Career and professional development may have taken a back seat to the many demands and emergencies facing organizations in the pandemic era. And that’s understandable; in light of millions of layoffs and furloughs nationwide, companies’ key goals remain staying in business and meeting payroll.
That said, restoking career and professional development conversations is critical as the COVID-19 crisis continues. With no end in sight—and with workplace relations likely forever changed given the newfound success of telecommuting—now is the time to hone your coaching skills and re-establish discussions with employees about achievements, areas for professional development, educational opportunities and the like. The ideal rhythm might look like this:
Step 1 Annual performance review and the setting of performance goals for the upcoming year.
Step 2 Quarterly touch-base meetings to discuss accomplishments, progression toward goals, roadblocks and pivots in planning.
Step 3 Annual self-evaluations about two weeks before performance review meetings and a new round of goal setting.
The questions that follow can be used at any of these three intervals and can be reintroduced during one-on-one conversations at any point.
Critical Questions for Professional and Career Development
According to Peter Leets, CEO of the Leets Executive Consortium in Las Vegas, “One-on-one professional development conversations shouldn’t focus on operational performance. They should be about the individual and his or her professional development. It’s important they are consistent from conversation to conversation, reviewing progress while building upon achievements and establishing evolving tactics for success. You may wish to employ higher-value questions, helping reports truly understand their current state and then connecting the dots for what’s needed for them to move from [the] present to their desired future.”
Open your questioning with something simple that invites conversation, like:
What are you working on and interested in learning more about at this point in your career development?
On a scale of 1–10, 10 being the best, how well are your personal and professional interests connecting to the work you’re doing day in and day out?
On a scale of 1–10, how would you grade your overall contributions to the team and the organization in terms of being able to do your best work every day?
What would you say are three adjectives that your most respected critic might use to define or describe you as a leader and as a team contributor?
(For supervisors and above) If the whole organization followed your lead, would you be happy with where you took it?
(For supervisors and above) Would you want to work for you?
“Any of these questions may take on a life of its own—purposefully,” Leets said. “Your time together should be scheduled to allow complete conversations. If rushed, or [if it’s] perceived you are not 100 percent present, your report will not feel you are truly interested and trust will diminish. Helping your report fully consider future opportunities, what [he or she] needs and what support [you can provide] is a critical process that builds stronger individuals and teams, creates greater trust, and helps to build commitment.”
Listening is key. Allow the employee to interpret the questions, work through them aloud, and reflect and respond. Foundational, strategic questions like these help employees find their own way and ponder mistakes.
The Coaching Catch
Giving a little less advice and asking a few more questions may be more challenging than you think. But if your goal truly is to serve as a mentor and coach to your team members, then listening more effectively should become your own key area of personal and professional development.
“Simply ask good questions and get out of the way,” said Heather Stewart, consultant and coach at GlobaLocal HR Solutions in Los Angeles. “The power of these questions, combined with active listening and dedicated one-on-one time, will be appreciated far more than you imagine. Think about it: How many times have your own bosses held these types of conversations with you throughout your career? Probably not many. That’s why holding one-on-one meetings like these at planned intervals during the year will catapult your own career effectiveness as you are able to delegate more according to people’s talents and interests while also strengthening their sense of independence—a key focal point as telework requires more autonomy and a project-based mindset.”
Stewart counseled managers to ask follow-up questions and get used to uncomfortable silence. “If you’re truly serious about becoming a better coach and mentor, you’ll need to withhold more than you divulge. Remember that this is their journey, and your role is to support them in finding their best path.”
For example, if you want to present an idea to your employee, don’t offer it up immediately. Simply ask, “And what else?” You may find that the individual will come up with the same solution you were about to offer, although they’ll have come to it on their own.
In a similar manner, when someone responds, “I really don’t know,” try redirecting and rephrasing the question. Your employee will realize you’re serious about leading him to his own answer rather than giving it to him. Again, it’s often the case that the employee will come up with a solution that’s close to what you would have recommended. Even if she’s off a bit, you can then ask some qualifying questions to widen her perspective and help her come to a similar conclusion that you would have recommended.
The essence of coaching lies in unlocking others’ potential. Inspire employees to adopt new habits. Encourage them to make themselves vulnerable with you so that you become not only their boss but also their career mentor and coach. Ask them to focus on building their strengths and codifying their achievements. The stronger their achievement mindset and the accomplishments they garner, the better for your department and company.
Remember that the greatest leaders are not those with the most followers; they are the ones who create the most leaders in turn.