Why are some managers uncomfortable discussing career aspirations with their team members?

We hear many responses to this question from our training course participants. Here are the most common:

“I don't want to raise their expectations.”
“They think they're ready for promotion, but I don't!”
“I don't want to lose my best people.”
“I don't want to make any promises that I can't keep.”

These fears, while understandable, can be missplaced. A Career Conversation does just what it ‘says on the tin.' It's a conversation about someone's career aspirations, not a promise to sort out their career and promote them.

Remember, if you're not having career conversations with your team members, they are certainly having these conversations with someone, even if it's with their mates down the pub! Failing to show interest in someone's future and supporting their development is a sure fire way of losing your best people.

So, how do you manage a career conversation that is helpful and motivating for the individual, ensures that you continue to get the best from them and yet doesn't promise them the world or leave YOU with yet another responsibility – sorting out their promotion?

I've found the 7 steps in the following framework really helpful; it covers all the bases and helps to keep the conversation on track. It's intended as a set of steps and a sequence for the conversation, but there's no need to be too rigid about it, as long as you don't jump too quickly to a solution before you have the full story.

Opening the Conversation

Use a PEA! It's worth spending a couple of minutes at the start of the conversation outlining its purpose (why you're having this conversation), endpoint (where you hope to get to by the end of the conversation) and agenda (what you'll discuss). This should help to avoid the misconception that you will be taking ownership for your team member's career progression.


This is the first hurdle that many of us stumble over when identifying both our own and others' career aspirations! When I was 18, and in my first job in a retail bank, I wanted to be a bank manager (of course, we all did!). Unfortunately, I didn't spend too much time thinking about why I wanted it so much; everyone else wanted it, so I should too! After all, you got your own office, a company car, a great job title and you could decide who to lend money to – who wouldn't want that job?! I didn't want that job but it took me almost 7 years to work that out as I was too busy trying to get there! So here your role as the career coach is to discuss your colleague's aspirations, not just in terms of the job they want next but to help them identify the type of work they enjoy and which interests and motivates them. Are they interested in managing people or projects, analytical type work, being customer facing, working in sales and so on? What do they see themselves doing in the future? To help them to identify the type of work they enjoy, you could also explore what they have enjoyed about their current and previous roles. Understanding this will help you both to work out how they can move closer to their aspirations.


What is their perception of their potential to move in to work of this nature? How do they know they have the potential? To what extent have they demonstrated the ability to learn and develop so far? How well does their potential align with their aspirations? What is your perception of their potential and is it different to theirs? You may want to give feedback on your view and how it is the same or different to theirs.

Areas for Development

Now you're ready to move on and start considering possible areas for development. What development needs does this person have to enable them to realise their aspirations? Do they have the technical know how, but lack soft skills? Do they need to develop their skills and experience by taking on differnt types of project work? Make sure you explore all the needs before moving on to think about how they might meet them.

Identifying Career Milestones

If the person's aspirations seem quite stretching in relation to where they are now, it's worth discussing career milestones. There is nothing more de-motivating than having a 3 to 5 year plan with no ‘hand holds' on the way to help them feel like they are making progress. What might be the ‘hand holds' for this person – the steps on the way? Again, it's helpful to think about these in terms of skills, competencies, knowledge and experience they want to acquire, rather than a series of jobs they want on the way. Are there any quick wins or development needs that will add real value for them and for the business? This will help you both to prioritise their development needs.

This is the second hurdle that many of us stumble over! As the manager, it is really easy to fall into the trap of taking responsibility for the person's development by promising all sorts of opportunities and help that you later regret or simply can't deliver! Your role here is to help the person work out how THEY can:

  • take responsibility for their own career development
  • acquire the knowledge and experience they want through their current role, for example by completing management training courses, or other relevant training
  • find opportunities to develop specific skills and competencies
  • get involved in other work/projects, or take on additional responsibilities to acquire these skills (without of course interfering with their current role and level of performance).

Asking open, probing questions will help the person to think more broadly about the opportunities that may already exist for them, or that they can create with some support from you or others.

The Action Plan and Support Required

That leads us on to the final and most important part of the conversation – the action plan. What are they going to do, when and how? Make sure that they make a note of the actions to which they commit, when and how they will implement them and how they will review their success. When are you next going to meet to discuss progress? I would also encourage the person to put their plan in writing after your conversation so they have something to refer to when you next meet.

Whilst it should be the individual who takes responsibility for their career development and implementing a development plan, they are likely to need some support to achieve this. What support will they need from you? Is this reasonable and feasible? What support might they need from others and how will they get that support? How would networking and relationship building help with their career development?

If you follow the framework and steps above, and make sure that you continue to ask "What will YOU do. . . ” type questions, to identify learning activities and a development plan, you should avoid feeling like you've over promised or need to take responsibility for developing your colleague's career!

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