time to bring up this topic.

People need their managers to be interested in their future as well as their present—and career coaching conversations are a great opportunity to show your direct reports you really care.

Coaching—the Most Essential Part of Performance Management

Performance management has three elements—planning, day-to-day coaching, and evaluation. When I ask managers which of these elements takes the most time, they almost always say evaluation. Sometimes I hear long statements full of frustration about the forms, activities, and deadlines involved in the evaluation process. It makes me realize that people are putting the emphasis on the process—not the performance. And that is where many managers make the wrong choice.

Effective managers should spend most of their time on day-to-day coaching. Let’s take a closer look.

As a leader, it’s true that you have to spend time up front to set clear goals. Once you’ve completed that part, however, your job is to be there to coach your employees and help them accomplish those goals. I think of it as turning the traditional hierarchical pyramid upside down so that you work for your people. You are there to help them.

If you spend most of your time coaching your people and helping them succeed, what do you think happens when it is time for the evaluation? You get to celebrate accomplishments! When you help your people win, you win, your department wins, and ultimately your organization wins. That’s why I say coaching is the most essential part of performance management.

Coaching: The Key to Being an Effective Manager

Why is it important to use coaching skills if you want to be an effective manager? Because when people get the coaching they need, they perform better. Managers who provide day-to-day coaching have more effective teams, grow and retain their key people, and experience higher productivity overall. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Over the years when I’ve asked people to describe their best boss ever, they often say it was a manager who helped them be successful in their role through coaching. It is important to set clear goals with your people, but it is critical to then use coaching skills such as

  • asking what they need from you to reach their goals,
  • listening with the intent to learn, and
  • working closely together to solve problems.

Coaching is the key to building a trusting work environment and improving the competency of your staff. Remember, your most important job as a manager is to help your people succeed.

In the short video below I share a story of how, as a college professor, I used coaching skills to help students get an A in my course.

Please give coaching a try. I know when you make coaching a priority, you’ll help your staff improve performance levels.


One Simple Strategy to Be More Effective as a Manager

The Dysfunctionally Connected WorkplacePeople often ask me how they can be more effective as a manager. One approach I recommend is to meet one-on-one with each of your direct reports for 15 to 30 minutes at least once every two weeks.

Having one-on-one meetings is a simple strategy and just plain common sense—but it’s not common practice, according to polling we conducted together with Training magazine earlier this year. When we asked people what they wanted out of their one-on-ones with their immediate supervisor, we discovered managers aren’t making time to meet with their direct reports on a regular basis—and when they do meet, they aren’t using the time effectively. (See infographic.) Continue reading

Create Autonomy Through Boundaries

One of the key steps to empowering people is to create autonomy through boundaries.  A problem in the past was the assumption that empowered people could do anything they wanted; they were in charge. That theory just doesn’t make sense.  A river without banks is just a large puddle—what permits a river to flow is its banks.  In empowering people, the banks are the boundary areas or guidelines within which people can operate. Top management takes a lead in providing these boundary areas.  They include the following:

  • Purpose – Everyone needs to know what business you are in.
  • Values – What are the beliefs that drive your behavior?
  • Goals – What are the big picture, bottom-line goals on which everyone should focus?
  • Roles – What are people being asked to do and contribute?
  • Incentives – What’s in it for people if they perform well?
  • Measures – How will people know what good behavior looks like?

Boundaries could also include policies and procedures.  As I learned from coaching great Don Shula when we wrote Everyone’s a Coach—you first need to have a plan, and then you need to expect the unexpected and be ready to change that plan if necessary.  In football, an “audible” is when the quarterback or defensive captain changes the plan on a given play when he realizes it won’t work.  Shula emphasized that effectiveness at calling audibles begins with a plan.

This concept was verified by two of our top consultants when they had a chance to observe the training of guide dogs for the blind.  They found that two kinds of dogs were disqualified from the program. The first kind, obviously, were the dogs who were completely disobedient—they wouldn’t do anything their master asked of them. The other kind of dogs that were dismissed, surprisingly, were ones that were completely obedient dogs—they would do whatever their master wanted.  The dogs that worked best were dogs that would do whatever their master wanted unless it didn’t make sense.

Let me give you an example. The totally obedient dog and its master are standing at a street corner when the dog’s master says, “Forward.” The dog looks to the left and sees a car coming at sixty-five miles an hour.  The dog thinks, “This is a real bummer,” as it leads its master out into the middle of the road.  But a dog that is intelligent and allowed to think for itself can make a choice that best fits the given circumstances.

Many organizations don’t seem to want their people to bring their brains to work.  How many times have you been in a situation where a front line employee said, “I’m sorry, but it’s our policy,” when in your specific circumstances the policy made no sense?

For example, one time when I was checking into a hotel, the woman behind the counter told me they had no rooms available until after 2:00 p.m.  I said, “That’s okay with me.  Could you please store my bags?”

She said, “Fine,” and asked me what else she could do for me.

I said, “I need to cash a traveler’s check.”

“I can’t do that,” she said.  “I don’t know what your room number is yet.”

“Why do you need my room number?” I asked.

“I have to put it on the back of every traveler’s check.”

“That’s a good policy,” I said, “but you have my bags.  It doesn’t make sense in this case.”

Her responses included “It’s our policy,” ”I just work here,” ”I don’t make the rules,” etc.  Can you imagine a guide dog for the blind under those restrictions?  It would be a goner at the first busy street!

Empowerment begins with boundaries.  There is nothing wrong with policies or procedures or other guidelines—empowered employees welcome them—but they recognize they can use their brains and call audibles when the policy doesn’t make sense.  Empowering people without giving them any boundaries can lead to disaster and failure.