Next to recruitment and performance reviews there is probably no aspect of Human Resources that is more badly managed than the annual career planning discussion with employees. Assuming that it even exists these discussions are often shrouded in vagaries, generalities and homilies that are designed to camouflage the truth while conveying the impression of sincerity. However, the question remains as to why something as vital to an organization’s future well-being remains so poorly administered.

A Client’s Dilemma

The experiences of two of my clients highlights the disparities between theory and practice.

One of my clients is a marketing professional with a well-known financial services organization. She has been with her company for over twenty years, and despite stellar performance found the transition to a Vice President’s role elusive. In one of our coaching sessions I suggested she role play with me her forthcoming career planning discussion. I played the role of her supervisor and opened the discussion. Two minutes in it became painfully evident the source of her problem.

The first question I asked her was what she liked about her current role. She had no problems answering that question. I then asked her to identify her strengths. She struggled to frame a convincing answer. I then asked what she felt were areas in which she believed she required further development. She again expressed difficulty framing an answer. I then asked where she saw herself five years from now in terms of position and responsibility. Her answer was vague and ill-defined. Finally, I asked if there were any roles within the firm that intrigued her. She replied with a blank look.

My second client’s experience sheds light on a different problem. He defines his career aspirations in long-winded, esoteric sentences. When I tried to get him to drill down to something more concrete the response is more verbiage but with even less clarity. When I offered examples of the type of opportunities within his field he offers qualifiers and conditions instead of definitive replies.

Sad Truths

Here is one hard, cold, bitter, blunt truth about career planning discussions in organizations: most are led by supervisors who are only doing it because HR told them to. Most supervisors likely don’t have even a modicum of understanding or interest in the career advancement of their team members. That may sound like a cynical statement, but it is also a true one. Organizations invest little or no training in teaching supervisors how to properly conduct performance reviews, and when it comes to actual career planning for persons other than senior executives, their investment in the activity is even less.

Most supervisors aren’t interested in advancing the career opportunities for their team members for two very simple reasons:

1) If their team members get promoted to another role in the organization they, in turn, will have to interview, hire and train a replacement. It will mean that for six months that supervisor will not see a return on their investment. Moreover, the person they hire and train may not be as good as the former employee who got promoted.

2) Time spent focusing on the career advancement of their team means time subtracted from enhancing their own career development. My experience is that most executives owe their position to having hired good people around them…..good people who carry the workload while their boss is focusing on their personal career advancement.

Here is another sad example that illustrates the point. Over the course of my career I’ve worked for four different financial services organizations in Canada. The first was in the early 1980’s had a robust career planning division in our Toronto Head Office. They were actively involved in identifying talent, determining career interests of employees, and facilitating promotions. This four-person team was involved not just in moving branch level employees, but also, positions in Head Office. Moreover, each division across the country had similar units staffed with one or two career planners.

Fast forward thirty years. The second financial services organization had a similar unit, but their focus was entirely on senior management. Employees interested in transfers or applying for jobs were directed to the job posting system. Career planning discussions were always tacked on as an afterthought to performance review discussions. Anytime an employee questioned or complained about the lack of career advancement the mantra recited ad nauseum by senior management was “Everyone is responsible for their own career”. That probably accounted for why most mid and junior level employees had about five years’ time on the job, and most senior management had less than eighteen months.

Some More Sad Truths

The biggest adjustment I found between being a student and transitioning into an employee was recognizing that good performance, work excellence and dedication do not translate into career advancement. As students, we trust our teachers and professors to act with integrity, and to recognize and reward work according to the amount and quality that was produced. Fact is, in the workplace there are a multiplicity of other demands and needs playing out. What employees want or expect is seldom paramount in the minds of most supervisors.


Taking charge of your career planning discussion may be necessary in order to secure your next promotion (Picture courtesy of Jopwell and Pexels)

Taking charge of your career planning discussion may be necessary in order to secure your next promotion (Picture courtesy of Jopwell and Pexels)

The Best Defence is a Good Offense

If even a scintilla of what I have stated to this point is remotely true then what do employees need to do to have a meaningful career planning discussion and, by inference, advance their careers?

Here are some tips:

1) Take charge of the discussion and go into it prepared. As an employee, you should go into every career planning discussion with a clear understanding of what you perceive are your strengths, development needs and aspirations. You should research beforehand the type of training programs you are interested in, and you should be aware of the type of opportunities to which you aspire.

2) Treat it like negotiations. Do not accept everything your manager says as gospel. If you disagree then say so, but ensure you have metrics and data to support your claims. Where necessary, put forward a counter proposal.

3) Be prepared for push back. Just as you don’t have to accept everything your manager says without challenge, so too you must expect that your manager may question or challenge your perspective. Anticipate push back, and be prepared with rebuttals.

4) Don’t deal in generalities. If you work in Customer Service, but you are really interested in getting into Human Resources, then say so. Don’t equivocate, and don’t provide some lame statement such as “I’d really like a job with a more defined career path”. A manager, on hearing this, might infer you would be open to a position in Marketing.

5) If what you are being offered doesn’t meet your expectations then don’t accept it. Again, just because your manager provides an assessment it doesn’t mean you have to accept it. If what they are proposing doesn’t meet with your expectations, speak up and say something.

6) Make sure you walk away from the meeting with a clear action plan. Don’t leave the career planning discussion without a clear list of action items that have been agreed to by both you and your supervisor. Moreover, the list shouldn’t all be on your onus. Your supervisor needs to have some involvement and buy-in to the process too.

7) Set a date for a follow up discussion. After your initial discussion has ended, ask for a follow up conversation so you can meet to discuss how action items have been addressed. Don’t wait for a year to lapse before having this follow up conversation.

8) If your boss can’t help you move up then at least ask them for a recommendation of someone who can move you along. If your boss is reluctant to help you, or seems unable or incapable of advocating for your candidacy, ask point blank “Is there someone else in the organization you could recommend I speak with who may be better-positioned to support my career aspirations”?

A Final Thought….

I joined a major Canadian financial institution in 1981 as an Analyst in Forecasting and M.I.S. The position entailed a lot of research, but the degree of people interaction was extremely limited. After two years I was bored in my job, and while I liked my immediate boss the Director of the Department wasn’t someone I related to well. I expressed an interest in getting into Recruitment, and one day I saw an internal posting for a Recruiter role in another division. My immediate boss was extremely supportive, but the Director was clearly not advocating on my behalf. We had one very frank and unsatisfactory career planning discussion, and I came away demoralized and dejected. However, I also resolved to get out.

I was interviewed for the Recruiter role, and then subsequently offered the job. Even though it was a lower-graded position I accepted the offer. I spent two years in the role, loved the work, was very successful at it, and felt confident I had made the right call. Most importantly, it put my career on a different trajectory, one I would never realize had I stayed in my former role.

What that experience taught me is that self-awareness is important, as is being an advocate for your own career interests. As the title of this blog says: “If you don’t ask you won’t get”.