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Why you should be making time for career conversations (and how to have good ones)

How many times have you spoken to your manager about your career in the last year?

Once? Twice if you’re lucky?

I’m not just talking about the dreaded annual appraisal, but an open, honest conversation about what you’re looking for at work, and where and how you might continue moving forward in your career?

A survey from Right Management recently stated that only 16% of employees are having ongoing conversations about their careers, yet 82% say they would be more engaged with their work if they had these conversations.

So why are they not happening?

Whilst all of us would like to have bosses that are proactive and forward thinking, the truth is that it’s easy for things like career conversations to get lost in the day to day busy-ness of work. It's easy for them to get put back a week, a month etc, and then just added on to an appraisal meeting, as an afterthought.

But these conversations are so vital for career happiness that they deserve their own dedicated time and space. To put it into context, 75% of people questioned in a Right Management survey said they would be more likely to stay with their current employer if they had regular career conversations.

What's so important about career conversations?

Career conversations are super important for anyone who is looking to make the most of the time they spend at work, and given that we spend an average of 90,000 hours at work over a lifetime, it would seem to make sense to try and make it as good as it can be!

They are a chance for you to share you plans and ideas with your manager, and for them to understand what you are looking for professionally.

There are 3 reasons why this is important:

1. Your manager is your cheerleader – if your manager knows you well, they can advocate for you. If you come with a recommendation from a manager, other team leaders or managers may also be willing to invest in you, giving you access to other projects etc.

2. Your manager is another set of eyes – when your manager knows your interests, and what you’d like to explore in the future, they can point out opportunities that might be a great fit for you that you might not have seen.

3. Your manager can be a sounding board – they can provide feedback on your strengths, and how you can use these going forward, as well helping to identify any gaps in your knowledge that you mightn’t be aware of.

It’s important that these conversations are separate from your formal appraisal or evaluation wherever possible – your appraisal is backward looking, it looks at what you’ve already done, whereas your career conversations should be about looking forward, to future possibilities.

What should they cover?

They can cover anything at all that feels useful for either (or both) manager or staff member, but some possible topics that can be explored through a course of conversations could be –

1. Who are you?

Looking at what is important to you (the employee) about your working life, what motivates and drives you can shine a light on your current role, and offer insights into how this can be flexed to be a better fit. Looking at your strengths, and how you can leverage those to contribute to your team’s (and your own) success.

2. How are you going to develop professionally?

Examining ‘what’ you might need to learn to further excel in your current role, and well as ‘how’ you might do it can be a great exercise. Thinking about where you can get ‘on the job’ training in areas you’re interested in, or exposure to new ideas and situations, as well as looking at where more formal training might fit in can provide a great framework.

3. Where would you like to be heading?

Exploring what might be next for you is a conversation that many people shy away from, but it’s an important one to have. You could talk about where your interests lie, and discuss future possibilities for growth or promotion.

It can be tricky to have these conversations if you're not happy where you are, or you can see yourself moving in soon. But if you talk to your manager, and be as open and honest as you can be, you may be able to find ways to limit or remove the parts you don't like from your job, and swap them for the bits you do like, and that you're amazing at. You'll never know until you have the conversations.

Now that I’ve covered why you might want to start having career conversations, and what you might like to cover in them, I’ve got a few final tips to make sure you really get the most out of them.

Think about who you are having conversations with

So far, we’ve spoken about conversations with managers, but career conversations can be with anyone. Think about who else it might be helpful to chat to - a mentor or sponsor, someone in a different department, someone involved in an interesting project - the list is endless. Talking to a range of people means that not only will you get a range of perspectives, but it will also mean that you can be having conversations regularly, which will make it easier to maintain career momentum. The more people who know you, your strengths and your interests will also mean that you are more likely to come up in conversation when a new opportunity pops up.

Think about what you want to get out of the conversation

It may seem obvious but "I want to talk about my career" probably isn't a great basis for a meeting. Focus on what would help you move forward - do you need to discuss what's important to you? Your interests? How you can make the most of your strengths? Being clear on what outcome you like will make the likelihood of a meeting being successful much higher. And make sure you follow up on the meeting – a list of action points, an idea to explore, or just a simple note saying how much you got out of the meeting will go a long way, especially if it was a chat with someone other than your manager.

Treat them like an important part of your job

You wouldn’t (I hope!) spring an important meeting on someone and it's exactly the same with these meetings. If you want to get the best out of it, take the time to think about the meeting before hand, set out in advance with your manager what you'd like to discuss and what you want to get out of it. This will give the manager time to prepare, and you'll both get a lot more out of it.

It’s important to remember that career conversations are exactly that – two way conversations. They are great for exploring possible opportunities and asking for feedback on ideas.

Approach them with an open mind and the value you can get out of them can be massive.

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