Skip to main content
The Employee Experience Platform | Culture Amp
A manager’s guide to successful development conversations
Contributor - Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Writer, Culture Amp

Actionable and measurable development is key to retaining your best talent and keeping employees satisfied. Manager support is an essential part of the development process. Without it, employees may lack the confidence or direction to follow through on development plans, stunting their growth or leading them to look for a role with another organization.

When managers are equipped with the tools and insights needed to steer development conversations, employees feel better supported – and managers and employees understand how to put their development plans into action.

The manager’s role

Development is most effective when it’s owned by the employee – it’s their future after all. The manager’s role is to support their direct reports across every step of these plans. When managers feel empowered to support conversations around growth, they can:

  • Foster a shared understanding of employees’ aspirations, goals, and desires
  • Create alignment of expectations, and provide a sense check of what’s realistic
  • Help drive self-awareness through coaching exercises
  • Connect employees to the relevant resources, tools, and materials
  • Agree on next steps in line with business and team needs

Preparing for a successful development conversation

Development conversations often happen around the same time as performance reviews. While development and performance should be two separate focus areas, the performance of employees will inform and shape their unique development plan. Ask managers to prepare for development conversations by reviewing notes from past 1-on-1s and reflecting on past performance so that they have a clear idea of their direct report’s strengths, specific development areas, and any other longer-term goals.

Below, we’ve compiled a few points managers should keep in mind to ensure development conversations are effective and productive:

  1. Use specific examples. Avoid using general statements – if a manager’s view of a direct report’s progress or growth differs from the direct report’s perspective, provide specific examples of observations that can be worked into development plans.
  2. Present relevant (and available) options. From tools and resources to external opportunities and educational courses, make sure managers understand the options available to employees. Encourage them to reference internal frameworks and utilize networking to find the right opportunities.
  3. Be a good coach. Successful development conversations require a continuous growth mindset. Managers can show interest and curiosity by asking open-ended questions and being receptive to any idea an employee presents. Remember, these ideas will shape development plans, which will be unique for each employee.
  4. Keep development front and center. Prioritize development by making time and space for development planning, in tandem with performance reviews and during regular check-ins. Ask managers to work with their direct reports to plan and agree on these check-in times for accountability and to ensure these discussions progress.

Kickstarting the conversation

The development conversations managers lead with their direct reports will differ for each team member. A given manager may use all or some of the following pieces of advice in a given conversation. This guide will help keep things on track, but the key to success lies in personalized and honest conversation. It’s important that employees are comfortable enough with their manager to express how they feel about their development – or where it’s lacking – without criticism.

Here’s a helpful guide for managers to reference:

1. Set the stage

  • Start the conversation by explaining that while the employee is responsible for driving their own development, you are there to provide accountability throughout the process. That includes scheduling conversations and allotting time for development initiatives.
  • Share that during the conversation, you’ll walk through the personalized plan and discuss the next steps. By the end of the conversation, you’ll both have a shared understanding of what the employee wants to develop, what help they need, and how frequently you both want to check in on their development goals moving forward.

2. Discuss KNOW yourself

  • Continue the conversation by helping your direct report create self-awareness around where exactly they’d like to kick off development.
  • This part of the conversation is about identifying motivators and strengths so that together, you can align development or career opportunities to what’s most rewarding. From here, it’s easy to determine the next steps or select coaching exercises based on how the conversation has evolved.
  • This is also the time to identify weaknesses or areas of lesser interest to your direct report. This can shed light on the tasks that may take longer to complete or consistently produce a different result.

Allowing an employee to vocalize personal motivators and what they believe their strengths are will help in creating a plan they find interesting – and rewarding. Dig deep to really understand these motivators by asking questions that prompt honest responses, such as: Which activities are you most losing track of time on? What are the tasks that give you a sense of achievement? Are there tasks you find easier than others?

3. Discuss BUILD your plan

  • Now, motivations can become actionable goals. Coach your direct reports to create goals that are both measurable and valuable.
  • Bring in the 3 E’s of development: Experience, exposure, and education. These 3 E’s serve as a foundational tool for identifying the right opportunities to support learning and development (L&D) – from connecting with mentors to finding a training course.

To better grasp the exact skills that an employee needs – or wants – to develop, use guiding questions:

  1. What feedback have you received that made sense to you?
  2. Where do you find you keep getting stuck?
  3. What excites you to explore further?
  4. What do you find you never have time to work on?
  5. What has been a barrier for you?
  6. What do you find the most challenging?

While it would be ideal to spend time on developing every skill for an employee, prioritization is important. Selecting one or two main focus areas also allows for a more refined action plan. Ask your direct report: What is the highest priority for you in reaching these goals? How will exploring this particular skill make a difference to you? What are you curious to learn more about?

To keep your direct report accountable, establish measurable milestones. These should be specific and help track progress. To start, ask your direct report how they think they’ll measure success or when they will feel successful. Be direct: How are you going to know when you’ve succeeded?

Wrap it up

  • Close the conversation by recapping the areas of motivation identified, the agreed-upon goal or action plan, and exactly what the next steps are.
  • At the end of the conversation, you can also set a time to sync on progress and discuss any areas that need refinement.
  • A quarterly development-focused conversation is ideal, but development is most effective when it’s ongoing. Don’t just silo these conversations into the scheduled time; ensure you’re regularly communicating with your direct report, so you know how they feel throughout the process.

Get development conversations right

Development is unique to each employee, so it’s important to embed personalized plans into your workplace. With the right guidance and tools, managers can better drive development conversations and improve the employee experience as a whole. While every employee deserves to own their development, managers and HR teams are responsible for supporting this growth however they can.

Illustration of a yellow graph with a line trending up and a floating hand pointing to a part of it

Make development simple with Develop by Culture Amp

Empower managers to have more productive growth conversations with direct reports

Watch the demo

What’s next

Build a world-class employee experience today

Your browser is out of date. Our website is built to provide a faster, more engaging experience. Your browser may not support all of our features. Please update to the latest version of Microsoft Edge or contact your network administrator.

Close browser update banner