Professional development is one of those things that we all say we want from an employer, but few companies seem to actually deliver. For marketers, in particular, staying ahead of the curve by honing your professional skill set is critical, as the media and cultural landscapes are constantly evolving, and “best practices” are never static.
But even for the best managers, making the time for professional development can feel like a daunting challenge. At best, it feels amorphous and uncertain. And at worst, it can feel like you’re in over your head and forced to make promises you might not be able to keep.
Professional development shouldn’t just be about money and titles. Great professional development is all about understanding an employee’s ambitions and crafting a plan together that helps them work toward that goal. It’s also an essential step in ensuring wider success across the business and establishing a team that will succeed in the long term, as employees with professional development opportunities are 34% more likely to stay at their jobs than those without.
So how can you structure these conversations to be mutually beneficial for both you and your team?
Plan ahead, and get out of the office.
Trying to tackle professional development topics during a regularly scheduled one-to-one meeting seldom works because it’s all too easy to get sucked into day-to-day tasks instead of talking about the real meat of the conversation. That’s why it’s helpful to schedule separate times for professional development apart from your regular meetings. This dedicated time provides an opportunity for you and your employee to develop an open-door relationship around career-path conversations. I recommend doing this about once per quarter, depending on the size of your team.
It’s also useful to get out of the office for these discussions. If it’s a nice day out, take a walk outside or grab a seat in a nearby park. Or even grab a coffee somewhere in the neighborhood. It seems like a small thing, but conversation flows so much more openly when you’re not in a conference room in the office. The change of scenery can inspire candor and openness that’s not always easy to achieve elsewhere in order to continue to build trust in the working relationship.
Ask questions, and then really listen to the answers.
A good professional development conversation should involve managers listening more than speaking. This should really be the employee’s time to share with you what’s on their mind. Not all employees will immediately open up, so here are some questions you can use to get the ball rolling:
• What do you like most about your current role?
• What are some skills that you’d like to improve on?
• What do you see as the next career step for yourself?
• What’s most frustrating about your current role?
• What would make you better at your job?
Aim to deliver actionable feedback.
It’s only natural in these conversations for employees to ask about what it will take to move up to the next level and when they’ll get there. After all, everyone wants to know what the path forward looks like. Instead of driving toward specific dates, which tend to be arbitrary, it’s more effective to focus the conversation around the skills, competencies or behaviors that the employee needs to demonstrate in order to advance their position.
It’s best if you can come to the conversation prepared with some thoughts on this topic, but if you’re not prepared for that, just be honest about the fact that you need to give it more thought. It’s much better to follow up with specifics a week later than to make something up off the top of your head that the employee takes as gospel. Just remember: It’s OK if you don’t have answers on the spot, but you must follow up, or else you’ll risk seriously demotivating the employee.
Don’t miss the opportunity to ask for feedback, too.
While the bulk of the conversation should be focused on helping the employee achieve their goals, these candid conversations are also a great opportunity to ask for direct feedback about how you’re performing as a manager.
A good way to jump-start this conversation is by asking about what you should keep doing, what you should stop doing and what you should start doing. Be open, and listen — don’t be defensive — and you’re likely to uncover some important nuggets that can help you retain and motivate your team.
Practice makes the professional.
Professional development conversations may seem daunting at first, but they do get easier in time. And if you’re ever not sure how to proceed, just think about the conversations you wish your manager would have with you. After all, being recognized and knowing there is a path forward is something we all strive for.