Managers Can Be Your Talent Development Power Players

By Beverly Kaye and Lindy Williams

Managers have power. They can motivate, inspire, and lead. They can develop the talent organizations need to remain competitive and face tomorrow’s challenges.

But managers are busy people.

“The rate of change is daunting. The pressure is on like never before. Often, we are helping managers lead, facilitate and manage continuous change. The ability to establish a relationship with an employee, let alone talk with them about career (which is quite personal) is a challenge.” says Lynn Gauthier, VP Human Resources at Philips Healthcare where a major career development initiative is underway. The Philips Career Enhancement Program is designed to educate managers and employees in the “how to’s” of career conversations and to deliver a message from senior management that they advocate this responsibility globally. The initiative responds to survey scores that indicated career development is key to engaging and retaining talent.


Every manager knows the “business” reasons for developing the employee talent base; most corporate value statements say something about nurturing and growing talent. Talent is (and always has been) the key to remaining competitive in a rapidly changing world. But what’s in it for an individual manager? Here are four answers to that question.

A manager’s job becomes easier when direct reports are performing at peak and peak performance only occurs when people have the skills and tools to do their jobs well. Performance is enhanced when they are challenged to stretch and learn and when the right people are in the right roles.

Talent stays engaged when they know their contributions are valued. An AON-Hewitt global study (2011) named career opportunities as one of the global engagement drivers and notes that it was ranked in the top three for the past three years. However, employees too often report that they don’t have candid conversations with managers about their careers. They don’t feel managers appreciate what they have to offer or care about their career aspirations.

Job satisfaction increases when employees can see their future in the organization’s future. Managers are instrumental in helping employees take a broader look at the options available to them. A 2011 BlessingWhite survey of 11,000 respondents globally reports that opportunities to apply talents, career development and training are top drivers of job satisfaction.

Talented people want to work with talented people. Employees who work in a surround of learning are equipped to achieve the organization’s goals, mission and vision. The bonus? The word gets out. Talent will want to join the teams – and organizations – that are being developed for the future.


Learning leaders must educate managers about how to apply practical skills to on-going development-focused dialogues. Building managerial competency in the following areas will have pay-offs in increased engagement as well as commitment:

Uncovering Talent

Do your managers know what they have? While most managers believe they are fully aware of the skillsets of direct reports’, a Career Systems International (2009) survey of 1275 respondents reported a stunning 80% of employees say they have skills that are not being utilized. Managers who uncover these hidden skills and learn what motivates and energizes employees have what they need to match employees to the work and develop talent in ways that best serve the organization and the individuals.

Through active listening (taught in every management 101 course) managers can uncover a range of hidden talents. This means being curious and building an ongoing dialogue with employees.Development dialogue encourages self-discovery, and doesn’t have to take hours. A few honest, authentic exchanges can reveal a lot and begin to build the trust necessary for a development partnership. Questions like “what part of that project did you find most rewarding?” or “what was most challenging about that assignment?” open the door to understanding more about that individual.

Providing Feedback

If active listening was taught in management 101, then it’s sidekick was feedback. The manager who provides feedback doesn’t avoid the tough conversations. Employees need to know where they are hitting the mark and where they need to focus and improve so that they are more able to put an appropriate development plan in place for themselves. Providing feedback may not always be comfortable; however, a few words of specific, actionable feedback can help an employee make the course corrections needed to stay on track. Employees need to know how they are perceived in the organization in order to make informed choices about how they will manage their professional reputations. Talent savvy leaders help employees select truth-tellers – the individuals in their career audience who see them in action and can provide the feedback they need. If managers ask their employees whose feedback they most value in the organization and why…it will trigger the beginnings of this important conversation. Employees can’t grow if they don’t know what to keep and what to change.

Offering Information

Managers can help employees make informed development decisions because they often have a wider view and access to more information about the forces and trends that will shape the organization’s tomorrow. Managers who share their view of upcoming changes, point employees to information sources and invite discussion about the industry, the organization and the culture, build a team that is aware of factors that will impact their career decisions. If employees are expected to be proactive in a chaotic world, they need opportunities for candid discussion and the ability to tap into one another’s networks.

