This article explores managerial careers in the National Health Service (NHS) through the lens of talent management, particularly focusing on how managers view barriers (snakes) and facilitators (ladders) to career progression. There is a significant literature on enablers and barriers to career progression, but much of this focuses on specific groups such as black and minority ethnic and female workers, and there is relatively little material on the general workforce of the NHS. The research design is a mixed method quantitative (questionnaire) and qualitative (interview and focus group) approach consisting of a quasi-probability element that focuses on a maximum variety sample and a purposive element that seeks policy views at central and strategic health authority level, and examines talent management in high-performing NHS organisations. Ladders are identified as follows: volunteering, secondment, networking, mentoring, academic qualifications, development, good role models/managers and appraisal/personal development plan. Snakes are identified as managing expectations; identity and cognitive diversity; location; sector; NHS toxic and favouritism culture; poor talent spotting; credentialism; exclusive approach to talent; and sustainability. It concludes that while previous conceptual and empirical work is fairly clear on any ladders, it is less clear on snakes. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.