Skip to main content

Banister senior associate Tracy With, left, chatting with company president Linda Banister, says career discussions with her boss have helped her rise swiftly through the ranks.

For much of her career, Tracy With worked for managers who didn't bother to review her performance regularly, let alone talk about her career plans.

So when Ms. With snagged a job at an Edmonton market research firm eight years ago, she figured she was in for more of the same.

Not so. She was surprised to learn that her performance would be formally reviewed not once but twice a year. Even more unexpected was the two-way conversation that ensued. Along with evaluating how well she had been fulfilling the job requirements and where she might improve, Ms. With's boss asked her directly about her career goals within the company.

At first it was unnerving. "I swear, I just had a blank look on my face, I didn't know how to react," Ms. With says.

But it got her thinking about her career path in earnest. "When you sit there and have a meeting with someone who's asking, 'What do you want to do with your career?' [and]'How do you want to develop your skills here?' you have to have an answer to that."

Ms. With's discussions with her employer, Banister Research and Consulting Inc., about her career goals have helped her rise swiftly through the ranks, moving from call centre manager - a role that didn't put her master's degree in statistics and research methodology to good use - to senior associate. As employees above her moved on, Ms. With took their place. "It worked out that when people left and opportunities presented themselves, rather than going outside to hire, they looked internally."

That development support has been significant to her job satisfaction, and key to her decision to stay with her employer, she says. "You feel more empowered, you feel more engaged …" says Ms. With, adding, "I think it's as important as benefits and hours of work."

New research suggests that Ms. With is among the minority. More than a third - 37 per cent -of workers never engage in discussions about their career with their managers, according to a recent survey of 700 North American workers by staffing firm Right Management Inc. Another 30 per cent have the chat once a year, 17 per cent twice a year and 15 per cent every three months, the survey found.

Even in performance reviews, conversations about career may not come up. "There are competing priorities for all of us in the work we do," says Liz Grant, vice-president and national practice leader for career management at Right. "As managers, do we have time to have another conversation about helping people advance their careers?"

In these tough times, overloaded workers and managers might be even less likely to find the time. And workers fearing for their jobs might be hesitant to rock any boats by raising their career progress with their boss.

But employees would be smart to take the initiative to kick-start discussions about their career path and progress, experts say. If you don't, you may find yourself becoming bored, unmotivated or stuck in a role. "You have to be active in your career. Don't let your career happen to you," advises Joe MacKay, owner of Edmonton-based career and corporate development firm BGS Enterprises.

Those who don't communicate what they want could be overlooked for promotions or projects, Mr. MacKay says.

Moreover, problematic employees are more likely to command the attention of bosses than those who are competently doing their job, he says. "Managers are busy. Unfortunately, it's sometimes the squeaky wheel that gets the grease."

Until you chat with the boss, you might have no idea of what kinds of opportunities could be available to you. Managers may be privy to possibilities their direct reports are not aware of. Even when money is tight, there may be chances for employees to expand their skills and experiences, says Shirin Khamisa, head coach of Toronto's Careers By Design. When organizations are short-staffed, for instance, there may be opportunities to step outside a job description and try new things.

It can be a scary conversation to have in an uncertain economy, when so many are simply hoping to hold on to their jobs. But most employees face little risk in raising their careers with their bosses, and are more likely to find rewards, says Nicole Williams, author of Girl on Top: Your Guide to Turning Dating Rules into Career Success.

At the very least, you'll find out how your manager views you. "Often having the conversations means, 'I'm invested in you,'" Ms. Williams says. If your manager dodges the talk, that might signal you are not seen as upwardly mobile as you might have thought. "Better you know now than in 10 years from now, when you're still in this low-level job with no responsibility," she says.

Ms. Grant says you should aim for career discussions at least twice a year, and they should "also be part of an ongoing dialogue. Conversations needn't happen exclusively in the context of a performance review or even a formal meeting," she says.

"Find out what's keeping your manager awake at night and how that aligns with your strengths and how you can support them on that," she suggests. Offering to help out on a particular task can open the door to career development discussions with a busy manager.

Victoria-based career coach Michele Waters, owner of Victoria's Career Quest Coaching, advises employees to consider their boss's personality. "Approach them in a way that's appropriate for their style," she says. If your boss prefers e-mail, send one along with a request to talk; if your boss is swamped but never misses his or her lunch-hour walk, ask to tag along.

In preparing for a meeting, reflect on what you've accomplished in the course of your career at the company and how your goals might mesh with your employer's. "There are ways of finding those opportunities," says Ms. Grant. For instance, if you'd like a communications role in the long-term, and your company doesn't have someone doing this work currently, you might offer to do the company's quarterly newsletter.

It's important to come into a meeting with concrete ideas about how you might expand your skills and presence in your organization. Assess gaps in the company that you could fill with current qualifications and experience, or further develop your talents, Ms. Khamisa suggests.

Managers should also be encouraging such discussions, Ms. Grant says, for "having these conversations is really linked to employee engagement."

And working with employees to dovetail their interests and goals with their job makes people more productive, Ms. Khamisa says. "When your employees or direct reports feel they can come to you and you'll be an ally for them in their career development, that's really going to strengthen the relationship."

Special to The Globe and Mail


How to have the chat with the boss


Ask for it Feel entitled to ask your boss to help you develop. Think of the approach that will best work with your manager's style and personality.

Be prepared Have a clear sense of where you want to go with your career, and how your boss can help you get there. Have suggestions of what you might do, even outside your job description, and what it will take.

Align your goals Set targets for your own career that will also clearly help your employer's own goals.

Script it out Come up with evidence of your successes that might inspire faith in your ability to take on new challenges. Be prepared to discuss aspects of your performance that need improvement before you're given new goals or opportunities.

Keep the discussion going Get your boss to commit to regular chats about your career progress. Keeping the dialogue going outside of formal meetings will keep your career growth top of mind - for both of you. Being held accountable will help you achieve your professional goals.

Have realistic expectations It could take time for conversations to become comfortable for both you and your boss. It may also take time to identify the goals that most align and the most appropriate ways to reach them.


Commit to coaching Part of a manager's job is to motivate employees. Initiating or embracing career discussions with staff can help you get the best out of employees.

Maintain control Conversations that relate to an employee's performance are never easy, for either side. Keep focused on creative solutions.

Have an open-door policy Being open to chatting with your employees about their career growth outside of an annual performance review can make the conversation more relaxed. You'll generate better strategies if the subject is regularly on the radar.

Look for ways employees can help each other Perhaps an employee has little time available to put together the annual budget, but another is eager to put his or her accounting skills to work. Consider that tasks can be reassigned, or shared, in order to keep many employees engaged and happy.

Caitlin Crawshaw

Interact with The Globe