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Have the Career Conversation

20 February 2023

If you are fortunate to have an annual (or six monthly) performance discussion built into these is often the opportunity to chat about your future career plans/aspirations.  Unfortunately people don't take good advantage of this, either failing to have the conversation, or having awkward and constrained chats that are unfulfilling or focused only on the skills you need to develop to do your current role. And sadly people often only invest in these career conversations if they want to advance up the career ladder.

I would encourage everyone to make sure a real discussion about your career happens in conjunction with your performance discussion.  There are a number of advantages that come out of doing this.  

  • First the discussion, even if it is awkward, will help refine your own thinking about career.  The act of preparing for this discussion will force you to think longer term, and this is where most of the benefit will come.  I recommend going into the discussion with a fuzzy idea about what you want career to look like in five years time - something you use as a direction not a destination.  Also have a couple of two year things it would be good to do, and some specific things you plan to do for your career in the next six months. 
  • Additionally, the more people you speak with about your career the more you will firm up hazy ideas you have.  The act of speaking about your career will help you hear your own thoughts and will support you to broaden, refine, and firm up what you think.  The clearer you are the more accelerated your progress will be.
  • Having the career conversation also helps your manager focus on the ways they can contribute to your career.  It helps them know the opportunities, beyond those solely needed for your job, to keep an eye out for.  Without this conversation most managers are working in the dark and probably have a narrow concept of what career success means for you (often defaulting to the idea of climbing the ladder).  With this conversation they can do things such as smooth avenues for mobility, connect you to networks you may not know about, keep an ear out, sponsor you to others, and generally encourage you to take action on behalf of your career.
  • Having the career conversation also increases everyones skill in having these conversations.  It gives your manager practice.  Your manager though should never be the only person you have conversations about your career with.   Talking about your career is likely to help colleagues in their own career thinking, it also grow the skill of having career conversations across the organisation.   Getting the perspective of a range of trusted people on career decisions you want to make will also help uncover blind spots.

In the discussion with your manager don't expect them to lead the conversation.  That is your job.  It is not your managers (or the organisations) role to advance your career or for them to find pathways in the organisation for what you want.  Their role is to be a listener who helps you refine your own thinking and planning.  Any action on their side in support of your career is a bonus.

Don't artificially limit your discussion to the aspirations you have within your current organisation.  The level of trust and safety you have with your manager will determine if you can have a conversation with broader scope, but if it is safe to do so, bring any wider aspirations you have into the discussion.

A career conversation with your manager is never going to be a conversation that leads to all your career dreams coming true, but it is still worthwhile.

As always, wishing you a flourishing career.


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