The Question That Makes Even Great Leaders Cringe

May 2, 2014 Dale Pratt

cringing businessmanDoes this sound familiar? You know you are a good leader. You sincerely care about your people. You give solid direction and constructive performance feedback. You get good employee survey results. 

Yet you secretly cringe when one of your employees says: “can we talk about my next promotion?”

There could be any number of reasons for the cringe response:  

  • Your organization may have become flatter over the past few years as downsizing has reduced the layers or roles available for promotions.
  • You don’t want to make any promises you can’t keep. But you worry that if your employee does not see a distinct career path, she may leave to further her career elsewhere.
  • You’re used to having all the answers for your people, so this career environment makes you feel ineffectual. You worry about losing your credibility as a leader.
  • You’re not sure whether your employee is really ready for a promotion and indeed may not be well-suited to the role to which she aspires. You worry about her reaction and how you will break this news.

Traditional career paths have all but disappeared in today’s organizations. Gone are the days when it was clear that you moved to role A, then to role B to get to role C. The rapidly changing business environment means that today’s roles may not even exist in a few years as technology, new products and new strategies change business demands.  

How is a leader to assist an employee to navigate in such a fluid career environment?

No wonder even good leaders feel the cringe—sometimes they are just not sure what to say. So…they avoid the topic. This, however, leaves employees feeling de-valued, demotivated and could lead to unnecessary attrition.

Stop Cringing, Start Coaching

Leaders can take a “coach approach” to the career discussion to best enable employees to develop a successful career. 

A coach approach means that the leader does not have to have all the answers. The leader is not expected to “solve the career question” for the employee. Leaders do not need to avoid the discussion, instead they can aid it.

Here’s how:

  • Be an honest mentor. Ask helpful questions and jointly set clear goals to empower your employees to be accountable for their own careers. Your role is to provide enabling career development support, not to do the work for the employee.
  • Help employees assess the realism of their career aspirations. Help your employee discover if there is a gap between how they see themselves and how others see them. Self-exploration of one’s personal “brand” through seeking feedback is a more effective way to create self-awareness than just telling someone they are not suited or not ready for a role.
  • Assist employees to navigate support resources inside and outside the organization. This includes making introductions to a network of people who can provide information or feedback to the employee.
  • Work creatively with other leaders to create career development opportunities, such as cross-departmental secondments or projects, job shadowing, job sharing, or role rotations to augment the existing learning programs already available to the employee

Leaders can breathe a sigh of relief. By taking a coach approach and adding the skills of career coaching conversations to your “kit bag” of managerial skills, the career discussion does not have to be a worrisome interaction. 

Instead, it becomes an empowering relationship between the employee, the leader and the organization leading to learning, career satisfaction and retention of your great people.  


About the Author

Dale Pratt

Dale Pratt is a Principal, Career Management with Lee Hecht Harrison Knightsbridge in Mississauga. Dale specializes in career management consulting, executive career transition as well as leadership development and advisory coaching for executives, professionals and senior managers. She also provides consulting for the effective management of organizational restructuring for individuals or groups.

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