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Horizontal and Vertical Growth Opportunities for Your Superstars

By 03/07/2023August 21st, 2023No Comments

There are two main approaches to encouraging the development of your employees: vertical and horizontal. Vertical growth refers to the traditional approach, i.e. moving people up the ladder. Horizontal growth refers to the development of individuals within their current position- an under-utilised option in many cases.

The concept of these distinct mindsets was coined by psychologist Carol Dweck in her 2006 book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. She explains that those with a fixed mindset can often give up without trying if they believe that their skills are set in stone. For example, if someone was ‘bad at maths’ at school, they could go on to avoid entrepreneurship as they believe they won’t be able to learn the skills needed to track their finances.

Here we’ll explore the concepts of vertical and horizontal development, their benefits, their challenges, and how they can be effectively utilised to support employee growth and organisational success.

Identifying Your Superstars

It would be a bit silly to start discussing growth opportunities without first advising you on how to identify your superstars. We’re not ones for putting people in boxes here at MadeYou but categorising your employees can be helpful when sifting out your superstars.

Monster Superstars
  • Low Performers: Those who, without training, coaching and effective management, may not stay with the company.
  • Developing Performers: Those who aren’t quite where you want them yet but are showing signs of promise. They need support and mentoring to enable them to meet expectations.
  • Steady Eddies: Those who are meeting expectations reliably and consistently.
  • Top Steadies: Those who are working above expectations but in line with their current remit.
  • Over Achievers: Those who are consistently working above expectations in all aspects.

Low and Developing Performers obviously need to grow into their current roles. Efforts for these employees should be centred around training, coaching and performance management.

Steady Eddies, Top Steadies and Over Achievers are your superstars, and all need investment to enable them to grow as individuals. If they’re not encouraged to develop, the business may well grow around them, leaving them behind as the business’s expectations outstrip their abilities.

The next step is to figure out whether vertical or horizontal growth opportunities would suit your superstars. For this, you’ll need to communicate. Find out if the thought of people management puts them into a tailspin or if they’ve always aimed to climb the traditional ladder.

You’ll also need to consider their ability to deliver against objectives, their attitudes and behaviours compared to company culture, how they collaborate and how proactive they are in helping others and the business outside of their remit.

Vertical Growth Opportunities

Vertical growth is all about career progression, moving into leadership and climbing the hierarchical ladder. Businesses often focus on vertical growth because it’s traditional. It’s comfortable, and we understand it. There’s nothing business owners like more than to take on staff, retain them, and develop them into Team Leaders and beyond. It just makes sense to them. But that’s because they’re basing their approach on their own experience of climbing the ladder to become the business owners they are today.

For many superstar employees, this could be a shared dream. If they have ambition and want to expand their skillsets into people management, then it’s happy days all around. Unless they are eventually promoted to a position they can’t actually handle. Anyone who’s read The Peter Principle will be aware of authors Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull’s theory about “why things always go wrong.”

“In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his own level of incompetence. This dangerously simple maxim of organisational dysfunction, first spelt out more than thirty-three years ago, has wormed its way into everyday managerial vocabulary. The Peter Principle is rife wherever hierarchies exist – multinational companies, local government, the Civil Service, hospital management, the groves of academe and public transport. There is no escape: promotion, like the paths of glory, leads but to the grave of over-promotion.”

They theorise that, through traditional ladder-climbing, employees will eventually be promoted beyond their level of competence. This leads to dysfunctional management and a trickle-down effect of poor performance simply because people have been promoted beyond their abilities for the sake of ‘career progression’. So, with that in mind, what about those who want to avoid this trap or who aren’t so motivated by career progression?

Horizontal Growth Opportunities

Luke Todd, gives us a great example of the sorts of employees that may actually be demotivated by vertical opportunities:

“Think of those Developers or Designers within your business who are absolute superstars; fantastic at their job and smashing their targets. They may well be viewed by management and staff as mentors or go-to guides. The temptation for many would be to actively develop them into Team Leaders- but their skill set may not be aligned with people management.”

Luke ToddMadeYou CEO, Co-Founder, Coach, Trainer

In reality, the employees that spring to mind as absolute superstars, may be superstars simply because they are doing what they love for 90% of their working day. They are highly motivated, highly effective, and happy.

Moving employees like this into leadership roles will only take them away from what they love to do, reducing this part of their day down to, say, 60%. That means that for 40% of their day, they’ll be doing something they don’t love and aren’t necessarily naturally aligned to do. They may not want to develop that skill set and instead become demotivated, less effective, and unhappy. You’ve just lost yourself a superstar.

Not wanting to progress through traditional promotions doesn’t mean your employee is unmotivated. They may want to develop and grow horizontally throughout their career. They may be more than open to expanding their knowledge and their current remit. And that should be encouraged.

