Talent development: key questions to ask employees about their ambitions

Despite being primarily responsible for talent development, HR directors face an uphill struggle because too many line managers fail to talk to employees about their ambitions, according to a new survey.

The survey of 1000 mainly white-collar workers by The Oxford Group has revealed that almost one-third (27%) of UK employees say they have never had any discussions about their future. In fact, only 22% of people responded positively when asked whether or not conversations had taken place about opportunities that could be created to help them towards their future goals.

Only one in three said that they have discussed with their boss where they see themselves in one or two years from now. That is eight percentage points lower than in the US, suggesting that UK managers are not doing as well as their stateside counterparts.

This lack of discussion could be either the cause or the result of a largely gloomy outlook from employees. More than one employee in five (22%) said that they do not feel there are opportunities for career development with their current employer, and 34% said their manager shows little or no interest in their future aspirations.

For HR professionals who work hard to drive home the importance of talent development among line managers, these findings suggest there is a fundamental issue that is damaging the relationship between employees and their managers – and this goes beyond being “too busy”, lack of organisation or poor planning.

We really do need to talk…

Humans respond extremely well to one-to-one communication, whether talking face to face or on the phone. However, the reality of modern working life is that managers forget the importance of this kind of interaction, especially as email and social media have become so prolific.

Management development specialist Nick Cowley has written previously on Personnel Today about the importance of high-quality conversations in the workplace. The new survey findings highlight how a lack of these conversations is having an impact on the future development of large numbers of employees and making HR’s role difficult.

Most importantly, it could explain why organisations are failing to retain talent. Getting managers and their direct reports talking about future aspirations is vital to talent development – get this right and HR can do what it does best for the wider benefit of the organisation.

Talent development: conversation starters

It is all well and good saying that managers and their staff need to talk more, and others have said it on numerous occasions. The question is, how do you make this happen in reality in a way that directly helps talent development and makes it stick?

Mindset holds the key. Managers need to learn how to have conversations with positive intent and genuine integrity. This is crucial – there is no point trying to implement a formal approach that says a manager “must do” certain things. It  could make him or her come across as fake or insincere.

Instead, managers need first to remind themselves what a genuine conversation about building for a future looks like, free of jargon and key performance indicators. There is no hard and fast rule to how this should work, but a conversation can be steered in the right direction using questions such as:

  • Where do you want to be one or two years from now?
  • What’s driving you to have these ambitions?
  • What opportunities can we create, right now, for you to move towards these goals here in this organisation?

This will get the ball rolling, but there are other fundamentals to get right before and after this conversation. Most importantly, the conversation cannot be held in isolation.

It is also just one of five key conversations that managers need to master. Second, they need to understand how to build a trusting relationship with their direct reports; otherwise, no conversation about future aspirations or any other topic will be effective. Third, they need to agree mutual expectations with employees – how else will team members really know what’s expected of them?

Fourth, they must learn how to show genuine appreciation. We are hard-wired to detect insincerity, so managers must understand this to be trusted. Finally, they must master the ability to challenge unhelpful behaviour – dealing with this to achieve the right outcome and avoid future relationship damage.


Employees will often pour their heart out to headhunters as they feel their current manager or organisation is not interested in them or will not take their ambitions seriously. In many cases, this is probably because the conversation has never taken place – and that means not everyone is showing up on HR’s talent development radar.

Give line managers the confidence and know-how to handle such conversations and the knock-on effect will be tremendous.


About Nigel Purse

Nigel Purse is founder of management development group The Oxford Group and author of "5 Conversations: How to Transform Trust, Engagement and Performance at Work"
Comments are closed.