Boost Employee Engagement with Just One Role

By Mary Ila Ward

A friend called me the other day to tell me about the first one-on-one encounter he had with his new boss. Prior to this conversation, my friend was nervous about the transition in leadership and what it would mean for his role with the organization as a mid-level manager of a growing healthcare organization.

“He asked me what I wanted my career to look like,” he said. “Although I know what I want for myself in my career, no boss has ever asked me this before especially not the first time I’ve met him. I’d expect our first conversation to be him telling me what he wants, not to ask me what I want.”

My friend ultimately wants to be sitting where his new boss is, in the CEO chair, and once his boss saw his educational background and his work accomplishments thus far, he actually already assumed that was his goal. But he asked the question nevertheless, and then proceeded to discuss with my friend how he, as his boss, could help get him to the CEO seat one day, whether it was with his organization or through other opportunities outside the organization.

The CEO was acting as a leader by being a career agent.

Why do Leaders Need to Be Career Agents?

With employee engagement statistics showing us that upwards of 70% of the workforce these days is checked out, it is imperative for leaders and organizations to think about how to maximize talent in a way that leads to mutual gains.

My friend, whose boss initiated their first conversation playing the role of career agent, is now more engaged than ever in his work.    He wants to work hard for this leader because he knows his work will be noticed and will pay off now that his boss has told him he wants to help him get to where he wants to be. My friend wins by knowing he has an advocate to help him on this career path and the CEO wins by having an engaged employee that is productive, thus helping the organization reach it’s goals. If all leaders were in the business of making more leaders by acting as career agents, we may be able to flip employee engagement statistics in a positive direction.


How to Be a Career Agent

If you are a leader, how do you seek to be a career agent?  Here are some suggestions for establishing yourself as a career advocate:


·         Facilitate win-win conversations instead of one-sided conversations. Ask people what they want out of their career from the get-go.

·         Create a game plan for career advancement with employees.  Include next steps and what behaviors and results need to be seen on the job in order to facilitate those steps of upward progress.

·         Provide projects and assignments that help facilitate skill development that is beneficial to the organization and helps facilitate career growth.

Provide regular feedback, both positive and developmental, to help employees get to where they want to be. Incorporate next step dialogue into conversations when providing feedback that is behavioral based.

·         Make people aware of opportunities that arise, even if they are outside your organization.  This may mean letting them go to another organization. If you’re having career agent conversations with people, they are going to be more productive and you probably don’t want to lose this type of employee. This may seem counter intuitive to an employee retention strategy, however, making employees aware of outside opportunities that are a fit for their career plans and helping facilitate those opportunities even if they are outside your organization is a good move in the long run.   They become walking and talking recruitment ads for you and your organization which is hard to come by for free. It leads to a bigger picture recruitment and retention strategy.  And who knows, their career path may lead them back to your organization more valuable than when they left.

·         Realize that not all people want to climb the ladder they just may want to do a good job where they are and have a lifestyle that promotes their values.  You can be a career agent by supporting this as well.



How Career Development Practitioners Can Support Leaders as Career Agents

Leaders of people should all be career agents.  This should be the culture of the organization not a function of one title or department.  However, career and human resource practitioners should play a critical supporting role in making sure the organization supports the leader as career agent mentality.  Here is what we can do to support this:

·         Train leaders on what it means to be a career agent through their behaviors.

·         Provide tools and processes to facilitate career agent conversations.  Tie your performance management processes to the agent function.

·         Recruit and promote leaders who demonstrate the career agent mindset through their behaviors.  Consider how this can be evaluated and measured through interview questions, performance management processes and employee engagement and feedback mechanisms.


Are you ready to take the challenge and add career agent to your leadership role? Take the first step by asking your employees today one simple question, “What do you want out of your career?”



Mary Ila WardMary Ila Ward, SPHR, GCDF and CDF Instructor,  is the owner of Horizon Point Consulting, Inc. The organization’s purpose is to drive passion in people by helping them connect and grow in careers while helping organizations build a fully engaged workforce that drives productivity.  The organization achieves this mission through individualized coaching, leadership development and building effective talent management processes. She can be reached at miw@horizonpointconsulting.com  Learn more about Horizon Point Consulting at www.horizonpointconsulting.com



Join Mary for her Conference roundtable, Thursday July 2, 2015, 9:45-10:45am

#7-17 Utilizing Transition and Decision Making Theory: Assessing Clients and Responding Appropriately
Oftentimes, we neglect to seek to understand the situation, the person and the person's support system in delivering career services. Participants in this workshop will learn how to assess clients based on these characteristics and utilize this knowledge to create actions plans with clients to help them successfully manage career and life transitions.
Mary Ila Ward, Horizon Point Consulting, Inc.

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Leigh G. Mundhenk   on Monday 04/06/2015 at 04:24 PM

Mary, this is a great article. One of the challenges I have run in to, when encouraging this in my career and organizational development work, was that many supervisors and managers are reluctant to take on this role, because they fear losing their best people. I'd love suggestions on how we can get around this. Whenever I talk increased productivity and employee retention, I don't feel I am getting through in a meaningful way. These folks seem to be more focused on their departmental and team needs, rather than organizational ones.

Mary Ila Ward   on Tuesday 04/07/2015 at 03:44 PM


Thanks for reading the article! I find that this is the number one hesitation with this concept as well. However, if we can get people to think of the bigger picture of why this is beneficial in terms of larger wins instead of just isolating it to the individual level, we can be more successful. For example, in the short term, people who engage in this have employees who work harder for them. In the long term, they become living, breathing recruitment ads for you and your organization. In addition, I've had a few clients who have applied this principle and seen their star performers go someplace else to work only to call them back a few months later and want to come back. They come back more valuable because they are more loyal and have more experience outside your organization. But regardless of whether or not they come back, it is simply the right thing to do in my opinion. It is a leader acting as a leader should- making more leaders. If we adopt this concept of leadership though, it causes us to need to be a leader by establishing cross training plans and succession plans to make sure when one person leaves the entire organization or department doesn't suffer.

Mary Ila Ward   on Tuesday 04/07/2015 at 03:45 PM

Leigh, one more thought... the best people will leave you any way if they don't feel valued. This is one way to make them know they are valued and appreciated, which could lead to longer term retention.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.