Career Conversations – How to Engage Women

Ongoing discussions about their career development can give women a comfortable space to articulate their needs and blossom as leaders.

Professional women having a career conversation in an office

Many organizations say they want to increase women in leadership roles and close the “gender gap,” and while many factors play into this, a good place for employers to start is to focus on engagement.
According to a Right Management survey of over 4400 associates and managers in 15 countries, a full 82% of today’s employees would be more engaged in their work if managers conducted meaningful career conversations with them on a regular basis. Not performance reviews – How did I do? – but career coaching conversations that focus on: How will I develop? How do I fit? What’s next? 
Women could leverage these kinds of proactive career conversations to address their individual needs, articulate their value, and advance their careers. Employers could use these conversations to better understand their employees and align their strengths with what the organization needs.
Taking time to assess one’s strengths and weaknesses, motivators, and career interests is the first step in any meaningful career exploration and discussion. While it can be hard for anyone to articulate their value to an organization, women report more discomfort with this than men. Historically, many women have shied away from talking about their accomplishments and strengths because they fear they will be perceived as “bragging.”
Yet, to attain leadership roles, women need to answer these kinds of questions:  What do I add to my team?  What specific strengths do I have, and what are examples of those in action?  How has the organization benefited from my work in the last 6 months? 
As an employer, these ongoing discussions can be a great place for you to draw out the answers to these questions and help your female employees become more comfortable articulating their value in specific measurable terms.  To be clear, career conversations need not be a parade of accomplishments, but there will be times when you, as a leader, will have to support and model ways that women can and should share how they have added value to the organization.
Organizational Alignment
Organizational alignment is that magical place and time when an employee is doing work that is consistent with her values, talents, and interests AND that work is seen to be of clear benefit to the organization. Ongoing career conversations are a great way to talk openly about alignment – what does the employee need?  What does the organization need?  What value do they offer each other?
As an employer, a key path to higher engagement (i.e. retention and productivity) from your female employees may lie in fleshing out their needs, particularly those around flexibility.  Since women traditionally bear the weight of family care giving – childcare and eldercare – the need for flexible work hours and work location top many women’s wish lists. However, these are not issues many women are comfortable raising for fear of being dismissed as not serious about work. 
If ongoing conversations are in place, this could be a path to establishing clear expectations and allowing more flexibility. When an employee understands what she needs to achieve, when and where the work happens may become less important. 
Action Planning
Ongoing and intentional career conversations must also lead to action.  Your job as a leader is to partner with your high potentials to be jointly accountable for identifying the next steps in their careers.
Whether you can help them identify new experiences internally, gain exposure to other leaders or lines of business, or promote an opportunity for them to learn new skills, you should plan to conclude every career conversation by soliciting a call to action from the women who work for you.  Hold them accountable for contributing their gifts to the organization in a meaningful way: plan the work, then, work the plan.
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