Columnist Caroline Gourlay is an independent business psychologist based in Bath who writes about the application of psychology in the workplace, including its risks and limitations. She is interested in trends in psychological research as well as the nitty-gritty practicalities of using psychology at work. Caroline has worked with large corporations and in the public sector, but her real interest is in medium-sized, owner-managed businesses, including family business. She helps organisations to select the right people to fit their organisation and coaches executives to enable them to fulfil their potential.

Many organisations spend a lot of time and money identifying and developing ‘high potential’ employees. This is understandable – at least some of them are likely to be future leaders of the business. But what about everyone else? Don’t they deserve the chance to fulfil their potential too? Maybe it’s time we stopped looking for ‘people with potential’ and started looking for the potential in people.

Everyone has potential

I believe everyone has potential; we just don’t all have the same potential. Clearly some people are likely to go further than others and it’s not just a question of ambition. There are plenty of ambitious people who don’t have what it takes to reach the top, even if they “always give 110%”, “don’t recognise the word failure” or whatever nonsense this year’s Apprentice candidates are spouting. But just because someone is unlikely to be senior management material doesn’t mean they have no potential. The question is, what kind – depth or breadth?

Depth or breadth                                 

A career with depth means developing some kind of specialism over time, be that technical, functional or industry sector expertise: a highly skilled engineer, a tax expert, an experienced manufacturing manager, a person who knows everything there is to know about the food packaging industry. If that doesn’t sound enough like ‘everyone’, then other specialisms might include developing expertise in interior design, perfecting the art of cocktail-making or learning more and more about plants while working in a garden centre.

A career with depth means developing some kind of specialism over time.

Careers with breadth, on the other hand, generally involve moving away from specialisation to look at the bigger picture. Strategic thinking involves more breadth than depth, the pulling together of disparate ideas, the identification of trends.

Generally speaking, the more senior the role, the greater the requirement for breadth of thinking. Even where a specialism is involved, there is still a requirement to think broadly about where the product, service, technology or whatever fits into the bigger picture – the market, the political landscape, society as a whole. Steve Jobs would probably be a good example of someone whose career had depth and breadth.

Careers with breadth, on the other hand, generally involve moving away from specialisation to look at the bigger picture.

Some people get a choice

In my experience, most people who are capable of the breadth of thinking required for a senior generalist role are also capable of the depth of thinking required for a specialist role. These are your high potentials. They can handle a high degree of complexity and it becomes a matter of preference and interest whether they focus this on breadth or depth – becoming a specialist heart surgeon or the Chief Exec of a health trust, for example.

It doesn’t tend to work the other way around. Many people become specialists in their field by gradually acquiring skills, knowledge and expertise over time, but are less adept at the kind of unstructured thinking required to handle strategic issues effectively. But they still have the potential to become excellent at what they do and their careers deserve investment. Frankly I don’t want my IT problems, my car or, indeed, my teeth fixed by broad strategic thinkers; I want specialists who have honed their skills and are up to speed with the latest developments in their field.

Organisational traps

I’ve seen organisations fall into two traps by failing to recognise the difference between depth and breadth in careers. The first is to under-value depth and focus most of their attention on high potential superstars, who can think strategically, leaving others with the odd training course if they’re lucky. Large corporates tend to be most likely to fall into this one. The second is to over-value depth and promote people who have developed specialisms into generalist senior management positions, which they either don’t really want or can’t actually handle. Professional services firms are particularly prone to this one.

Clues to look out for

There are two strong clues as to whether someone’s career is likely to have depth or breadth. The first is the extent to which a person needs structure to guide their thinking. If someone can make sense of complex, ambiguous information starting from scratch without needing procedures, flow charts and so on to guide them through it, then they are likely to be capable of broad as well deep thinking. Those who struggle in an unstructured environment are less likely to thrive in a very senior role where the rules aren’t clear and there’s no ‘right answer’ to arrive at.

The second clue is where someone’s curiosity leads them. People whose careers are likely to have depth tend to be curious about questions like:

People whose careers are likely to have breadth tend to be curious about questions like:

Developing potential takes commitment and energy from the organisation and the employee. A good start might be working out which direction to pursue in the first place.