I am one who is inspired by ideas, and, who draws my energy from others. Throughout my career, I have found nothing more enjoyable than to help guide, coach and learn from employees at all levels and stages of their career paths, and, to take the journey with them. It fascinates and thrills me to no end to watch people grow and develop. One of the key things to my approach is to give my team permission to dream and suspend all the trappings and boundaries that might impede their idea turning into a reality. Given budget constraints and various policy limitations, that can be hard to accomplish, but it is worth the effort.
I often start with new employees (or if I am new to the organization) with quality one-on-one conversations to understand and get to know my team. This is, of course, a great leadership practice. I try to take it a step further by probing into what the employee thought their career would be when they started out, or, by asking them to talk about what they dreamt of doing for their career. This kind of conversation quickly establishes where they are, where they wish they would be, and, choices they have made about where they want to head in their development. Obviously, the answers will certainly have a broad range if the employee is a recent graduate with a few years of experience or a seasoned professional. These types of questions help snap the employee out of their current mindset and take a walk down memory lane a bit.
Once we have started this journey together, I probe a bit further on the experiences in their career that they treasure the most. I try to learn more about the details of the circumstances. At this stage, I start to really understand more about how the employee is fulfilled by their work. This is, indeed, where the discussion starts to evolve from their dreams, innovative ideas and desire to grow. I use a few basic questions to help guide this part of the discussion:
· If you could do everything over again, what would your career look like today?
· Is there any one thing you wish you could do?
· If resources/environment were not a factor, what do you wish we could do for the organization?
· Who do you admire in the workplace and why? Are those skills ones you would like to acquire?
I use the answers to these questions to start to make connections to how “dreams” can be possible through new opportunities, shadowing current team members, seeking targeted mentorship from peers and seniors, and what, if any, training could be helpful. Granted, there is not always a one-on-one answer for these elements. But, I have found that starting this level of dialog opens the door to further discussion and promotes empowerment of the employee to take charge of their careers. Even for those employees who have mapped out the next steps in development and advancement, this type of discussion can help to build a realistic roadmap.
For an employee struggling to meet expectations, the discussion can also help to understand where the challenges are and what may be potential ways to address them. I have found that I can quickly assess whether it is a matter of skill or will.
This focus on dreaming acknowledges to the employee that, as the leader, I am empowering them not to let barriers and obstacles get in the way of what will satisfy them. Once this door is open, it is critical for the employee to know you support them and are there for them. It is, however, their journey to drive as fast or slow as they want; it is important to establish that expectation with the employee.
With each discussion, there is a degree of follow through needed on both sides. For me, I usually follow up via phone call and/or email outlining our discussion and next steps on my end. I also ask the employee to take what they vocalized in our discussion and articulate it in writing. This part of the exercise can truly help an employee overcome what may have been perceived barriers by simply putting it in writing. As the leader, this also gives me key points and areas to consider as new opportunities arise and how they might fit into the employee’s overall goals.
Lastly, I make sure these discussions are a compliment to whatever assessment or review process my company follows. This is as much about me connecting with the employee and making the commitment to them as a partner in their development.
If we forget to dream or fail to give others permission to do so in the work environment, it is unfair to then ask them to be creative, innovative and flexible. We as leaders must remove at least some of the barriers that may surround them.
— Amee Roberson
(This is the second in a series of articles by Amee, who is the Chairman of the Army Public Affairs Association. She has 30 years of change management, communications, employee engagement, facilitation and strategic planning experience.)