Author Profile Picture

Nicola Deas

Right Management

Career Management Practice Lead

Read more about Nicola Deas

Managers must start having ‘brave career conversations’


Recent research by Right Management found that two-thirds of managers are failing to support their employees’ career development. At the same time, according to Gallup’s ‘State of the Global Workplace’ report, 83% of UK employees are not actively engaged in their jobs.

This means there are a lot of people who don’t find their work satisfying, and who aren’t likely to be creating value for their employers.

Few companies are taking steps to reverse the trend.

A report from Deloitte found that 60% of organisations don’t have any form of employee engagement programmes. This is concerning, particularly as careers are fundamentally changing due to flatter structures, technology, and longer working lives. This has left employees with a very different perception of their overall careers and more willing to change jobs. There has never been more pressure for line managers to come up with more creative ways to keep high performing individuals motivated, productive and adaptable to the future needs of the business.

As a business supporting over three million people to proactively manage their careers, we’ve put a lot of thought into how organisations can align talent development to business strategy. We have found one of the most productive approaches is to get line managers to think of their role as an employee’s ‘career coach’.

Individuals are more likely to stay with a company when they have leaders that understand their career goals and want to help them achieve them. HR teams need to help managers develop their skills to have open, honest and brave career conversations that challenge employees to bring out the best in their work. When employees feel they can be honest about aspirations and goals in discussion beyond the direct team requirements, coaching is more effective and businesses do better.

However, in order for these courageous career conversations to be effective, it is essential line that managers, with assistance from the HR department, develop career coaching skills that teach them how to better engage and challenge their teams.

Active listening is one example. Like most people, while line managers think they are listening attentively, they are really listening through filters such as their own biases or ambitions for their team. Career coaches need to learn to be active and attentive listeners, using both their eyes and ears. While an employee might say,”I want to stay with the organisation and I understand its goals”, their tone of voice or facial expressions may hint that this isn’t the whole truth.

Effective questioning is another important skill that needs to be mastered. Line managers will often frame development sessions around ‘issue’-focussed questions such as, “What is the problem you’ve found with your work?” While these often seem direct and focussed, they can put the employee on the defensive and don’t invite engagement.

A ‘solution’-focussed question might be, “In what ways would you like to change your daily work?” Solution-focussed questions are much better at prompting the lightbulb moment for employees, helping them see things differently and take ownership of removing barriers to their career progression. 

Skilled negotiators

Finally, career coaches must be skilled negotiators who are able to establish a clear contract with their employees. Getting employees to be open with their ambitions is helpful, but bringing about meaningful change also requires their commitment to deliver and objectives to reach for. Effective career coaches know how to secure this commitment and to establish clear standards to strive towards.

The lessons of effective career coaching have to be reinforced through practice and feedback. No two employees are the same, but managers need to see direct examples of best practice where coaching has been effective, and discuss the importance and challenge of maintaining an ongoing coaching programme.

Getting direct feedback on their own coaching skills in practice helps managers to understand how they come across and become better at adapting their style and HR departments play a big role in receiving such input from employees.

One Response

  1. An interesting read,
    An interesting read, congratulations for making this work in practice. My question would be how do you get round the fact that some managers may a) feel threatened by furthering someone’s career, potentially beyond their own and b) encouraging managers to actually make the time to coach and have these conversations in a meaningful way? Would be interested in your views

Author Profile Picture
Nicola Deas

Career Management Practice Lead

Read more from Nicola Deas

Get the latest from HRZone.

Subscribe to expert insights on how to create a better workplace for both your business and its people.


Thank you.