Tackling the Career Development Talk

The boss seems uncomfortable when you bring up how you see yourself progressing. Here's a way to make her more receptive

Dear Liz:

I had my annual review with my manager, and I wasn't expecting a big raise, so I wasn't disappointed. In fact I told my manager, "I know the budgets are really tight this year, so you can let me know my increase and we can move past that topic quickly." Right at 3.75% (BusinessWeek.com, 05/06/08)—I'll take it.

I was more interested in the professional development part of the conversation. I am not up for a promotion or planning on a job change, but I want to build my skills in the job. I had a wish list of items I wanted to talk about, including involvement in a cross-functional team, an opportunity to interact with our sales team to some degree, and the chance to work on a project with my counterparts in other regions of the country. I could see my boss was uncomfortable with the conversation. She said, "I will assign you the projects I believe you're ready for." So I asked her, "What sorts of projects do you think I'll be ready for in the coming year?" She really did not want to go there. What did I do wrong? Is professional development a taboo subject these days?


Dear Gautam:

I wouldn't say that professional development is a taboo subject in general, but every organization and every manager has a different appetite for it. Some managers are happy to brainstorm with employees about ways to create learning experiences and (just as important) résumé padding. Other bosses, perhaps like yours, get very uncomfortable at the idea of an employee setting out aspirations or expectations in the career-development realm.

I would give your boss a bit of time to digest your conversation, and then follow up with a quick, friendly e-mail. Try something along these lines:

"Dear Sheila, I was wondering whether the upcoming sales conference planning project might be a good one for me to work on, in keeping with my goal to work more closely with our sales team? If you agree, I'd love to get your thoughts on what you'd like to see from that initiative."

The truth about the workplace in 2008 is that you can't sit back and wait for your manager to dole out professional-development activities as he or she thinks of them. Years could pass by while your résumé languishes and your market value diminishes. Of course, a polite tone and some finesse are essential. Your boss is your boss and she gets to decide what you're working on.

But if you can think about the projects you're interested in and how your participation in them would be beneficial to the department, and then articulate that benefit for your manager, you may create an ally in your personal development plan. For instance, your help on planning the annual sales conference might give your marketing teammates new insight into what major themes are being emphasized with the sales team next year. That will help you create more effective selling tools. Your work on the sales conference squad will also help you establish stronger relationships with salespeople, who often complain that marketing is deaf to their issues. If you can make that case in a compelling way with your boss, you'll not only have a good chance of achieving your personal-growth goals but also show her your commitment to the team's success.


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