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Why career conversations and experiments are key to employee retention

July 6, 2022   by Jason Contant

Two employees have a discussion on career possibilities

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Focusing career conversations on progression, not promotion, may be one way to convince your top producers to stick around.

Spotting employees’ strengths and then creating connections for them within the organization to have ‘curious career conversations’ is one solution to retaining employees during dynamic market conditions, two authors wrote in a Harvard Business Review blog posted Monday.

“The purpose of a high-quality career conversation should be two-fold: to give employees the permission to be curious about where their career could take them and the practical support to make progress,” Helen Tupper and Sarah Ellis, co-founders of London, U.K.-based career development firm Amazing If, wrote in It’s Time to Reimagine Employee Retention.

Current career conversations are often rushed, low-quality, or even skipped in favour of day-to-day responsibilities. And individuals often struggle to see their strengths, which makes it even more challenging to figure out how those strengths could be applied across different roles and parts of an organization, the authors said.

Career conversations give managers the chance to not only share strengths-based feedback (“I see you at your best when…”) but also to discuss how those strengths might be useful in other teams.

“Helping employees go beyond being aware of their strengths to understanding how those strengths could be applied in different situations is often the first step in increasing an individual’s confidence to start exploring career possibilities within an organization,” the blog said.

Young man listening intently during conversation Productions

And while it can be a daunting task to approach others in your company for informal chats – especially those senior to you – managers typically have a wider range of relationships across an organization, and are in good positions to make connections and direct introductions.

Tupper and Ellis advised managers ask three key questions during career conversations:

  1. What motivates you most about the work you do today?
  2. What are the talents you want to build a reputation for?
  3. What career possibilities would you like to learn more about?

Applying for internal roles can sometimes feel like a formal, drawn-out process. One alternative is for managers to work together to create ‘career experiments,’ Tupper and Ellis wrote.

“These experiments encourage employees to try out new experiences and opportunities in a way that feels safe, and even fun,” the blog said. “Though some experiments inevitably work better than others, even the commitment to experimentation signals to employees that the company is invested in finding ways to support people to ‘squiggle and stay.’”

For example, employees can be given a two-week ‘holiday’ from their day jobs to explore other parts of an organization. Or projects can be advertised internally based on skill requirements and matched to people’s skill profiles.

“Rather than being identified through their job titles, employees are instead profiled by their talents,” the authors said. “Beyond just projects, this approach could lead to whole roles being deconstructed into a set of skills that could be divided out between a group of people, rather than expecting one person to excel in all areas a role may require.”

What’s more, Tupper and Ellis wrote, managers need to be recognized and rewarded for enabling internal mobility.

“Where the question was once, ‘How do I keep this person on my team?,’ the question now needs to be, ‘How do I keep this person in my organization?’”

Reimagining retention is not a quick-fix solution to the challenge many organizations and managers currently face, the authors noted. “But the sooner [organizations] start, the sooner their people will see the opportunities to ‘squiggle and stay’ instead of looking to leave in order to grow.”

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