5 mins
You have 0 further articles remaining this month. Join LeadDev.com for free to read unlimited articles.

Have you ever been told that you needed to have a career conversation with one of your direct reports?

October 19 – December 14 Leadership course
graphic element

Change doesn't happen alone – inspire your team today

Join the new five-part course on engineering leadership’s most fundamental challenges

What came to mind when this happened? Perhaps, you visualized a performance review where you would share a few strengths and areas of growth, or a team member asking you for a promotion and having to tell them they weren't quite ready. These are both valid, but what other examples are out there? I'd like to share a mental model for planned, and more importantly, unplanned career conversations.

Let's start with a common question: what is a career conversation? Or similarly, how exactly should you have a career conversation? One approach is to master each different type, but I'd like to offer a model that's more fluid, more improvisational. To start, let's break free from the limiting idea that a career conversation is a singular event. It can be, but it doesn't have to be. If all of your career conversations are planned, for example during performance reviews, you're leaving a lot on the table and you need to raise your career conversationalist level

So what is this model? I call it the push and pull. What we're talking about is information: career information that's useful and relevant. You want to both push and pull information and skillfully shift from one to the other as needed. Let's look at each in turn.

The pull

To support someone's career, you need to know a lot about them. Think of all the information that could be useful to their career as a jigsaw puzzle or an out-of-focus picture. The pull is looking for any opportunity to add a piece to the puzzle or to bring the picture a tiny bit more in focus. Here are some examples of information to pull:

  • Goals (short and long-term, career and personal)
  • Interests, world view, values, and hobbies
  • Education, personal and family history, and relationships
  • Topics they want to learn
  • Their perception of their strengths and weaknesses.

The push

Ultimately, this is their career. You want to be an active participant, but it's on them to do the work and make the decisions. Your goal with the push is to give them information and context that helps them make better decisions. Here are some examples:

  • Career paths at your organization
  • Strengths and skills needed for different roles
  • People they can talk to for mentorship or coaching
  • Information about opportunities inside and outside of the organization
  • Strengths you have seen them display and how they relate to career goals or roles
  • Learning opportunities
  • Connections between their work and career goals
  • Gaps they need to fill to progress
  • Feedback on their progress
  • Goals that would help them make progress.

This is why I chose to present the pull first. You can push generic information (e.g. the career paths), but it's even better if you can personalize the information you push using what you've learned from the pull.

How does this work in practice?

The skill is in being mindful and making connections. It's about paying attention; setting up your mental filter and noticing the opportunities as they happen so you can spring into action. You may have a planned push or pull conversation and find an opportunity to switch gears. More importantly, you may find yourself in a conversation that wasn't a planned career conversation and use the push or pull to turn it into one. Let’s take a look at some examples. 

The performance review 

You're in a performance review planning to discuss their next role. This is a planned push conversation. You decide to intentionally switch gears and ask them how they feel about what you've shared so far. This turns the conversation into pull mode. Alternatively, as you're pushing information you notice a positive or negative reaction (perhaps a comment or change in body language) and decide to go into pull mode to explore. 

The 1:1

You're in a 1:1 meeting planning a pull conversation by asking a question such as, ‘What would you like to accomplish this year?’ You listen actively and resist the urge to interrupt and push. Once you've explored the question, you go into push mode to share projects, learning opportunities, or goals relevant to what you learned from the pull.  

The water cooler

You're chatting casually about their weekend and they mention something fun. You go into pull mode to find out more. 

They mention off-handedly that they're interested in a particular field. You mention you know someone with deep knowledge in the field and that you'd be happy to make an introduction. 

The project discussion

You're in a 1:1 discussing their project. They're talking with excitement and enthusiasm (or the opposite). You notice and spend time in pull mode finding out what it is about that project that's boosting or sapping their energy. 

These are all career conversations! If you set goals to use the push and pull, you might start finding them everywhere. The point is not to catch every one or turn every chat into a career conversation. The point is to improve your mental filter so you have more discussions where quality career information is flowing freely in both directions.

Final thoughts

To be a great career conversationalist, you need to start with intent; you need to genuinely care about your team member and supporting their growth. You can supercharge this by making a personal goal to have more unplanned career conversations with your team members. Why does making it a goal matter? Goals help your brain filter information and will help you find more opportunities to have these meaningful conversations. In doing so, you may help more people achieve their goals and perhaps even their dreams.