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Q: My boss has asked me to have a career development conversation with her. She did not share any more about the context. How do I prepare?
A: Career development conversations can sound scary. Hopefully, your manager wants to have this conversation with the most positive intentions. In terms of preparing, one of the things you can do is ask your boss more questions. Career development is a subject that is often attached to performance reviews, performance appraisals, retention, or succession planning. It can look at increased responsibility and lateral transfers within an organization to help you broaden your areas of expertise, so trying to prepare and wondering what the conversation may entail is very normal. But your energy will be better spent asking for clarification. Until then, start by looking at your past performance reviews, your areas for development, and what you’ve done in terms of those areas. Additionally, think a bit about how you would like to enhance your areas of responsibility and expertise. Make your own notes and rehearse the conversation prior to the meeting. You can do this by practicing with a trusted colleague or friend who would be willing to listen to your points and provide constructive feedback.
It would have been helpful if your boss had given you more direction in terms of what to expect. Surprise conversations with managers are most often uncomfortable and managers should understand that. If they had elaborated and let know you that they would like a career development conversation with you to look into possible future career steps, that would be a more positive (and reassuring) approach to the initial conversation. But since they didn’t supply you with much information, you can certainly ask for more context. I would advise you to reach out to your boss and say something like: “I am eager to have this conversation, and I would like some more context so I can prepare. Can you give me a little more information about the specific topics we’ll be talking about?” You might get an answer, you might not. So, you’ll have to be ready for what can come up in this initial talk in order to have a complete conversation later.
If your manager talks about growth opportunities and the future, focus on the skillsets you would like to expand. Often, employees concentrate on titles. Instead, talk about the areas you would like to gain experience or proficiency in. These should include projects you can oversee and/or collaborate on to test your skills, people you want to work with, or something new that may benefit the organization. You may be asked to help identify some of these opportunities as well, so really take a look at your organization and identify points of potential opportunity. You may be able to contribute to a project, a process, or something else that could use both improvements and your specific skillset.
No matter the outcome of this meeting, recognize you don’t need to make immediate decisions. If you’re offered a new opportunity, your first response should always be a thank you and that you appreciate that your manager has the confidence in you and that you have been recognized as capable. If you need time to think it over, let your manager know that you would like the night to think about it. Employees often think they need an answer on the spot, but sometimes it’s good to take a moment and really set aside a time to think about the opportunity. One response we don’t recommend is, “I want to go home and talk to my husband/wife/significant other about this.” While this may be exactly what you want to do, there’s no reason to say that. What you want to say is, “This is significant, and I really need to give this some thought.” Keep it simple and sweet without a lot of personal details, but the thank you is vital and should be the first thing you say when you’re given the offer.
So that you’re not caught off guard about any kinds of conversations with your manager, I encourage you to keep track of your work. Most of us don’t do that, and it’s something we should all get in the habit of doing. Either daily or weekly, jot down in your calendar what you’re working on (major accomplishments, projects, milestones, process changes, etc.) and don’t forget disappointments, failures, or “growth” advice. You’ll be more prepared for anything that the conversation may lead to, including talks about promotions, appraisals, or anything else. You’ll have the data no one else has which is critical to your case. I encourage everyone to develop this habit early in their career, but if you haven’t, it’s not too late to start. Make sure your data is as detailed as possible and keep account of who you worked with (be that other individual contributors or teams) and any feedback you may have received from them as well. It’s better to have more details than less.
As far as negative feedback, recognize that any kind of information (even negative) is something you want to think about. It is important that you don’t have an immediate reaction. Having a response like, “That’s powerful information and something I need to think about” is better than, “Who said that? That can’t be accurate.” However, do take it seriously. You can respond with something along the lines of: “Thank you for the information, I’m sure this wasn’t easy to bring up. I will think about this, and I would like to come back to you tomorrow or the day after. Is that ok?” When in doubt, use the five-second rule – a five-second breath in, a five-second breath out, then respond. Make sure you note that you’ll be taking this feedback seriously and that you will be doing an examination of your behaviors and performance so that when you two come back to talk, you can both work out a solid plan to make improvements.
Based on the content of the meeting, this will not be one and done. There is work attached to any kind of feedback. This could include your own “homework” out of work hours and courses to improve your skillsets. It could also include assessments you may have to take. In the end, be this for a positive reason or a negative one, you’ll be asked to do your part (thinking about developmental opportunities, projects, your assessments, classes, etc.). Take notes of everything you do during this process, so when you and your manager come back together, you have plenty to discuss.
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