At MITRE, Developing Employees Starts with Career Conversation

Employees lead, managers support career development

By Kathy Gurchiek Apr 25, 2017
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MIAMI—MITRE Corp., a 59-year-old not-for-profit organization that operates federally funded research and development centers, is changing employee development through robust career conversations.

During a session at the HR People + Strategy Annual Conference yesterday, MITRE's vice president and CHRO, Julie Gravallese, shared how the McLean, Va.-based company has started shifting away from the traditional "career ladder" approach to employee advancement and toward career development based on a compilation of experiences such as rotational assignments and job shadowing.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing Employees]

HR is working with managers at MITRE—which employs 8,000 people—to help them guide employees to more meaningful job experiences, she said.

Managers are expected to have an annual, mid-year conversation with each employee they directly supervise. The conversation's sole focus is on the employee's career aspirations and how those aspirations aligns with MITRE and its customers' business needs.

Those CLEAR Conversations—CLEAR is an acronym for communicate, learn, evaluate, align, and results—are part of a larger "Careers in Motion" program at MITRE that guides workers into experiences that help them achieve their career goals.

Conversation topics could include:

  • The employee's past work experiences and responsibilities that he or she enjoyed or disliked.
  • The employee's strengths and work preferences.
  • Employee career aspirations.
  • Feedback on employee development.
  • Challenges for MITRE and its customers, and the company's future needs that align with the employee's career aspirations.
  • Potential opportunities that support employee career goals, such as training or projects.

"Managers have an important role to play" in employee development, Gravallese said, citing Gallup research that found employees are 3.6 times more likely to be engaged in their work if their manager involves them in setting their goals.

This whole process, she said, is about employees mapping out their own career journey.

Trying out CLEAR Conversations

MITRE piloted CLEAR Conversations at the most senior and executive levels, Gravallese said. The company used a variety of tools—from YouTube videos to a short "cheat sheet" to a 20-page document—to address a variety of learning styles to prep the executives on how to conduct the employee conversations.

While MITRE advises direct supervisors to ask questions to facilitate the conversation, it notes that it's important to pause and listen to give the employee time to process the question and consider a response. Additionally, the employee should do most of the talking and take the lead in creating solutions to support his or her career goals. If no immediate solutions are available, the direct supervisor can offer to research solutions.

This conversation is followed up throughout the year as appropriate, according to Gravallese. It could occur when the employee ends a project and seeks a new assignment or after completing advanced education, certification or training. It may involve a check-in on the progress the employee is making with on-the-job learning, or if the employee changes his or her career aspirations.

The employee and direct supervisor should work on a development plan to clarify what the employee needs to do to achieve his or her career goals, including long- and short-term goals that are reviewed and updated periodically, according to MITRE.

It's important, Gravallese said, that managers communicate to the employee:

  • Job expectations that are aligned with the employee's role, behaviors and results.
  • How the employee is expected to achieve those results.
  • Feedback about the employee's performance.
  • Development opportunities.

Expectations will need to be readjusted throughout the year as assignment priorities shift or new projects are assigned, she pointed out. Sometimes it may involve the employee updating the direct supervisor, who may not be aware of changes in projects that the employee is working on as a member of another team. 

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