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Career coaches - time for a comeback?


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In this roundtable we explored why organisations are introducing in-house career coaches – and how to build a network of career supporters, with career coaches at the centre.

In the 1980s it was common for large organisations to employ career coaches in-house. Over the following decades, career development responsibility shifted decisively to the individual. While professional career support was still available to a select few, most employees relied upon their line manager for advice about career opportunities.

The flaw in this approach is that managing career conversations is an advanced skill that most managers don’t naturally have. Our Careers of Tomorrow research found that organisations are starting to address this challenge – by training line managers and establishing other career supporters.

At this roundtable, we were joined by Aileen Cowler, a Talent Specialist at NFU Mutual. Aileen described their career support strategy to identify and equip a pool of accredited career coaches and mentors.


Rosemary McLean introduced the session by reminding us that career conversations are different from other workplace 1:1s. Careers are personal, and employees want to feel a strong, human connection with the individual who’s helping them.

“We recognise that not everyone feels comfortable having a career conversation with their line manager”

David North referenced our Conversation Gap research, which found that many employees avoid having career conversations with their line manager. They perceive that managers lack the time, information, skill and confidence to have an engaging and productive discussion. He stressed the importance of alternative sources of career guidance to boost job satisfaction and mitigate the retention risk.

Participants shared the employee questions they would want their expanding career supporter network to address:

  • Who can I go to for careers advice?
  • How do I build my career in this organisation?
  • How do I get connected to the right people to develop my career?
  • What opportunities are available in other parts of the business?

“Our development opportunities are just not visible enough to people”

It’s important to recognise that other elements of a career strategy must also be in place to sustainably satisfy these needs for all employees.

Are organisations still relying on their line managers for career support? The group painted a mixed picture – some are solely dependent upon leaders, while others are scaling back their provision of specialist career coaching. However, most are growing their career support networks and their strategies include:

  • An internal bank of coaches
  • Access to employee network groups
  • A register of trained mentors
  • Job family career supporters
  • D&I career development coaches
  • Career transition coaches e.g. for return to work or repatriating global assignees
  • Internal career mobility advisors


Aileen began by highlighting the importance of 1-2-1 development in the NFU Mutual culture. They believe that professionally accredited coaches providing undisturbed, attentive listening deliver great outcomes for individuals and solid results for the business. The organisation has just won the ‘Exceptional Place to Work’ award for the second year running and were already a Gallup ‘Great Place to Work’.

“We place great emphasis on supporting our employees as well as our Members.”

NFU Mutual coaches are rigorously trained over an 18 month period and receive accreditation from the EMCC. Their coach pool offers business, career, return-to-work and engagement coaching, and the coach community has access to a comprehensive CPD programme including:

  • A Teams community, resources, and forum for peer-to-peer experience sharing
  • Coaching supervision (at least x2 a year)
  • A coaching week, involving masterclasses, and a face- to-face coaching event
  • Upskilling for those who want to provide career-specific coaching

Employees who have applied for career development support with a career coach are matched by a centralised service. Before registering, employees are expected to discuss with their line manager whether coaching or mentoring is the better fit for their needs.

“We make a clear distinction between coaching and mentoring as making the wrong match can have a negative effect.”

At NFU Mutual, coaching is essentially non-directive, whereas mentors offer more direction through advice, guidance and feedback. Mentoring is also self-service.

Aileen promotes the service to employees via compelling stories during Careers Weeks and by sharing blogs from people who have experienced coaching and mentoring.

The impact of the service is measured via qualitative feedback from employees, and engagement survey trends. Aileen also contends that they’re succeeding because they’ve built a coaching culture within the organisation, reflected in an enthusiasm for being coached and also being trained as a coach.

As attendees shared their experiences, a clear theme emerged of a more inclusive career support proposition; whether offering the service to more employees, making specialist provision available to under-represented groups, or training career coaches from any organisational level.


NFU Mutual has a very distinctive culture and their approach isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. It’s important that organisations tailor their career support to their business situation, priorities and budgets. However, there was consensus that Aileen’s strategy represents a series of best practice processes that attendees can draw upon to enhance their way forward. These ideas included:

  • Accredit coaches to significantly improve the quality of their support
  • Label the range of services and communicate the difference between coaching and mentoring support
  • Promote the benefits of career conversations with someone other than the line manager
  • Explore ways to maximise the impact of career coaches on the career development of employees from under-represented groups
  • Equip in-house coaches to manage a range of career conversations
  • Take the weight off line managers and HRBPs, while retaining them within the career support network

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