3 things we learned from Google

By Susanne May


3 things we learned from Google talking to employees about their careers.


Take a minute and think about the last time you had a conversation with one of your direct reports about their career development. A couple of weeks ago, maybe a year? Never? Hmm... That should make you think. Through the work with our clients, we have witnessed far too many managers fail to adequately develop their employees. And career conversations are one of the most important areas for managers to focus on.


Confucius recommends to “choose the work you love” so that “you will never have to work a day in your life.” Thus, good career conversations explore someone’s life stories and unravel dreams, personal values, needs, motives, and hidden talents. The key is to turn all of these insights into a personal vision with a practical roadmap. Unfortunately, some organizations confuse career development with backwards looking performance reviews or promotion promises. Others create half-hearted career plans with their employees and never follow up on them, a fact often reported in low engagement survey scores as the number one cause of badly managed work cultures.


Spanx founder Sara Blakely inspired my understanding of career development in her Masterclass. She said that you will have people in your company whose career visions do not necessarily coincide with the framework of your company. It is not your job as a manager to fit their vision into your company, but rather to make sure that their time with you moves them toward that goal. Russ Laraway, former Senior Director at Google believes that “managers can grow and retain top talent by helping their employees articulate a long-term career vision.” His simple and convincing career development framework designed at Google helps people to grow towards their dream jobs while developing effectively in their current role.


We tested this out in our company and here is how it works.


Step 1 – Get to know them: Start with a 1 conversation to understand the past behind your directs. Start by asking them to tell you about their life, beginning with kindergarten. Then keep quit, listen actively, and probe with open questions to help explore pivotal moments in their life stories. One of my directs, for example, constantly witnessed her parents struggle financially to provide for their three children. When she went to university, she cleverly found ways to reduce the tuition fees so she could relieve her parents from any financial burden. This experience made her understand the value and importance of education. Together we discovered her calling, “to empower others through knowledge.”


Look for these 5-7 defining life stories which helps you identify patterns forming one’s personal beliefs and value system. Write them down and help your direct report reflect on what truly matters to them and what brought them to where they are today.


Step 2 – The big dream: In another 1-hour conversation, help your direct reports focus on their big dreams. Don’t make it time-bound and ask: “In the pinnacle of your career, when you feel challenged and engaged and you don’t want to do anything else, what are you doing?” Then, go more specific and help clarify the industry, function, role, and team size they desire. Continue to ask open curiosity questions and write down their answers. With this questioning technique you narrow down their big dreams into a more concrete career vision.


One of my team members decided to pursue a full-time human rights study in a rather unknown university. After a career discussion earlier the year, she discovered for herself to go broader while studying a part-time Executive MPA in one of the most prestigious schools in Berlin. May & Company helped her balance the financial constraints. Stay a curious listener and explorer during these conversations, as it might turn out that your top talents will tell you that they have a big dream which is not necessarily connected to your company.


Step 3 – Create a plan: In the last 1-hour conversation, you have all the necessary information to build a career action plan together. Focus on three areas:


One of our younger team members discovered his passion for numbers and processes in the past year and decided to grow into finance. We co-created a practical career roadmap by drafting a role description and an actionable career plan. We included practical support to increase functional skills with the help of our tax advisor as well as a mentor who previously worked in a finance role.


Finally, follow up on the progress of the career plan in at least one more yearly meeting. For us as a team, it was breathtaking to see how fast our young member developed into a serious finance-pro, tremendously supporting our business sustainability and financial guidance. Connecting the directs’ current roles to their big dreams and visions can not only be extremely motivating, but also a productivity booster for your team members.


People will grow with or without you. It’s your job as a manager to help them. Leaving the purpose and people officer role entirely to HR will not be enough to keep your top talents inside your company or motivate them to bring their best contributions. Helping them grow in their current role towards their career vision will not only be incredibly rewarding, but also significantly impact your company’s results and help your people and organization’s culture thrive.

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