4 Employee Development Conversations Managers Need to Master

By Todd Ericksen

Employee-manager relationships are crucial to employee retention, with 98% of employees ranking them very or extremely important. And managers can make or break these bonds with how effectively they communicate.

To facilitate engaged and happy employees, team leaders should pull the following four types of conversations out of their bag of tricks on the regular:  

Foundation Conversations: Start with the Basics, Then Build

Like the name implies, foundation conversations determine the baseline from which all future activities and development efforts flow. From career drivers and personality types to individual strengths, there’s a lot managers can learn (and leverage) through these convos.

To avoid making employees feel interrogated, managers can gather the deep, personal data with the help of some reinforcements, such as:

Career Drivers – use a free deck of Career Drivers cards to uncover what motivates each employee’s unique journey, then center all development conversations around those insights.
Predictive Index – leverage the Predictive Index or any personality test to tap into employees’ unique traits (and maybe a few quirks).
CliftonStrengths – conduct strength assessments to identify who’s great at what within your organization, then use this intel to your advantage in assembling teams and, of course, having productive conversations.  

Obviously, asking an employee for all of these things in a single meeting would be overkill. So, getting a solid base of drivers, personality traits, and strengths may need to happen over several weeks.

Sample foundation questions for consideration include:

• How did you get to this point in your career?

• What kind of work would you like to be doing at the pinnacle of your career?

• What skills would help you get there?

• What are your top five career drivers?

• How are your needs for each one being met in your current role?

• How do you like to give and receive feedback?

• Do you prefer to work more independently, or in a group setting?

Connection Conversations: Genuine Interest Goes a Long Way

Making real connections with employees may need to happen away from the office. Most would welcome a chance to break away for a lunch meeting or check-in at a local coffee shop—filling bellies and building rapport (multi-tasking win!).

Because your most valuable employees aren’t robots, demonstrating a real interest in their humanity can go a long way. To kick things off, managers can ask:

• What activities do you enjoy outside of work?

• Do you have any favorite sports teams?

• What are some of your pet peeves?

• What makes you happy at work?

• Which friend at work keeps you going?

• How’s your work-life balance?

• As a company, how could we make your life easier?

Progress Conversations: How to Talk About the Tasks At Hand

Progress conversations are nothing new, making up the lion’s share of all 1:1s. Sure, they allow managers to keep tabs on pressing projects, but they’re also the time to track how an employee is performing against company and individual goals.

Giving credit when it’s due should also be part of the discussion when milestones are met or goals are crushed.

Here are some thought starters for the next progress conversation:

• How do you feel about the projects on your plate?

• Tell me about any risks you see for these projects. 

• Do you have the tools and resources needed to do your work?

• Are there any challenges you need help with?

• Where would you like more or less direction from me?

• How can I help you to be more effective in your role?

• Is there anything else you’d like to discuss?

Development Conversations: Keep the Momentum Growing

Development conversations are key to keeping employees engaged and fulfilled, since career growth is very or extremely important to 97% of them. Using the intel gathered during foundation conversations, managers can demonstrate the company’s commitment to ongoing development.

These conversations may not need to happen during every 1:1, but our research found that 79% of employees want to chat about career growth at least monthly or quarterly.

Additionally, in a recent study conducted by Instructure and Harris Insights, 77% of employees feel like they’re on their own when it comes to career growth. When managers make development conversations a priority, they’re making good on the company’s commitment to meaningful growth.  

Here are a few questions that can keep the career growth ball rolling:

• What recent work are you most proud of?

• What do you want to work on next quarter?

• Are there any upcoming projects outside your day-to-day that are of interest?

• Which skills would you like to develop in the next three months?

• How do you feel you are being challenged/developed toward your “Career Everest?”

• What impact would you like to have here?

• Are you learning and growing here?

• What can we do to help?

No matter which type of convo is taking place, these tips are tops:

• Use active listening
• Ask open-ended questions
• Show empathy
• Provide a shared agenda  
• Encourage solutions (rather than dictating them)

To learn what else team leaders can do to drive meaningful growth opportunities, check out “The Definitive Guide to Employee Development.”