Nobody likes to be pigeonholed, particularly graduates, according to research by Common Purpose. The leadership development organisation has found that one in five high-fliers feel they have been forced to specialise too early in their careers by their employers.

Global HR consultancy DDI agrees that graduates should gain a good mix of experience when trying to reach the top. Today's university-leavers need a "360-degree vision", insists Lucy McGee, director of DDI UK. "They need to gain experience on all key functions before progressing to leadership status," she explains.

So how can graduates get this rounded experience? Fortunately, says McGee, a growing number of employers are recognising that a flexible approach to graduate training - and beyond - not only benefits employees but enables the company to gain the best from its workforce and produce the strongest future leaders.

"Traditionally, senior leaders have climbed the career ladder via a single function - often finance," she says. "In fact, the more senior you go, the more finance backgrounds you find. But what happens in these cases is that the leader either has a simplistic view of other functions or they minimise their impact on the business."

She believes it is critical for leaders to fully understand the importance of customer service, HR and marketing, among other specialisms. "If companies can work this kind of knowledge into people's careers as they move up the business - moving them across functions as well as up - they reduce the risk of people having a blinkered view of the integral functions on which the success of the business depend."

Shell is a case in point. The company allows its graduates to move between specialisms every three years so that they get to know several areas of the business. "This continues up to a very senior level," says Lucy Slinger, head of business analysis in Shell's central finance division. "I joined Shell in 1998 and the areas I've worked in include trading and shipping, the petrol stations themselves, mergers and acquisitions, plain hardcore accounting and I've even worked in South America. Eventually, I'd like to be a director for Shell or another company and this breadth of experience that I'm gaining will definitely help."

David Pappie, manager for global attraction and recruitment for Shell, believes this broader understanding of the issues facing the business is also one of the reasons why Shell boasts such high retention levels.

Nevertheless, he adds, Shell is keen to avoid its future leaders becoming too generalist. "Once our graduates find what they are best at, we like them to develop their strengths in this area throughout their career," he says.

Terry Jones, spokesman for AGCAS (Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services), shares the view that graduates should have the opportunity to build on particular skills. "Some graduates suit the kind of scheme where they move from one completely different function to another, but others know they excel in one particular area and don't want to be continually pushed into something else," he says.

He advises this group of university-leavers to avoid recruitment schemes that are what he calls "the cook's tour".

Andrew Wilson, manager of talent management for Smiths Aerospace, agrees. "One thing our graduates consistently tell us is that they like applying what they've learned at university in a real job from the moment they join us, rather than being passed from pillar to post," he says.

Meanwhile, BAE Systems - another major graduate employer in the aerospace sector - finds that graduates enjoy a wider training experience. Richard Hamer, education partnership director at BAE, explains: "Graduates, of which we take on around 150 a year, are given broad experiences across the business."

Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), concludes that graduates should carefully explore the format of any recruitment scheme before applying. "The examples of BAE and Smiths Aerospace illustrate how most industries now provide a range of types of graduate training and that there is increasing choice out there," he says.

Some employers, such as Tesco, even offer a choice. "We very much sell the fact that our graduates can do either - generalise or specialise - depending on which scheme they opt for," says Sarah Heamus, UK resource manager.