Lowering the stakes in career development conversations
December 31st, 2019
An important part of a manager’s job is to develop the capabilities of those in her reporting chain to deliver more impact to the business in the long run. This requires understanding the career aspirations of her teammates so she can stretch them in ways that are motivating.
Often, career growth conversations take the form of a Five Year Plan™: “Where do you see yourself in five years?” Fun fact: few people know what they want for lunch tomorrow, much less what job they want in five years. This isn’t a bad thing. Tech is a dynamic industry, and the skills, domains, and jobs that exist today will be very different in five years. People change, too.
Unfortunately, framing career growth as a Five Year Plan™ – a destination and specific stepping stones to get there – is arresting. By articulating a specific long-term goal, a direct report may feel locked into a plan that may soon no longer reflect her aspirations. And so, that report may be reluctant to have any career planning discussion, which leaves the manager without information and the report at risk of feeling stagnant at work.
I’ve found lowering the stakes and framing career growth as a series of questions, not milestones, to be more effective. I start with how a report might want to grow in the next few years, which often leads to a healthy discussion about what roles might be available and the skills necessary for those roles. Once we have a shared idea of the possibilities, we collectively identify opportunities that can help the report narrow it down and develop skills along the way.
As an example, a common junction for a mid-level individual contributor (IC) is the decision to move into management or to continue developing as a senior technical leader. These are very different jobs, and many ICs who end up as managers find themselves unhappy and ineffective once they realize the differences. For ICs interested in management, I’ll find opportunities for them to experience the role of a manager without moving formally (e.g. getting more involved with recruiting, driving the execution cadence for a team). These trial experiences enable both the IC and myself to evaluate whether they’d be a good fit for a management role. Since the career conversation is framed as a journey, the stakes are low, and there’s no pressure to move into management or shame in sticking to being an IC.
I’ve personally found success in framing my own career development this way, too. By optimizing for learning and being open to trying new things, I’ve found myself in engaging, exciting roles that I wouldn’t have known existed before.