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Managing Talent: Answers to two frequently asked questions

By David Deegan


Following on from the recent blog on Managing Talent: How to encourage your workforce to manage their career here are the two questions I am most frequently asked.

Employees ask me “How do I turn down the offer of a ‘perfect opportunity’ without damaging my career?”

Managers ask me “But what if by encouraging them to do all this thinking about their career, they realise they want to leave?”

"How do I turn down the offer of a 'perfect opportunity' without damaging my career?" 

A situation I come across regularly is when an employee has a natural talent for something, and consequently their manager, or someone else in the business will offer promotion, or a new project in that area, so the employee has more opportunity to use that talent.

And this is only natural. Managers feel they are helping the employee to play to their strengths and assist their career advancement, and therefore supporting the organisation’s success. Yet it may not be where that employee’s real passion lies.

Recognising and promoting a talent that the employee doesn’t actually want to develop further can backfire because an employee will feel under pressure to take it. There are two usual outcomes. One outcome is that an employee takes on a role they never really wanted and consequently doesn’t do well. The second outcome is that the employee tries, unsuccessfully, to explain exactly why the role isn’t right for them, and the manager feels affronted that the ‘perfect opportunity’ is being turned down. The employee sees that the manager is unhappy and then feels uncertain about their career progression within the organisation because “s/he probably thinks I am unambitious”.

If the employee hasn’t ‘Looked Inwards’ and ‘Looked Outwards’ they will struggle to verbalise to their manager, why an ‘perfect opportunity’ isn’t actually ‘amazing’.

Employees need to reflect on these two key questions.

  1. “What are the skills I love using, and why?”
  2. “What places can I use those skills”


Once they have reflected on those questions they will be better place to verbalise to their manager, why that ‘perfect’ job offer isn’t actually ‘perfect’ in their eyes. And even more importantly, the employee will be able to articulate where in the organisation their talents could be better utilised.

Managers can better understand the talent resource in their organisation by regularly asking their employees a variation of those same two questions:

  1. “What are the skills you love using, and why?”
  2. “What places in our organisation do you feel we need those skills”


These questions can provoke rich conversation, but the prospect of asking an employee Question b leads to my second most frequently asked question:

"But what if by encouraging them to do all this thinking about their career, they realise they want to leave?" 

Managers sometimes worry that by encouraging their employees to widen their perspectives by doing constructive soul-searching and thorough horizon-scanning, the employee will realise their future lies elsewhere.

My experience is that, particularly in large organisations, employees who spend time reflecting deeply on what matters to them most, rarely leave. Employees who feel they are dissatisfied, at a cross-roads, will be ready to leave, just for the sake of doing something different. But after being encouraged to “Look Inwards” and then “Look Outwards” they frequently realise that their own organisation has opportunities they hadn’t recognised. They may want to move to another part of the organisation, but ultimately the organisation will retain their talent, and retain someone is now happier in their work.

But even if a career conversation results in an employee saying “I now know that what I truly want for my career lies outside this team/department/organisation” it can ultimately benefit the organisation. If a candid and supportive atmosphere has been created, the manager can work with the employee to ensure their corporate knowledge and experience is not lost from the team/department/organisation before they leave.

The manager can also collaborate with the employee to succession-plan more effectively. Ask questions such as:

  • “How has the role changed since you took it on?”
  • “Where are you now spending most of your time?”
  • “What are the skills you rely on most these days?”
  • “If you were in charge of finding your own replacement for this team, what kind of person would you look for?


As leaders who are responsible for managing the talent within organisations, asking great questions in relation to ‘Looking Inwards’ and ‘Looking Outwards’, creates richer and more constructive dialogue that helps both parties to ‘Look Forwards’.

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Tags: Cranfield School of Management, talent, featured talent, featured sidebar talent, career development