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Why career support networks really matter


Why should an organisation build a network of career supporters for their employees? At our latest Virtual Roundtable featuring Red Hat, I attempted to address this question.

During the pandemic, Wendy Hirsh of the Institute of Employment Studies commented1 on the adequacy of the support that employees were receiving from employers in a fast-changing workplace. She found that whilst managers are often introduced to coaching employees for performance, training to prepare managers for their role in career development is less prevalent.

As a result, many managers lack the skills and confidence to have open and exploratory career conversations. This is a great shame and helps explain why in previous research2 Wendy discovered that 80 % of the people she interviewed had experienced a positive career conversation with someone other than their line manager. What is more, these were informal conversations outside the  appraisal process.

This made me reflect on my own research3 , from over a decade ago, in which I interviewed multiple high-potential employees on Fast Track programmes. I asked what their most useful source of career support was. While managers were undoubtedly part of the picture, many chose others – senior leaders, technical and discipline heads in their business, peers within the company or even the voice from outside, in the form of friends and family. Mentors were most commonly referenced, with the explanation being that they could have a more open and personal conversation through this relationship.

These items of research have led me to the following insights on developing career support networks:

  • It’s essential to train line managers to have career conversations with their employees and direct reports, because this is the person most employees will go to first. It’s so important that managers are encouraging, curious about others’ motivations and well-informed.
  • Employees also want to have career conversations with people other than their line manager. Faced with this reality, who do organisations approach to provide that support and how do they prepare them for that role?

It also leads me to two further questions for readers to think about:

  • For employees who have, in the past, been excluded from talent tracks and high-quality career support, how do you begin to help them develop the confidence and skills they need to approach people and make use of a career support network?
  • If a business is building a network of career supporters, how well is their current culture aligned to ensure it delivers the outcomes they’re looking for? What changes will they need to make? For example, is having an informal career conversation with someone other than your line manager seen as a legitimate use of time?

So, why should an organisation build a network of career supporters for their employees? Because those that don’t are missing a golden opportunity to reach into  and change so many other aspects of the organisation. The way line managers think, behave and add value, the huge potential and appetite of other people who are willing to provide career support, the chance to nurture previously underdeveloped talent, and a means to transform culture. This is a ‘network dividend’ well worth investing in.

For more information about how our career strategy and development solutions can help in this process, please contact

1 Career development in organisations to navigate changes in work and skills. Wendy Hirsh, Principal Associate, IES Perspectives on HR 2021.

2 Straight Talking: Effective Career Discussions at Work. Wendy Hirsh, Charles Jackson and Jenny Kidd, NICEC, 2001

3 Talent, Careers and Organisations: Where Next? Trudy Delamare and David North, Corporate Research Forum, 2011

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