Uncertainty and apprehension about career progression is diverting potential leaders off the path to the boardroom, a new study by professional services recruiter Badenoch & Clark has found. Nearly two fifths (38%) of those surveyed in middle management or above said that professional anxiety was a decisive factor in limiting career progression to senior leadership or CEO level.

Both men and women experience professional insecurity equally, contrary to much of the current debate about the perceived limitations to career progression caused by gender differences. 39% of women identified professional anxiety such as apprehension and concern as a top reason limiting career progression, with 37% of men reporting the same sentiments.

The research demonstrates that while structural measures such as mentoring and development programmes play a major part in nurturing senior leaders to the top, professional encouragement and support are just as important to ensure employees feel championed by their own company.

Those in smaller companies found professional anxiety as a greater barrier to progress to senior leadership than employees of larger companies. 43% of employees in firms of 49 or less reported that professional insecurity was stopping them from advancing, against 33% in companies of 50-249 employees and 36% in organisations of 250 or more employees, suggesting that smaller companies need greater investment in their recruitment, retention and general HR functions.

For many candidates, insecurity about career progression is linked to the lack of formal structures in the workplace. Over three fifths of organisations did not have mentoring, development programmes or leadership training in place (62%, 62% and 64% respectively), according to the survey. 22% of respondents said there were no formal structures whatsoever in place to support leaders’ career progression.

The lack of support structures was felt most acutely by employees of small businesses (up to 49 employees), with 35% of respondents saying there were no support structures in place. In large companies with 250 or more employees, this figure shrank to just over one tenth (13%).

Other factors impacting on professional development include actions by employees to reduce their own anxiety and stress as well as a push from workers for support within their organisation.

Nicola Linkleter, Managing Director of Badenoch & Clark, said: “This survey sheds new light on the factors that impact on career progression towards senior leadership. Those who wish to reach the boardroom are increasingly having to ‘lean in’, as many organisations lack formal structures to push key talent to the top. There is an immense pressure on employees to forge their own path.

“With some organisations having few formal structures in place, many candidates are feeling the pressure. With little signposting and advice provided by the employer, doubts about career development is stopping top talent from getting ahead. This is a loss for both the candidate and the company.

“If companies wish to retain top talent, we need to see greater investment in supportive mechanisms and formal structures. These can range from more structured approaches such as training programmes to mentoring and other softer forms of supporting top talent.”