Steve King CUNA Management School

6 conversations managers must initiate

To best develop and retain staff, nurture ongoing dialogue about their biggest career concerns.

August 1, 2017

Moving up from employee to front-line manager is the most challenging career transition—more so than subsequent leaps to senior manager and senior leader, says executive development expert Steve King.

In making that leap, many inexperienced managers fall victim to any number of pitfalls, such as finding it difficult to treat former peers as subordinates, struggling to delegate responsibilities, and taking on too many major initiatives too soon.

But a foundation of empirical research complemented by decades of professional experience in human resources and training leadership roles have yielded a road map to managerial success that King recently shared with students at CUNA Management School in Madison, Wis.

King developed his presentation, “The Six Conversations: Increasing Effectiveness in Managing People,” after examining the most popular responses to a survey that asked a simple question of employees: What do you want from your manager?

“These six conversations aren't the be-all, end-all, but they’re the blocking and tackling of managing people,” says King, executive director of the Center for Professional and Executive Development at the University of Wisconsin School of Business. “Don't dodge the conversation. Go get the conversation.”

The lines of dialogue managers should initiate and nurture stem from these six central questions from employees:

1. What is expected of me? This is the process of setting goals and measuring progress toward achieving them.

“It’s not a negotiation, but a dialogue,” says King.

Allow this conversation to dictate your comments on annual review forms, rather than the other way around. Set SMART goals—specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely. “You want the person sitting across from you to feel you're treating them fairly,” he says.

2. What and how should I develop? People primarily learn skills on the job, with a hand from coaching and feedback and occasionally formal training.

So make sure your employees have ample opportunity to practice their craft, arrange a mentor to guide them, and offer guidance as needed to refine their skills.

3 & 4. How am I doing and how did I do? King believes strongly in a framework where managers route their comments through these statements:

  • When I brag about you, here's what I brag about.
  • When I worry about you, here's what I worry about.
  • When I wonder about you, here's what I wonder about (a reference to curiosities, not concerns).
  • If I were to bet on you, here's what I would bet on.

“Name a behavior, cite an example, and explain the impact,” King says.

5. How will I be rewarded? As long as someone believes they’re being paid a fair salary or wage, money isn’t as strong a motivator as one might think, King says.

Instead, offer staff intrinsic motivators such as empowering them to make decisions, developing their skills, underscoring the higher purpose they serve, and celebrating key achievements.

6. What's next for me? Only 45% of managers talk to their reports about their career ambitions, according to King, ironically often out of concern those conversations might prompt an employee to look for opportunities elsewhere.

“If you're not having a ‘What's next?’ conversation with them, someone is,” King says. “And you're going to be losing them.”