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Effective Coaching for Talent Management

by Beverly Kaye

Nothing is more daunting today than the need to attract and retain high quality talent. It's a strategic issue, a competitive issue and a cost issue! In this piece, one of our most renowned scholar-practitioners on careers, retention and engagement, Dr. Beverly Kaye, has developed five areas for effective talent conversations and coaching. Bev focuses on what leaders need to discuss with employees and provides some useful starter questions to help them Listen to, Level with, Look Ahead for, Leverage and Link their talent.

Look at any employee opinion or satisfaction survey and you will see that one thing employees want more of from those who lead them is a relationship. They feel engaged by their work and cared for by their organizations when they are able to have open, honest, two-way conversations about their abilities, interests and options. They want their managers to listen to their perspectives, offer their points of view, and provide encouragement, support and development opportunities. They don't expect all the answers, but they really want to have the dialogue.

Research continues to highlight the importance of engagement and retention and their relationships to productivity, satisfaction and commitment. How leaders pay attention to and talk with the members of their teams is critical in the perception, feeling and reality of whether the organization is concerned, cares or is interested in an individual's growth, development and career success.

Leaders who want to effectively and successfully manage the talent on their teams need a set of skills for talent conversations. Here are five key areas that drive good talent talks and some key questions to use in starting the dialogue.

Leaders must listen for skills, interests and values.

The concept of matching people (their skills, interests and values) to positions (duties, responsibilities, competencies, and skill requirements) is known as career fit. Career fit suggests that when people "fit" with their positions, the result is increased job satisfaction, quality, productivity, morale, and a greater likelihood that they will continue to grow and develop. Leaders must inquire and listen to discover talent.

Leaders can help their talent understand and articulate their unique attributes, and how they contribute to the organization. They should probe more deeply into their career aspirations, challenge them to think about their potential for growth and development, and help them raise concerns they may have about their current position or future career.

Consider the following questions to open discussions:

  • Which assignments have most challenged you? Least challenged you? Why?
  • When you are having a really good day at work, what values, skills and interests are operating?

Leaders must level about strengths and development needs

Talented employees want constructive, developmental feedback, provided on a regular basis throughout the year, which focuses on their strengths and lays out opportunities for growth and development in the future.

This conversation is a two-way street. Leaders need to be open and honest about how their employees are performing in their current positions, how they can improve, and what they need to do to achieve their career goals. Employees need to ask for feedback from multiple sources to get a more accurate picture of how they are perceived. Feedback from leaders and others will help employees make better career decisions, establish more realistic career goals and develop in a meaningful way that is aligned with their current position, future career aspirations and the organization's needs.


Some questions you might ask to begin this conversation include:

  • If you asked three people in the organization to give you feedback on your greatest strengths, what would they say?
  • What do you believe are the most critical areas of your current position? How would you rate yourself in these areas?

Leaders must look ahead at trends and business needs

Looking ahead means identifying trends and collecting information on the larger organization, industry, profession and community, as well as, relevant labor market trends. Look for any and all information that may impact career aspirations and development needs.

Talented employees must know their company's business strategy and direction, where the industry and profession are headed, and how they can identify future competency requirements to align their development with business needs. Effective career planning and development demands reliable and current information.

These kinds of questions can be useful in a look-ahead conversation:

  • Have you read the organization's annual report? What new directions stand out? Does this suggest any important skills areas that you need to develop?
  • Are you optimistic about the organization's future? What are the specific reasons you feel this way? Do you see new opportunities for yourself?

Leaders must leverage options and goals

Leveraging is helping your employees identify multiple, realistic options for their development. Given the rapid pace of change in today's world, it is imperative that talented employees have multiple options and goals. Then when changes occur, they can simply switch gears and move to the next logical option. Our research suggests six distinct types of options:

  • Enrichment or growing in place
  • Lateral or moving across
  • Exploratory or looking around
  • Realignment or moving down
  • Relocation or moving out
  • Vertical or moving up

In exploring and leveraging options, the following can be useful:

  • What are some of the career goals you are thinking about?
  • Which goals seem most in sync with where the organization is going?

Leaders must provide a link to resources

Finally, talented employees need information, contacts, opportunities for growth, and channels for development. Savvy leaders provide the guidance, encouragement and support for their talent to build better networks.

Leaders need to ensure that the assignments provide opportunities for learning. Employees need to reflect on what they have done so they can learn from the experience. This can be facilitated following assignments by asking what worked and what didn't, what they would do the same or differently in the future.

Leaders also help grow talent by introducing them to their professional network or enlisting others who can serve as mentors or coaches. There are also company training and outside education options. In any case, the leader must pay attention to connecting employees to the resources they need to succeed.

These questions might help to provide linkage:

  • What outside networks would help your goals?
  • Who would you like as a mentor or coach? How can I help you enlist his or her support?

Talent Talk should be regular and on going. Individuals will interpret inconsistent attention to their development as indifference, leading to their withdrawal of commitment and energy. The skill sets described here require that leaders truly understand their employees' talents, challenge them, open channels for their development and provide links for them to other resources. OD consultants must not take ownership for these talks, instead they must provide the tips, tools and practical steps to insure that line leaders can fit these important conversations into an already overflowing plate.

Beverly Kaye co-author of the international bestseller Love ‘Em or Lose ‘Em: Getting Good People to Stay (Berrett-Koehler, 2005) and Love It Don’t Leave It: 26 Ways to Get What You Want at Work (Berrett-Koehler, 2003) and author of the classic Up Is Not The Only Way (Davies-Black), is one of the nation’s leading authorities on career development, mentoring, retention and engagement. She can be reached at:

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