Encouraging Options

Employees must identify and own their career goals, but managers can encourage them to explore multiple directions so they’re not discouraged when a path of choice is blocked and help them recognize opportunities to enrich their current role through developing. Pointing employees first at the current job as a terrain that can be further explored for growth may provide a way to move more quickly on the learning identified. Providing information about upcoming opportunities and resources during informal as well as formal employee discussions helps align plans with organizational directions and industry trends. Gauthier points out, “If you ask a manager to define career development, they will eight times out of ten think ‘up.’ Therefore, if I don’t have a promotional opportunity for my employee, avoiding the conversation is the path of least resistance. When they adjust their mindset to the notion that career development is about many options and their role is that of a coach, they feel relief.” An actionable goal includes contingencies for shifts and changes that arise and links directly to the organization’s strategy.

Recommending Resources

When employees know what they want and what they need they can more easily craft solid development goals. The manager’s focus now is to connect them to people, and resources that will support goal achievement. A manager who shares a network of contacts inside and outside the organization creates an interactive web of people that supports development, communication and connection. As managers create communities of learners and promote continuous learning, development-focused work environments multiply.


Managers offer a variety of reasons for losing their development focus. Three major barriers are clear:

Lack of Time

There is little on managers’ To Do lists these days that is not important. The key to addressing the time issue is to identify ways to build the conversation into existing interactions. Multiple opportunities exist at the start and end of assignments and projects.  Managers who use development questions frequently and will demonstrate that the organization values development and learning.

Unreasonable Expectations

The more frequently managers provide this information at the time of performance and link it to goals that have been set, the less chance individuals have to form expectations that are off base. An objective review of why the manager’s perception differs from the employee’s view opens the door for gathering more input from others in the individual’s career audience. Ultimately this helps individuals set more realistic goals.

Fear of the unknown

Career conversations though are unpredictable. Preparing managers to enter into these conversations confident that they don’t have to have answers, but rather are there to help employees discover what is best for them and for the organization sets the stage for a discussion about possibilities.

It’s the Relationship

Central to the talent development relationship is trust.  Individuals need to believe that their managers care about their growth.  Although the responsibility rests squarely on their own shoulders, the manager’s perspective, insight, network and continued dialogue is essential to their engagement.

Managers have the power to build the relationships and partnerships that will develop today’s talent for tomorrow. Learning leaders will need to hold managers accountable for having these conversations and provide the learning solutions that make the task less arduous.  If talent is the ultimate competitive edge, then preparing managers to build development dialogues needs to be a fundamental part of the overall learning strategy.

When Managers…

Uncover Talent They:

  • Match talent to business needs.
  • Discover hidden or underutilized skills and abilities.
  • Check their assumptions about individual capabilities.
  • Motivate employees more effectively.

Provide Feedback They:

  • Communicate more effectively with employees
  • Prepare employees to gather feedback from a variety of sources.
  • Guide employees to leverage strengths and develop in ways that support their growth.
  • Offer frequent, timely guidance as part of how they lead and manage.

Offer Information They:

  • Prepare employees for changes on the horizon.
  • Share which skills and abilities are essential to the organization’s future.
  • Define organizational norms and culture more clearly.
  • Help employees make informed development decisions.

Encourage Options They:

  • Encourage employees to work on several career goals simultaneously.
  • Connect development plans to the organization’s strategy.
  • Identify options for enriching jobs and careers.
  • Provide reality checks as goals are defined.

Recommend Resources, They:

  • Provide ideas for learning on the job.
  • Monitor progress and step in to help if things get off-track.
  • Identify barriers that might derail employees’ plans.
  • Offer connections that support career goals.

Lindy Williams is a Senior Consultant with Career Systems International.  In her corporate career she led a global career development effort for American Express.

Beverly Kaye is the Co-CEO and Founder of Career Systems International and co-author of Up Is Not the Only Way and Love ‘Em or Lose ‘Em: Getting Good People to Stay.

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