The NHS must get better at spotting leadership potential in clinicians, the Department of Health's head of workforce has demanded.

Clare Chapman said she would like to see more doctors become chief executives. "Only 5 per cent of chief executives are doctors. That shocked me given the huge talent pool of clinicians," she told an NHS Employers conference on workforce planning last week.

She stressed the need for greater diversity among NHS leaders. "To get the best people in leadership positions we need to make sure we're looking across the whole of the workforce rather than being too narrow and fishing in too small a pond," she said.

Trusts were told to expect more guidance on workforce planning - including developing leadership - once the findings of junior health minister Lord Darzi's wide-ranging review of the NHS are published in the summer.

A straw poll of delegates revealed most felt workforce planning in the NHS needed to be overhauled. About three quarters said it should be led at local level with support from strategic health authorities.

Some trust bosses complained of "mixed messages" about their role. For example, "vital signs" performance indicators for primary care trusts do not include workforce planning goals. NHS Employers deputy director Sian Thomas said the event had revealed the need for "a clear steer" on workforce planning.

Ms Chapman said the NHS had to understand what good workforce planning involved and build it into the commissioning framework. "We need to be very clear on what we mean by workforce planning," she said. "I don't think we can look at workforce planning without looking at education planning and service planning and there's a need to look at patient and staff satisfaction."

She said improving the commissioning of healthcare education, which has been hit by SHA cutbacks, was crucial. She suggested "stealing mercilessly" from world class commissioning to develop a set of competencies in this area.

Ms Chapman added NHS managers had a vital role when it came to ensuring staff were supported in developing their careers.

TUC deputy general secretary Frances O'Grady said that senior managers should ensure they developed staff at all levels including middle management. "How can we expect supervisors to champion training opportunities for people they manage when too often they feel their training needs are not being championed?" she said.