How to have talent conversations that really matter
Rather than worrying about how much time conversations with employees take away from regular work, Daljit Singh advises leaders to use ‘talent conversations’ as a tool to build a rapport with employees and maximise their potential.
For leaders, an important talent management practice is to understand the extent to which their people are having a fulfilling and thriving career in their organisation.
Unfortunately, many leaders have poor knowledge of their employees’ expectations and experiences. For example, research by McKinsey has revealed a disconnect between what employers think their employees value, and what their employees do value (De Smet et. al., 2021).
A talent conversation should be a focused one-on-one conversation to enable you, as a leader, to better understand the perspectives of individuals regarding their career with your organisation. Having effective talent conversations will help you:
- support your people to have fulfilling careers
- build stronger one-on-one relationships
- foster greater engagement and motivation
- improve talent retention
- develop a stronger talent pipeline.
Having these conversations that really matter should be an integral part of your talent strategy.
Five steps to success
There are five steps to have an impactful talent conversation – framing, opening, engaging, closing and following up. Each step is described below with practical tips.
Framing happens before the conversation itself. It is about sharing your purpose and inviting the individual to self-reflect on their career prior to the conversation. Three actions are critical in this phase:
- emphasise that your purpose is to help them to have a successful and fulfilling career
- request them to self-reflect using a brief list of questions, such as these:
- What are your career aspirations and goals – in the medium (2-3 years) and longer term (5 or more years)?
- What is going well, and what could be better, in achieving your aspirations and goals?
- What do you see as your biggest opportunities and challenges?
- Which of your talents could be better utilised?
- How can I better support you?
- What else is important to you that we should discuss?
- ask if they have any questions about the purpose or these self-reflection questions.
When you meet, open the conversation by recapping its purpose, describe how it will be conducted, and how it will be different from other conversations with them. You should:
- restate the purpose of the conversation as communicated in the framing
- reinforce your desire to understand and appreciate their views (this is especially important if you have not had a conversation like this before)
- explain how you would like to proceed through the steps of the conversation
- outline how this is going to be different from the typical performance-review conversation (this is focused on career rather than performance, is future rather than past orientated, and based on dialogue, rather than the delivery of feedback)
- ask if they have any questions and comments before moving to the next step.
Make it a two-way conversation, rather than an ‘interview’ conducted by you. Create a psychologically safe environment that will help individuals to engage, open up, and actively participate. Spend more time listening than speaking and cover these elements:
- ask them to share their response to the self-reflection questions
- actively listen – give them your full attention, be open and non-judgemental
- be curious and ask follow-up open questions to understand them better
- recognise their achievements and progress in achieving their aspirations and goals
- ask them about the pros and cons of different opportunities
- seek their thoughts on how to overcome challenges
- spend more time on the areas in which they are interested
- provide your guidance, but after seeking their views, as topics are discussed
- share your own career experiences and learnings
- invite suggestions for improving any relevant organisational talent practices
- encourage them to create an action plan (up to three actions) and offer your support
- ask if they have any other questions and comments before moving to the close.
Finish the conversation by going over the key points discussed and outlining the next steps. Cover these elements:
- summarise your understanding of the key points covered, including agreed actions
- invite them to correct any errors in the summary and to add any other comments
- get their feedback on the conversation, including any suggestions for improvement
- encourage them to take timely action to maintain a sense of momentum
- agree on when you will catch up again (e.g., periodic coffee meetings)
- encourage them to raise any issues that may arise between catch-up meetings
- thank them for their active participation and contribution.
5. Following up
Follow up the conversation by implementing agreed actions and having the catch-up meetings to discuss how they are going. Identify the key themes from all your talent conversations so these can be used to help improve organisational talent practices. You should:
- ensure that you deliver on any commitments you have made
- schedule and have the agreed catch-up meetings
- invite them to share their progress (and learning) at these meetings
- recognise their achievements and provide guidance and support
- inquire if there is anything else important to them that needs discussion
- share the key themes from all your talent conversations with your human resources function (without breaching confidentiality) so these can be used to help improve organisational talent practices.
The five-step approach reflects the roles of the leader and the individual in enabling the individual to have a fulfilling career. The leader facilitates the conversation and uses the insights they gain from the conversation to better support the individual. The individual engages actively in the conversation, gains new insights, receives support, and is encouraged to own and manage their own career.
How to support talent conversations
Provide support for talent conversations by focusing on mindsets, skills and reinforcing implementation.
It is critical to understand the mindsets (beliefs and assumptions) that your leaders hold regarding these conversations. Have a dialogue with them to explore mindsets and identify any potential barriers to having the conversations.
Here are examples of some barriers and possible responses.
“I don’t believe that people will open up.”
“I am worried about raising expectations and not delivering.”
“This will take too much of my time.”
Offer skills development opportunities to your leaders as some of them will lack the skills and confidence to have the conversations. They may not have experienced these conversations themselves and will lack role models to emulate.
Include practical activities in a program based on the five steps, and ensure sufficient practice in asking open questions, active listening, and summarising as these are core conversational skills. Also include an open discussion on leader mindsets as noted above.
3. Reinforcing implementation
Reinforce implementation by setting expectations of your leaders and people to have these conversations, share success stories, and get ongoing feedback from all to improve the organisational-wide quality of the conversations.
For all leaders, it is important to have talent conversations with employees that really matter by adopting the five-step approach, and provide support by focusing on mindsets, skills and reinforcing implementation.
- De Smet, A, et.al. (2021), ‘Great Attrition’ or ‘Great Attraction?’ The Choice is Yours. McKinsey Quarterly, September.
- Hirsch, W. (2018), Effective Performance, Development and Career Conversations at Work. Institute for Employment Studies.
- Itzchakov, G. and Kluger. A.N. (2018), The Power of Listening in Helping People Change. HBR.org.
- Rogelberg, S. G. (2022), Make the Most of Your One-on-One Meetings. Harvard Business Review, November-December.
Daljit Singh is the Principal of Transforming Talent, and a Teaching Fellow at the Australian College of Law, where he teaches two post-graduate subjects – Workforce of the Future, and Leadership. Daljit has held senior talent management and leadership development roles at KPMG and Baker McKenzie. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.