Career conversations

Line managers have a responsibility to support career development for all their staff.

Why is this important? | What do I need to do? | Key points to take into account | Key points to explorePrompt questions

Why is this important?

Great talent managers support the career development of everybody in their team not just those they see as the ‘stars’. Every employee should feel that their line manager and the organisation takes an interest in their career and supports them to achieve what they’d like to and are capable of achieving. It helps individuals to get the best out of themselves and organisations to get the best out of its people.

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What do I need to do?

Familiarise yourself with how careers are developing across health and care e.g. key career paths, key skills, competences, experience needed. Check information relevant to your organisation, referring to e.g. the NHS Leadership Academy website, Civil Service Learning and your organisation’s intranet. Talk to your own line manager. Talk to HR.

Talk to each of your team on a regular basis about:

  • what they want from their career;
  • what steps they are planning to achieve that;
  • examples of things individuals have done and the way they have done them to evidence their potential ability against their aspirations; and
  • how your current view of their potential fits with those aspirations (refer to the senior leadership indicators of potential).

Key questions for line managers to consider in preparation for the career conversations.

  • How well do I understand how careers are developing in the health and care system / specific professions?
  • What more should I do to build that understanding?
  • How frequently do I have career conversations with my team members?
  • How clear are your team members about their careers in terms of the direction they want to head in and the steps they might take to get there?
  • How can I help them get clearer? e.g. who could help? / Where could you signpost them?
  • How can I support them to develop their career?
  • What’s my current view of their potential against their career aspirations?
  • Is their plan realistic?
  • Where do they need to demonstrate more or differently?
  • How am I going to talk about that in a constructive way?

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Key points to take into account

  • Your team members need to be in the driving seat on their careers. It is their responsibility to plan it out and take action. You can guide them though. Often asking the right questions or signposting possible next steps will be enough.
  • An informal, open development conversation over coffee can be more meaningful for an individual than a formal review of their development plan in the office.
  • It’s perfectly OK for people to be happy where they are in their careers. Not everybody wants to move up the organisation. You still need to support them with their development.
  • Don’t make assumptions about peoples' aspirations without a conversation. The older employee may not ‘just be waiting for retirement’. The part-time employee may have ideas about how a future role could be done flexibly.
  • Be very honest with your people. This includes managing their expectations if they want to go higher but you believe they have reached their potential and will not be promoted. If you’re honest and treat people with dignity, they tend to stay in the organisation and can adjust their expectations.
  • Encourage your team members to think about the other things that successful people do to get on e.g. networking effectively, marketing themselves, gaining / improving visibility.

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Key points to explore

Performance in the current role

  • What have been the demonstrated strengths over the past year?
  • What does the individual view as their core strengths? (which may or may not have been demonstrated over the past year)
  • What factors would enable the employee to realise more of their strengths?


  • How far does the individual’s ambition currently extend (in leadership or other roles)?
  • To what extent does the individual own and proactively seek out opportunities for learning, development and progression?
  • What is the individual’s historical track record of fulfilling their career ambitions?
  • What are the individual's long term ambitions and what are the external factors that affect these?


  • To what extent does the individual apply discretionary effort without prompting (e.g. does the employee mentor co-workers outside their direct span of control and do they help other employees when they have a heavy workload), and what drives this?
  • To what extent (and how) does the individual demonstrate an emotional engagement with the organisation?
  • To what extent is the individual’s rational engagement needs being fulfilled?  e.g. sufficient reward package.


  • To what extent does the individual demonstrate the behaviours we need and expect of our senior leaders? (refer to the relevant competency framework, healthcare leadership model and refer to the senior leadership indicators of potential).
  • To what extent does the individual meet the range of technical or functional skills needed? (e.g. policy competence or clinical leadership?)
  • To what extent does the individual exhibit the attitudes and responses required for success at the next level? (e.g. drive and energy to get things done, desire to improve performance, resilience, calm under pressure, self-aware and with a healthy regard for self and others).

Focusing on possible next steps for the individual

  • What development objectives should be part of the individual's development plan?
  • What particular development opportunities and activities would best support the achievement of these development objectives? (e.g. stretch assignments, secondments).
  • What can you do to support the individual achieve their career and development objectives?
  • Do they need to seek advice from their head of profession or professions talent lead?
  • What barriers does the individual see that may prevent or block their development?
  • How can you help them overcome these?

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Prompt questions

Throughout the career conversation the emphasis should be on asking questions to understand what the individual really wants, needs etc. and enabling them to take responsibility for their actions.

What do you want in the future?

(Understanding the individual’s preferred career path)

Helping them to open up a picture of what they really want generates energy and optimism. Allow lots of time for this, keep prompting and allow them to imagine the future.

  • So, looking ahead to five years from now (or three, or one if five years is too long…) what would be the ideal scenario for you if everything could be the way you want to be?
  • Keep prompting: what else? And what else?
  • Where would you be working?
  • What would you be doing?
  • What kind of responsibilities would you have?
  • What size team?
  • What would you be doing?
  • What would you have that you don’t have now?
  • And why is that valuable to you? Why does that matter? (Tread carefully with these questions – they are good to help work out what motivates them, but too much challenging here can sound critical).
  • So what exactly is your goal?
  • How would you know when you’ve got there?
  • What will be different for you when you’ve done this?
  • How important to you is it? Why is that?
  • What would it mean to you to achieve this?
  • What will be the benefits of achieving this? And the costs?
  • Out of all of that, what seams realistic?
  • When do you want to achieve it by?

What’s happening now?

(Identifying evidence against the potential characteristics)

Ask for examples of when they have been at their best, critical incidents that they found particularly demanding.

This part is about affirming and challenging what they say (and maybe what they don’t say too) so that they feel fully heard. Also encouraging them to think about what others might have perceived about them too. The emphasis is on their behaviours, skills and actions, but also on helping them to see beyond their blind spots. It requires lots of good listening skills (paraphrasing, summarising, open questions etc.)

Some useful questions:

  • Tell me about a time when…?
  • How did it feel when…?
  • How does it feel now as you look back on…?
  • How do you think others (colleagues, customers etc.) saw/would have seen it/you?
  • Is there anything you’ve overlooked?
  • What are you proudest of in this situation?
  • And what would you do differently with hindsight?
  • What did you learn from this experience?
  • And what do you still want to develop further?
  • What does this tell you about yourself?
  • Is there any other way of looking at the situation?

How will you get there?

(Focus on development – individuals should be encouraged to take responsibility and identify the support they will need)

Having identified their goals in stage 2, this stage is about possible strategies and specific actions, and considering what might hinder progress.

Ensure that their commitment to action is real and not just to please you.

  • How well placed are you right now to achieve that goal?
  • What needs to change?
  • How many different ways are there for you to do this?
  • What might help?
  • Who might help?
  • What can you build on?
  • What will you need to do more of?
  • And less of?
  • What has worked for others?
  • What has worked well for you in the past?
  • What about some wild ideas?
  • Which of these ideas appeals to you most?
  • Which is most likely to work for you?
  • What are within your control?
  • What might get in the way?
  • How will you overcome that?
  • What will you do first?
  • When will that happen?
  • Does this feel like the right thing for you to be doing?
  • On a scale of 1-10 how likely are you to take this action by that deadline?
  • What advice would you give yourself as you begin this?

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