A Team Hack for Leaders: Aspirational Conversations

By February 5, 2018No Comments

Over the past four years, we’ve been studying some of the world’s best teams, and we have found a terrific practice we call aspirational conversations (brief but regular career meetings with members of a team). In some high turnover industries—such as retail, hospitality, food service, customer service, or healthcare—our experience has shown holding these conversations frequently with your direct reports can cut turnover and enhance engagement.

We realize that the notion of conducting such career conversations with each person on your team may feel like an enormous time drain. Understand these conversations don’t have to be long—15 to 30 minutes, tops. Also, remember that these are not about gauging day-to-day performance but are focused only on development, providing opportunities for you to listen to employees’ ambitions to learn and grow and to counsel them about their progress forward. And what employee wouldn’t come to a meeting like that engaged?

Aspirational Conversation

Calling them aspirational conversations helps to impress on employees that the purpose in the meetings is not to look over their shoulder to micro-manage or criticize day-to-day behaviors, but to get out of the daily grind and help them look to the future, stretch a little, and craft a path for their personal progress.

One of the inspiring leaders we’ve discussed this practice with is California Pizza Kitchen CEO G.J. Hart, who told us, “What differentiates our company’s best leaders is that they focus on helping each team member exceed their own expectations.” As part of this process, Hart counsels his GMs and other managers to listen carefully and seek to understand why things are the way they are in their employees’ worlds—their challenges as well as their career goals. Sometimes, he notes, these conversations will help a manager make course corrections if an employee has unrealistic expectations about his or her career that might lead to frustration. “Managers can help team members understand why it might not be possible to get everything they want right now,” he said.

Good advice.

To ensure aspirational conversations stay on track, we advise establishing a simple structure and a fixed day each month. A few hacks about this process:

Prepare quickly beforehand.

The day before, email the employee a quick list of things you think you might cover, then ask what they’d like to discuss. Also, review your notes from last time so you don’t spend the first five or ten minutes getting up to speed and looking clueless—and worse, looking like you don’t care about what’s important to them.

Set clear expectations.

If you are just starting up these types of aspirational conversations and people aren’t clear about the purpose, then some might assume the worst (i.e., I’m going to be disciplined). Let them know this is about their career and where they want to go. If you’ve met before, in the first few minutes quickly recap what you discussed in the last meeting, and then together set a brief agenda for your time.

Use an individual development plan.

Have a roadmap to follow. These don’t have to be fancy, just one page to help you keep track of each employee’s goals and what development projects they have going on. As you work through their goals and opportunities, start with near-term, then work your way to the longer horizon.

Eliminate interruptions.

Close your door and turn off your phone. An actor friend told us about a scene he did with the great Anthony Hopkins. The most remarkable thing about Hopkins, he found, was the rapt attention he gave to anyone he was speaking with—from the lighting hands to the extras. If the director tried to interrupt Hopkins, he would politely ask him to wait while he finished listening to the person he was engaged with. It was a terrific lesson in respect.

Don’t end on a negative.

Employees may still remember the constructive criticism you’ve given during one of these meetings—it’s human nature, after all—but if you book-end conversations with positives there’s a better chance they’ll still feel good coming out of it.

That’s just one idea from our new book The Best Team Wins. We’d love to hear how you are developing the careers of your team members, or if you think that’s important.

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