A couple of years ago I was introduced to the distinction between complex and complicated—one of the most useful and liberating distinctions I have ever learned. In a nutshell, complicated is predictable and knowable, even if there are a lot of steps, whereas complex is unknowable in advance. Embracing complexity allows us to let go of the belief that we can or should know what will happen next and instead, adopt an attitude of curiosity and experimentation. As we navigate complexity, we’re often surprised, discover things that we couldn’t see before, learn along the way and are likely to end up in a different place than we thought we would.
This distinction was top of mind as I read the just-launched second edition of Julie Winkle Giulioni and Beverly Kaye’s Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Organizations Need and Employees Want. While they’ve written an easy-to-read, graphically compelling and exceptionally practical guidebook to creating meaningful career conversations, their approach fully embraces the inherent unpredictability in navigating one’s career, especially in increasingly complex times. In practice, this means that the emphasis in career conversations shifts from processes and paperwork, to organic and dynamic conversations between employers and employees.
I recently spent some time with Julie, who is a friend and colleague, and wanted to share some of what I learned from reading the book and through our conversation.
Traditional approaches to career development are grounded in equally traditional (and largely outdated) notions of how people work and how organizations operate. These approaches lead to several “immobilizing myths.” Julie shared that the most widespread myth is that there isn’t enough time for career conversations. However, if we begin to see career development conversations as ongoing, in-the-moment interactions, predicated in genuine curiosity, then the “no time” argument fades away.
Julie described an exercise that she designed in which participants practice 60-second career conversations. The “leader” asks one well-chosen, compelling question such as: “What are you loving most about the work you’re doing now?” The “employee” then thinks out loud while the manager is genuinely curious about what they say. Note that in this short interaction, the manager uses about 10% of the time and the and the employee—the remaining 90%. That’s exactly the way these organic career conversations go. They are all about listening, curiosity, planting seeds. They are not about figuring everything out. Over time ideas can emerge and take shape. The manager and employee are, as a result of this ongoing conversation, on the lookout for growth opportunities.
Another powerful and prevalent myth is that having a career conversation when you can’t offer a promotion will make things worse. As Julie pointed out, that’s only true if all people want is a promotion—and the data shows that this is simply untrue. People want to grow, and they are thinking about this whether you talk to them about it or not. If you engage in the conversation you can harness the desire to grow.
From Ladder to Climbing Wall
The traditional view of careers uses the metaphor of a ladder, and it no longer fits the way we work and the way the workplace is organized. Instead, Kaye and Giulioni offer up a new metaphor for careers—a climbing wall. There are lots of different ways to move—up, down and sideways—even standing still can be a purposeful choice (and not as static as it might seem.)
One of the most significant ways that we can make this shift it to move away from a conversation about what employees want to be—focused on title and status—and towards what they want to do, which is the work itself. When we do this we discover that most development opportunities don’t require a formal change in title or role. This realization, the authors write, is “the best-kept secret that will liberate development-minded managers everywhere.” Development can happen where you are.
Julie and I talked about what it takes for leaders to cultivate curiosity. At the core, it’s not about developing new skills as much as it’s about adopting a new mindset. As a leader, you relinquish the need to have an answer and trust that ideas and opportunities will emerge if you’re both paying attention. It asks that you, as a leader, be genuinely interested in the people who work for you—as people—and learn more about what motivates, inspires and engages them in all parts of their lives.
What make this “simple but not easy” is that to have these kinds of conversations means that we need to get comfortable with bringing our whole selves into a conversation and asking that the people who work for us do the same. It means that the boundaries between what is personal and what is work get a little blurry (which we both agreed was a good thing.)
It’s also important to note that this also requires a shift for the employee. Julie noted the importance of being realistic in the hiring process, rather than creating unrealistic expectations about career trajectories. There’s a tendency to paint a picture of quick acceleration up the ladder in order to get someone in the door, a practice that is likely to result in an inability to keep someone in the door when it can’t be realized. Instead, we can talk about the opportunities for genuine growth and learning, and make that a reality.
I asked Julie what she’d recommend for a leader to start doing if they were ready to embrace this approach. She suggested two things
Get curious and ask questions. Recall the kinds of questions you typically ask in an interview and keep asking those questions. You can also find a wealth of questions in the book—it’s just about finding one that you’re intrigued by. In Julie’s words: “That moment that you bring intention and curiosity to the conversation, you can move the needle—helping someone reflect, identify an insight, feel motivated, just think about things a little differently.
Explore “foresight” and the bigger picture.
This might be a bit less intuitive. The questions we’ve talked about so far fit into the category that the authors call hindsight questions that are reflective and personal in nature. Another kind of question supports what Kaye and Giulioni call foresight conversations. These are questions that look ahead—what’s happening in the organization, the industry, in business, and in the world that will influence the kinds of opportunities that might reveal themselves. It might initially be surprising to connect this kind of conversation to career development. “And yet,” Julie shared, “it’s essential. It creates the context within which careers operate and defines the space in which an individual adds value and creates a sustainable future inside or even outside the organization.”
Julie suggests that these foresight questions be included as a part of team meetings. Different team members can report on what they are learning, creating a rich learning experience and informing individuals’ thinking about their own future. These conversations help employees better understand the larger economic, political and environmental contexts that they are operating in. This, in turn, allows them to get a better view of what’s possible and where they can best put their time and attention. A secondary benefit of foresight conversations is that they help employees build their business acumen, increasingly their value to an employer.
A Word About Culture
This second edition of Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go includes a chapter that was not part of the initial edition, focusing on organizational culture. In the first edition, the authors emphasized the power of an individual manager to influence the career development conversation. This new chapter addresses the power of the larger culture to extend what individual managers can do if a culture supports this approach. The authors note, “When the culture aligns behind development, it amplifies everything that’s possible and helps to remove some of the bigger organizational barriers.” In a tight labor market, potential employees are making decisions based on the culture they are going to be a part of and the opportunities it will offer. An expansive, dynamic approach to development will both bring people in and enable them to stay longer.
At the start of our conversation, Julie shared with me that career development is at the very top of the list of what employees want, and companies and organizations are still not good at providing it. As long as we treat this as a complicated process, that is unlikely to change. Only honest, reflective and frequent conversations will move the needle. Engaging in these conversations will not only help employees grow, it will support your growth as a leader and drive organizational growth too. A virtuous cycle, and everyone wins.
Given the complex world we live in, it might feel difficult to imagine where our careers will take us, or feel certain that we’re giving good advice to individuals on our teams. But instead of waiting for certainty (which will never come), the only choice we have is to start the conversation, and see where it takes us.