Our example of the worker-bee developer is only one example, but it’s a good one. Of course, many designers and developers do want vertical progression. Regular open communication with your employees should make this quite clear. But we need to think a little differently about those who don’t want to climb the ladder or manage people.

Growth vs Fixed Mindsets

When deciding which opportunities should be offered, we should also acknowledge the mindsets of our superstars. Do they have:

  • A Fixed Mindset: Someone who “views intelligence, abilities, and talents as inherently stable and unchangeable over time”


  • A Growth Mindset: Someone who “views intelligence, abilities, and talents as learnable and capable of improvement through effort”

Those with a growth mindset, however, according to her theory, see challenges as a learning opportunity. They have faith in themselves that anything can be learned and will put their minds to almost anything if it enables them to grow and develop.

Here are some examples to detail the difference in pathways you’ll need to create for those who would like vertical vs horizontal development. While also keeping the different mindsets in mind:

  • An individual with a fixed mindset who wants vertical growth- for example, a Customer Service Team Leader who wants to become a Customer Support Manager.
  • An individual who has a growth mindset and wants vertical growth- for example, a Customer Service Director who wants to become a Chief Customer Officer including marketing elements.
  • An individual who has a fixed mindset and wants horizontal growth- for example, a Customer Support Manager who feels they can take on more TL’s as direct reports.
  • An individual who has a growth mindset and wants horizontal growth- for example, a Customer Support Manager who also wants to include A.I. Chat Bots as part of their customer remit.
supporting employee growth

There are a few variations, but what’s important is to ensure you understand your direct reports so you can tailor their growth and development, keeping them motivated, happy and effective.

Different Ladders for Different People

Sometimes, career progression may need to take a step sideways rather than upwards to facilitate further progression. If an employee’s skill set is analytical and less people-orientated and they want to be a Business Manager. They may need to step into a Business Analytics role first. Here they can expand their business knowledge, allowing them to go into Business Management if they also focus on improving their people skills.

Climbing the growth career ladder

Sometimes we may need to throw out the ladder completely. For instance: your Customer Service Director wants to become C-Level, but the only role available is Chief Customer Officer, who also looks after marketing elements. They would need to expand their marketing knowledge to advance in their career. They, therefore, need to step onto a different ladder and fulfil the experience required to step back onto the C-Level ladder and start climbing.

Mentoring, Coaching and Training

All three of the above are equally important for horizontal and vertical growth. More often than not, vertically motivated individuals are offered technical training and soft skills real skills training and coaching, while the horizontally motivated are sometimes only offered technical training.

There are so many real skills training courses out there that will help horizontally motivated people be even better at their jobs. Coaching will allow them to become more effective and efficient while also feeling supported. It may also help them identify opportunities that match their growth requirements and encourage them to be proactive about asking for or seizing them.


Vertically motivated individuals may get to collaborate with other departments more often than horizontally motivated counterparts. However, this growth opportunity should be seen as universally beneficial for both. It encourages a focus back on the business rather than the siloed team, promotes working together, and it has the bonus of improved communication through better understanding.

Focus on Learning

As managers, we often catch up with our team members and ask them what they are working on and how it is going. We also do this in team meetings as a round table. These are sometimes very necessary operational conversations, but by switching the focus over to “What have you learnt this week?” and “What do you need to learn next week?”, we alter the focus from delivery to growth for both horizontal and vertical employees.

Strengths Alignment

CliftonStrengths can be used as a tool to optimise the business by capitalising on individuals’ strengths and potential. You can do this by using their Top Strengths profile to guide the kind of opportunities you give them, or even look at their Top Theme and align opportunities that way. For example, anyone with strong Ideation could be included in scoping conversations, think tanks, etc. Even if it isn’t in their field of expertise, they will add great input to the session while growing as individuals.

Align growth opportunities with Strengths

Supporting New Staff

Managers will often hand the support and training of new team members over to their vertically focussed Over Achievers. This is a missed opportunity to provide horizontal growth to your Steadies! Over Achievers have clearer growth parameters, so they don’t necessarily need this for their development. Steady Eddies are much more process-focused and deliver against expectations. They will have more patience and are much more likely to give an objective view of the performance of the new starter. They are the perfect choice to support new staff, AND it’s great for their horizontal growth.

So, if you’re a people-manager on the lookout for opportunities to develop your team, but you’re not sure how you can forge the right pathways for the right people, then we hope this article has given you some insight.

Trying to force outstanding employees down a development path that doesn’t work for them is entirely counterproductive and can even lead to losing talent. Do not fall into this trap! Instead, arm yourself with the knowledge you need to grow and develop your team correctly.

MadeYou offers many development programs that may be of interest for your reports, as well as a full 360 Feedback service that encourages consistent growth. We also offer Performance Review Calibration to ensure all employees are evaluated in the same way, as well as a wealth of training courses that could take your Superstars to the next level.

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