Understanding Your Employees’ Goals

Leaders can reduce the risk of losing good people for the wrong reasons by working with them to understand their passions and career goals and serving up challenging assignments that help them grow from where they are to where they would like to go.

Customizing opportunities to each employee requires understanding that person’s goals, motivations, and values. It’s a simple process, but very few leaders do it—or even know how to. Take a look at these questions and answer them as you believe one of your direct reports would:

  • What are your proudest accomplishments and biggest disappointments? Why?
  • Which activities energize you and which drain you?
  • How would you rank the following rewards: financial gain, power and influence, autonomy, affiliation, lifestyle, intellectual challenge, competence, recognition?
  • If you died tomorrow, what would you want your legacy to be?
  • What is your five-year career goal? If you don’t have one, what’s your best guess?

Don’t feel bad if you’re left with a lot of white space. You aren’t alone: Over the past 15 years, not once have I met a leader who could answer the majority of these questions. Typically, leaders get to know their people within the context of their current assignments, treating their past and their imagined future as unimportant to the task at hand.

But they are important, and you should care. Kick-start the process of getting to know your top talent by meeting with them one-on-one for 90 minutes. When scheduling the meetings, let them know that you want to get to know them better and discuss their passions and career goals. Send them the questions above, requesting that they provide written responses along with their most current resume prior to the meeting.

In preparation for the meetings, review their answers and ready yourself to facilitate discussions that get to the core of who they are and what they love. For example, why did they enjoy the acquisition project, or find the new product rollout frustrating, or highlight “feeding the poor” as something they want to be remembered for? Note any inconsistencies among their motivators, values, and career goals (for example, that they want to spend more time with their family but are interested in working in a global position). Last but not least, determine whether their five-year career goal is specific and aspirational enough to be used as a touchstone in career and performance conversations that follow.

Make the meetings all about them. Ask questions, reflect what you hear, and be encouraging. Don’t provide feedback or advice—just listen and learn. If you follow these simple steps, your people will leave the meetings feeling honored, respected, and energized.

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