You’re a manager at a young millennial/Gen Z company, so a lot of your direct reports don’t know their professional development goals yet. This is pretty normal, I’ve found. I remember when I landed my first job as an account executive for a small PR agency in NYC having NO CLUE what my goals were. I was just happy to be hired for my first job out of college.
Where I made the mistake, however, was in not thinking it was important to have professional development goals. And it was further cemented by not having a manager who thought to ask. The upside to this is that I fell into my first career after 8 months working in PR, and this first career (event production for financial services) provided me with a ton of incredible work and management experience. The downside is that I never learned how to think about these things, so I wasn’t doing it all that well in the beginning with my direct reports. AND, I didn’t even really know it was a thing for awhile, meaning I stayed in not-the-right-situation for me for longer than I should have.
So, like the Ghost of Christmas Past- not sure this analogy makes sense, so bear with me- I’m here today to give you some lessons learned from both sides of the coin – the young had-no-idea-what-my-goals-were employee and the manager perspective- on how to develop your direct reports who have no clue what they want to do.
Provide a Welcoming Environment: Everything matters here. Having an open, engaged and relaxed body posture shows your employee that you’re ready to have an open conversation. Letting them know it’s ok to not have professional development goals right at the moment makes them feel more normal and less like they did something wrong. I remember as a young employee worrying constantly if I was doing something wrong, so taking this off their list of worries is a very good thing.
Ask Open-Ended Questions: Starting with “what are your professional development goals?” or “what do you think your goals could be?” sort of puts proverbial cart before horse here, and tries to get at a solution in a linear way. When someone doesn’t know something, the process to get them there is far from linear. It’s a winding road along the Amalfi Coast where you look out your bus window on the way up a giant hill and peer over into the abyss. Meaning it’s uncomfortable and can be scary for the new employee. Roll with it. Questions like, “What projects have you liked so far here?”, “What skills do you like using the best?”, “What projects in college or internships really suited you?” gets the conversation going and provides you with some real gems that aren’t tied to the final destination.
Take Notes: This does two things- helps you remember key highlights of the conversation for later, and shows your employee you’re engaged in the conversation and that they matter. Like I said before, everything matters here. You don’t need to get all ‘court stenographer’ with it – you do want to actually be engaged in the convo, not trying to capture everything verbatim.
Close with Next Steps and a Plan for Follow Up: Sketch out with them what next steps look like. You might not know all of them and have some homework of your own to do, so don’t promise anything you can’t deliver on (like a seat on a project they really want to be on). Let them know when you will get back to them and keep that promise. Schedule regular check ins on their professional development. These are special meetings that aren’t the same as your weekly check in. Once you set the next steps, I recommend starting with quarterly check ins of 45 minutes to one hour. Once I got my head out of my arse, I always did these out of the office at the fancy coffee shop to make it feel a little more special.
SO MANY managers are NOT doing these things, so if you’re even just dipping your toe in the professional development pond and starting SOMEWHERE, remember that it’s something. And you can continue building and adding on from there. This is not about creating the perfect system to start- it’s just about getting started.
Tell us a success story of a conversation with an employee where they didn’t know their goals!