Managers: How to discuss employee career development
Interviews / Opinions

Managers: How to discuss employee career development

Employee career development.

This is one of the top reasons people say they’ll stay with a company. It’s also among the top benefits many companies mention when advertising their open roles. But helping employees grow their careers takes more than understanding and supporting the latest trends in training.

The first step is knowing how to talk with your teams about employee career development. How do you bring it up? How do you help employees find the right career path? And how do you ensure they’re making progress?

In this article, we’ll cover one of the practical aspects of building a solid learning and development strategy: how to talk with your team members about their professional growth. But first…

How not to discuss career development

Before we look at specific tips for helping employees set career goals, let’s look at all the ways these conversations can go wrong.

Most organizations that struggle do so not because they don’t support their employees but because they don’t have an effective strategy for managing these conversations. Here are some common mistakes to watch out for:

  • Keeping the conversation unstructured or organic. Real employee development includes action plans specific to each employee. Encouraging your team to “set goals and develop their careers,” but failing to offer specifics for how they can do that, document those goals, or plan for individual career paths will leave them unsure of how to progress.
  • Not acknowledging or celebrating progress. Employee career development conversations could quickly feel like “work to be done” or “weaknesses to improve” unless you highlight big or smaller wins. Motivate your people to set higher goals—and follow them—by acknowledging what they’ve already achieved.
  • Failing to follow up. If you set specific goals with your employees and then never bring them up again, they’re not likely to make much progress. Let your team know you support them by proactively setting a time to check in on how things are going. It will make it easier for them to ask for help or guidance or make adjustments to their plans as necessary.
  • Failing to have the discussion at all. Even the most engaging, effective learning and development strategy fails if you don’t talk about it with your employees. Don’t assume they’ll just take advantage of opportunities for training and career planning.
  • Waiting for employees to initiate the discussion. Employees might not know how to get started in progressing their careers within your company. They might not even know it’s possible for them to have that discussion in the first place. Waiting for them to start the career growth conversation risks never having development happen at all.

Instead of leaving this important conversation to chance or just assuming it will happen if employees want it to, take control. You need to make employee development conversations a clear part of your employment strategy if you want to see results and retain employees. Let’s look at how to get started.

How to have a successful employee career development conversation | TalentLMS

How to structure an employee career development conversation

Taking the lead in these discussions requires planning. Here are some practical tips for making these conversations a natural and effective part of your culture.

When to have the conversation

You want employees to understand their options from day one. That’s why career development conversations should begin right at the start of the manager/direct report relationship, initiated by the manager.

Include a relevant meeting during the employee’s onboarding process. Get them thinking about their role in the long term. Hopefully, you have an idea of how this conversation will go based on your hiring process.

Then continue with regular discussions versus one-time events. You want employees to know you support them, and that means getting them started and following up regularly to help out when needed. Depending on the employee growth tangent, you might need to meet more or less regularly. (For example, junior employees might need more support as things change for them faster than senior employees.)

As a rule of thumb, check progress every quarter or so by holding a longer 1:1 to keep track of progress and revisit goals.

Many companies will find it makes sense to make these conversations part of regular performance reviews. However, note that performance and development are separate topics. Performance reviews help check employees’ performance based on company goals. On the other hand, employee career development is working towards personal improvement and finding out where you, as a manager, can step in and provide opportunities for your employees.

So if you find you need to focus on performance in a current role (e.g., an employee is still getting up to speed on their job and needs to focus training on that), then plan for separate development discussions. Touch base after company-wide performance reviews to make sure individual goals and company goals align, at least to some extent.

What to discuss

You want to establish goals and how to best reach them. Start by helping employees take the lead on planning. If you lead with how you see their career unfolding, it may leave some employees hesitant to speak up if they see things differently. And then you risk someone becoming less engaged with a job trajectory that’s not fulfilling to them.

Instead, use the conversation to help your employees articulate what they want and then support them by showing them how to pursue their goals.

If employees don’t state any career goals, you should use coaching questions to help them get there together.

Some examples:

  • After a good work day, what do you think went well? How can you repeat it?
  • After a bad work day, what happened that derailed your plans? Why do you mind?
  • What’s your favorite thing about your work?
  • Where do you need help? How can I better support you?
  • What do you want to focus on next quarter?
  • What didn’t you have the chance to do last quarter?
  • What is your dream job title? How do you plan to go there?

These types of questions will help them see their dreams more clearly, and see them in the context of their team and the organization as a whole.

But keep in mind that some people might not have the answers to these questions yet. Prompt them to reflect on their professional goals, give them the time they need, but also don’t push for growth and change. It’s completely normal for an employee not to be overly ambitious or focused on growth. You need this type of employee, too, in your team to make it more balanced.

What are the next steps?

Once you establish goals with an employee, you need to have a way to turn them into action so the employee knows what to do and you know how to support them.

Tips for getting there:

End the conversation with actionable steps. Once you have a clear idea of what the employee wants, give them a way to take action. For example, if they want to work toward a management role, share what leadership training is available to them and enroll them in helpful courses.

As you produce an action plan, include things like:

  • Training options
  • Mentorship opportunities inside the company
  • Priorities to focus on in their current job

Record your plan. Write down the objectives and the steps the employee has agreed to take. That way, you’ll have a hard copy commitment to priorities. Written goals also give you specific points to follow up with during your next discussion.

Set a time to follow up—and then follow up. Set goals with deadlines, and then set a time to come back together to discuss their progress. These check-ins provide accountability for you and your employee and make development a natural and effective part of the employee experience.

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What if an employee’s plans are unrealistic?

Say you hold the right conversation, ask the right questions, and let your employee take the lead, and then you find out their goals don’t align with their abilities. Or they aren’t aligned with your business objectives. Or they draw a blank and don’t have any goals at all. Now what?

In these cases, it’s your job to drive your talent management strategy. The key is to be honest with the employee about the realities (and limitations) of their hopes. You don’t want to encourage them in something that isn’t going to go anywhere. But you also don’t want to crush their thoughts of a future with your company. Instead, be honest and be prepared to share alternative career path options.

When business and personal goals don’t align, try to find common ground. It’s not necessary for both sets of goals to be completely aligned. But as the manager, you have to make sure at least some of the future goals of your employees are served by their current position in the company. If the company and personal goals are misaligned, maybe discuss an internal transfer to another team that better serves goals. This can help with employee trust and better talent management.

For instance, say a marketing team member wants to take the lead on rolling out a new product and boost efforts behind it. But your leadership team has determined the product doesn’t have a strong future and they’re planning to reduce support.

You might say something like, “I can see why you’re interested in that direction, and I can tell you have the kind of passion we need. While that direction won’t be an option at this point, there are some alternate paths you might consider that would play to your skills well.”

Help guide a new path by building on their interests and ambitions, and giving them time to explore some other options. Then hold the conversation again and create a career path you and they can both support.

Employee career development is a long game

Having these conversations will help your teams build fulfilling career paths. But you need to remember that career growth isn’t always a linear path, and it can be a long journey. Review career goals often, and offer training and internal opportunities that can help employees reach them faster.

As you consider all the things employees want from their employers, keep employee career development front of mind. Making professional growth a joint effort between you and the employee ensures the kind of support people need to thrive within a company.

Zacharenia Atzitzikaki has over 15 years of experience working in tech, with more than half of them spent focusing on systems design and enterprise software. She now works as a coach and consultant, helping her clients be better leaders. She loves reading and writing about management in her newsletter, Leading by Design, and her blog at

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