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Many leaders in small and emerging businesses avoid career conversations because they mistakenly believe it leads to expectations of moving up the ladder. When there's nowhere to go, why open that Pandora's Box of disappointment?

Most employees need and want to have career conversations. When you look at why talent leaves organizations "lack of a clear career path" invariably bubbles to the top of the list – usually just behind "relationship with my manager." The two are probably related.

Avoiding career conversations doesn't make the need to have them go away . In today's mobile work world, where university students are told they will have 18 jobs in a 10-year period, your employees come in with one eye looking out the door for their next opportunity. Having the big "career" discussion – and having it frequently – may be your best opportunity to retain key personnel.

Here are a few things to consider:

Start at the beginning

A career conversation should start in the interview process. Find out what the candidate wants to do longer term and ask how joining your company will fit with their plan. Hire people whose interests align with the opportunities you have available or that you can foresee becoming available.

It's not necessarily about a title

In Dan Pink's book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, he shares that, once money is off the table, humans are motivated by autonomy, mastery and purpose. In other words, we like to be left alone to work as we see fit, we like getting better at something we enjoy, and we need to be connected to a bigger picture (not just the profit number).

The implication for those of us trying to engage and retain employees without the lever of multiple divisions, locations or hierarchy to promote people is this: If you focus your energy on giving your staff maximum autonomy around their roles, if you encourage them to develop their strengths and there's a bigger reason "why" they are coming to work every day (beyond a pay cheque), chances are you'll have people who feel like they are growing and developing, even if they aren't necessarily being "promoted."

Be prepared that an employee doesn't have a career goal

Most people struggle to articulate where they see their careers going, and despite all the chanting about employees needing to drive their own careers, most of them still look to their boss to light the way. If you're not regularly connecting with your staff on how they want to develop with your company, you'll risk having them look for the answer outside your organization. High potential employees, in particular, will look around, not see an open role and immediately assume it's time to move on.

There's nothing worse than losing a great employee to a competitor to do work you need done at your own shop. This is where getting out the confines of "job descriptions" becomes key. Find out from your employees what they enjoy about their current roles and what they'd like to do more of. Assuming these activities are what the business needs, you'll have a win-win. If an employee wants to contribute in ways that have no value to the business, then at least having the conversation early allows you to strategize on the next best steps.

Today's leaders need to be a combination of career coach (asking the right questions), career realist (balancing what a business needs with what an individual wants), and career ambassador (looking for opportunities beyond job descriptions and departments). Retaining key talent is really an exercise in shared success. It's all about the right conversation at the right time, and having that conversation in the first place.

Glain Roberts-McCabe is the founder and president of The Executive Roundtable, an organization that accelerates and helps engage and retain next-generation executive talent.

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