Career goals and the role of a boss

Career Goals

Career goals are important. By some measure, any discussion about ‘the future of work’ just means providing opportunities for growth. People want a nice salary and the ability to own nice things and take sweet-ass vacations, yes. But you spend probably a base of 50 hours/week at work, which is more than you see your friends and family. As a result of that, you also want some base level of respect and a belief that you can rise up — and get new skills, more money, and more responsibility.

This all leads to an interesting question about career goals, though: what’s the role of a boss in them?

There are two distinct approaches here, IMHO.

Approach 1 is that managers/bosses are really coaches/mentors, and they should play a big part in helping to drive you towards your career goals.

Approach 2 is that managers/bosses are accountable to metrics and results of their own, and driving you towards hitting those — your career goals are something you worry about, not them.

I’d like to think that 70 percent of bosses are in the first category, but I think those numbers are probably inverted. I’d say about 3 in 10 ‘get’ the coaching side of being a boss. 7 in 10 are, for better or worse, target-chasers. There’s a million and six reasons for this, but most of it comes back to the fact that management isn’t actually intuitive.

So … what now on career goals?

Research on effective managers and career goals

This is interesting from Kathryn Shaw, a business professor of economics at Stanford:

She argues that all good managers do three things well. The third? A focus on career goals — and helping your employees navigate to their specific versions. This was all based on heady, data-driven research from a majorly-respected university, so it’s all somewhat vetted.

The Temple of Busy and career goals

There’s been some research where 60 percent — 6 in 10! — of managers say they feel they “don’t have the time” to respect their employees, which is fairly depressing. Respecting someone isn’t a thing you schedule in Outlook. This attitude comes from The Temple of Busy, whereby everyone claims they have no time for anything else.

Managers tend to have bigger spans of control and (generally-speaking) more responsibility, even if they have no idea what priorities to focus on. Because of this, they worship at The Temple of Busy more than most. When you’re kneeling at the altar of ‘I Gotta Rush To My 10:30,’ you probably don’t have a ton of time to think about the career goals of those who work for you.

That’s a problem.

Relevance, incompetence, and career goals

You might disagree with this base assumption, but let me still lay it out.

At the intersection point of Incompetence Avoidance Boulevard and Relevance Road, you have a lot of people doing two things:

When you take these four bullet points together, you often create a major priority vacuum within your company. Everyone is doing the work that will make them look the best, as opposed to the work that will drive the company forward.


The bottom line with all that is the creation of a “Looking Out For No. 1, But Not Stepping In No. 2” mentality. That’s pervasive at most places I’ve worked. Who has time to help you with career goals if they’re trying to hit targets and please their own boss?

Career goals and the soft skills conundrum

Most effective management and leadership is about soft skills. You can’t necessarily put these items on a balance sheet and analyze them. It’s topics like communication or empathy or ability to develop relationships. This is the stuff that really drives business forward, but it’s not often how we think, talk, and write about business.

The managerial role within career goals falls here too. All managers should be good, effective coaches. They should guide and direct. They should talk openly about failures and successes. They should be your friend (within reason) and your advocate. They should make you look back on that aspect of your life and say “That was a good time and I learned a lot.”

In a managerial context like that, career goals take care of themselves. You grow and learn and your manager catches your back and prepares you for the next roles and responsibilities.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the norm. Most managers yelp, shriek, bellow, pound their chests, and basically crap on the floor yelling about their goals, how important they are, all the targets they hit, and the 84 hours they put in last week. It’s miserable to watch; it’s the adult version of a child yelling at you because he lost his favorite toy due to being a stinker. But we permit it, and we deify the workaholic.

In that set-up, who’s focusing on career goals? Gotta hit those targets, baby.

The irony of good managers and career goals

Good managers create turnover, too. They prepare their people well and their people go and get better opportunities, leaving the manager with a gap. He/she then goes and develops that gap with a new person. That’s what a good manager does, much like a good college basketball coach. Some people go to the NBA and boom, here’s a new crop of people I need to coach up.

So the irony is this:

  • If you have a bad manager, they often won’t care at all about your career goals
  • But if you’re doing good work for them, they’ll keep you in the same role for a decade to make them look better
  • If you have a good manager, they care about your career goals
  • And they’ll develop you so that you can fly away from the nest

Good managers set themselves up to look bad (lose a good employee) because they know they can coach up the next person. Bad managers set themselves up to look good (keep a good employee) and in the process, look like turd-suckling idiots.

What else would you add about the role of managers in career goals?

Ted Bauer


  1. I totally agree with you! I think it’s helpful to have 2 types of career conversations, i.e., short term (next 1-3 years?) and long term, including working somewhere else (as you suggest good managers will accept).

  2. Its the recruiting manager’s responsibility to know the potential employee’s career aspiration and the person who is the immediate in charge of the potential employee should also propose on the potential employee career growth and prospectus with respect to the career aspiration mentioned by the potential employee

    • You’d ASSUME this is right, but many managers don’t treat it that way.

  3. I’ve had both types of managers you mentioned above and I hope that I modeled my own managerial style after the coach.

    • The fact that you even thought about how to model your own managerial style instantly puts you in the top 5-10 percent of all managers on this continuum.

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