In this tight labor market, bosses are finding themselves shifting their focus from recruiting the best talent to re-energizing and retaining the key employees who are already on staff.  Regardless of which study or article one reads about the priorities of the new generation of workers, career growth and professional development rise to the top of every list.  It makes sense that proactive managers learn how to become career coaches for their employees.

Occasionally managers resist the notion of helping their employees get ready for the next job – it might mean that they will lose this valued resource.  Logic needs to overcome this short sighted approach.  Good employees will move on to bigger and better things – whether you help them or not.  If you don’t help them, someone else will.  Supporting professional development and career growth will likely increase the employee’s engagement and loyalty to you and your team.  Hopefully, the next job for this talented employee will still be within your organization.

Most managers feel ill equipped to serve as a career coach – they have no clue how to start.  In reality, it’s not that hard.  Career coaching is just a few steps beyond coaching employees for peak performance.

I’ve outlined 7 steps for how to start becoming an effective career coach – and a leader who will generate loyalty from your team.

  1. Ask good questions about the employee’s interests and strengths and really listen to the response. Set aside some time in your one-on-one meetings to ask about career plans.  Some employees can tell you exactly what role they want next as well as down the road.  Others cannot put a title to it or can’t see a clear career path but they can tell you about the parts of their job that they really like and what aspects are not as fun or satisfying.  Most employees can tell you about things they would like to learn.  Keep in mind that career development opportunities don’t necessarily need to be a promotion.  Use your experience and network to help employees broaden their horizons.  One cautionary note – ask probing and follow-up questions to ensure full understanding before you start to share your opinions.  Remember, it is the employee’s development and he or she needs to own it.
  2. Work with the employee to create an individualized development plan (IDP). Help to identify 2-3 areas in which the employee needs to learn and grow.  Brainstorm learning experiences that will support this development.  Focus on new projects, work assignments, job shadowing and cross functional work teams first.  These will add value to both the organization and the employee and are low or no cost.  The IDP should contain development goals, specific action steps, target completion dates, and a description of how to measure or evaluate successful completion – just like any other key performance goal.
  3. Assessments can help an employee become more self-aware and focused on key development areas. There are many good assessments that can add value – ranging from low cost tools like StrengthsFinder or DiSC Communication Styles up to MBTI or EQ-I 2.0 tools which cost a bit more and need to be professionally facilitated.  Managers can help coach the employee on how to use and focus this kind of feedback. Add some of these ideas to the IDP.
  4. Continuing education can be a key element in career coaching. Keeping one’s skills current and up to date is the very best recipe for continued career success.  These experiences can include seminars, professional association meetings, certifications or degree programs.  Career coaches keep their eyes peeled for these opportunities and encourage the employee to do the same.  If your company is pitching in to cover the expense of education, require the employee to “teach back” key concepts to other team members.  Not only is this a great way to reinforce the learning, it also helps to establish the employee as a subject matter expert in the eyes of others.
  5. Most truly effective leaders are readers. Reading trade magazines, business journals and current best seller leadership books are all effective ways to keep growing and learning.  A career coach will not only lead by example in this but will pass along good ideas and articles to their employees.  Book clubs at work or just occasional conversations about the implications of a new trend are great developmental experiences.
  6. Robust and timely constructive feedback is essential for professional development. Great career coaches / managers learn the skill of delivering feedback effectively.  You need to be the mirror to show your employee what they cannot see for themselves.
  7. Push your key employees out of their comfort zone (and tell the employee why you are doing it). Give the person who needs to learn to speak more professionally in public some small group presentation assignments for practice.   Have one of your key employees take the first pass at developing the next departmental budget and then work closely with him/her to finish it up.  Push boundaries but be there to support, coach and correct as needed.

Career coaching conversations should be open and frequent.  A wonderful benefit is that your employee is not only preparing for their future but she/he will likely be more engaged and effective in the current role as well.

Managers can be good career coaches and the rewards will be worth the effort.