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How leaders can be proactive about employee development

By Greg Smith


What if you could have conversations that encouraged your employees to find career satisfaction and what if these conversations produced energy, creativity and increased capability? The answers rely on leaders taking a dynamic and ongoing interest in their employees’ career satisfaction and development and can create positive employee relations that benefit the entire organisation.

Effective career conversations with employees is an exceptional opportunity for leaders to build trust, foster collaboration and develop a deep and enduring connection with their staff to ensure engagement, performance and tenure. Leaders who don’t have these soft skills risk being left behind. LinkedIn’s 2019 study, ‘Global Talent Trends, The 4 trends transforming your workplace’ found 80% of survey respondents reported that ‘soft skills are increasingly important to company success’.

It is the responsibility of effective leaders to be deliberate and take a proactive interest in career coaching their employees as an integral component of their leadership skillset. Additionally, one of the by-products of helping others with their career is the mutually beneficial self-insight that accrues for both leaders and employees. Importantly, this skill should not be delegated to others. However, there may be times where gaining an external perspective could be beneficial but it makes sense for leaders to assume this role wherever appropriate rather than leaving it to others. As Mercer’s 2019 Global Talent Study, ‘Connectivity in the Human Age’ found competition for talent is expected increase over the next 12 months. In this environment of increased competition leaders who fail to develop these skills risk losing valuable staff.


Start with just one conversation

It starts with an initial conversation and progresses one conversation at a time. Leaders don’t need to be in a hurry nor rush employees to solutions. It’s better to allow their employees to discover their direction and development needs for themselves with a guiding hand from their leader. A narrative approach can be one of the most useful techniques to facilitate this process. Every leader, with a little practice and commitment, can become proficient and realise the benefit for employees and their organisation. It relies on establishing empathetic career conversations on an ongoing basis with employees and allowing them to tell their story from a starting point that’s appropriate for them.


Less talking, more listening and better questions

The skill lies in a leader’s capability to foster a growth mindset and guide the conversation by asking thought-provoking questions and use deep listening and solution-focused communication techniques to help their employees:

  • Recognise themes and patterns in their career journey that may be useful in the future,
  • Identify people who have been helpful to them along the way,
  • Understand their career drivers and motivational/career fit,
  • Identify SMART career goals along with practical strategies including networking, self-marketing and written action plans to achieve them.


It’s critical to establish an environment of confidentiality where employees feel safe to share their experiences. This will assist with building rapport and trust. Assume positive intent and be open about your position and help them to be open about theirs. Sounds simple but simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy!

Asking the right questions can be trickier than you might think on first pass. Sometimes we don’t even know the question we’ve asked until we hear the answer to that question! This also means having fine-tuned listening skills. Leaders should take note of not just the words that are spoken but also the tone of voice, intonation and body language. Often a key is to watch for the level of animation in their voice to gauge their motivation. For example, if their shoulders, head and tone of voice drop it’s likely their motivation in that aspect of the conversation is low. However, if they show psychical signs of increased engagement by sitting up straight and looking attentive then you can bet whatever your discussing holds great interest for them! Considered reflection of the last conversation combined with a little preparation before the discussion will do wonders in being able to ask highly effective questions.


Don’t stop!

Starting the development ball rolling it’s vital for leaders to:

  1. Make time for regular career development meetings and avoid rescheduling them,
  2. Monitor and review progress,
  3. Follow through on commitments,
  4. Be mindful of ethical and cultural considerations.


The key for leaders is to first understand and then commit to taking a proactive approach to employee development. This means putting it into action on an ongoing basis and building it into their everyday leadership routine and skill set. Leaders are better for it, employees will be thankful for it and organisations will thrive from it.

Greg Smith is an expert in career development, talent management and organisational leadership. The co-founder of HR consulting firm, deliberatepractice, he helps aspiring, emerging and experienced leaders to develop their everyday leadership skill set. He is the author of Career Conversations: How to get the best from your talent pool (Wiley).


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