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How to position career conversations

Jan 29, 2021

Career conversations can be nerve-wracking at the best of times; adding the pandemic and homeworking into the mix makes it even more challenging. The way to crack this, says Louise Molloy, is to think through the problem rather than just about the problem.

It’s that time of the year when career discussions abound. While this is always an anxious time, with COVID-19 and working from home added to the mix, I’m hearing about fear of being seen as negative, complaining or not supportive when there are legitimate concerns about promotions and upward mobility. This results in frustration and disappointment as teams fail to have the conversations needed.

Having sat in both the reviewer and reviewee’s seat, and now coaching clients in this area, I’m reminded of Simon, an ambitious and capable guy who was keen to progress. His boss was relatively new to the organisation and, while he met targets, he struggled to get buy-in from the team and their stakeholders. Simon was full of ideas on how to restructure the team to allow more room for collaboration and creativity, and he was willing to take on more responsibility to deliver this. Previous discussions were taken as personal criticism by his boss, so Simon felt unable to raise the issue again without being seen as unsupportive.

Sometimes when situations get emotional and we feel scared or rejected, we fail to see it objectively. He told me that the company needed results, innovation, and good engagement. So, putting on that company ‘hat’, Simon had to consider a few things:

  1. How can I contribute more? What is the work that needs to be done – for the company; for the team; for me? The key here is to be honest with yourself and ignore experience or everything you think you know about the company/culture.
  2. Imagine I’m the team leader – what do I need to achieve? What am I afraid of? What is my biggest challenge? What allies do I have and need? Really think about your team leader as a person within a system and how it feels to be in that situation.
  3. How do I need to present my view of how I could contribute and the work that needs to be done to meet my boss’ priorities and challenges? Reframing what you want to say in this way helps build trust and buy-in, showing you recognise and respect your boss’s position.
  4. What do I want to achieve in the session? This conversation is only the beginning, not the end. Share observations on where projects didn't go well (with supporting evidence). Make constructive suggestions, such as starting a working group with different people from various departments, so you can ensure alignment and best ways of working.

After considering the above four points, Simon decided to put together a working group comprising members of his own team as well as people from other departments. By doing this, he revised the reporting process, improving quality, freeing up resource time for more innovative insight sharing. He got great feedback, leading to more delegation from his boss. It took a while to get promoted, but in the meantime, his working life had changed. He was happier, more influential and had a clearer view of how he could move his career forward.

The questions above are designed to challenge you to think the problem through rather than just think ‘about’ it. This, in turn, will change how you will feel about the conversation ahead. Rather than a battle, it will feel more like you and management are in it together.

Remember, if you always do what you always did, nothing changes. So, give it a go. Challenge yourself to answer those questions and see where it leads you.

Louise Molloy is a director at Luminosity Consulting.