Leadership assessment for uncertain times

Our modern world is becoming ever more complex, uncertain, and changeable.  Our clients are increasingly telling us that their existing business models are being disrupted – by new technologies, by ‘left field’ market entrants, by changes in regulation, uncertainties due to Brexit, etc.  For leaders in these unpredictable times, providing clarity of direction is becoming much more difficult.  If we cannot predict what the future organisation will look like, how can we define with any certainty the leadership models that may be needed?  In the turbulent and rapidly changing business environment that has become the “new normal”, we need a new conceptualisation of what it means to lead.

And for a new idea of leadership, we need a new approach to leadership assessment.  We need to be able to measure not only the usual styles, traits and intellectual capabilities, but also the way individuals make sense of information, relationships and the world around them.

Often unrecognised, these sense-making processes or ‘capacities’ underlie the structure of individuals’ thinking, relating and acting, characterising their worldviews and patterns of action.  They have a profound impact on leadership approach and capability because they affect where individuals place their attention, the inferences they draw and, crucially, the actions they take.  These capacities have the potential to become more complex over time, as individuals move through a number of stages of development.

Over the last five years, MDV Consulting has been exploring this field of developmental psychology, also known as constructivist-adult development and more popularly ‘vertical development’ and we have been making it an integral part of our practice.  In today’s world, we believe it is a critical addition to our understanding of individuals’ capabilities and gives organisations a competitive advantage by creating more agile leaders.

The ideas from theorists such as Robert Kegan, Eliot Jacques, Otto Laske, Jane Loevinger, and Susanne Cook Greuter are not new.  It is what is now demanded to lead today which is requiring leaders to grow beyond what was previously sufficient – to develop psychologically further than before to alleviate the anxiety caused by 6 billion humans now interacting almost in real time.

What is Adult Development Theory?

The concept of Constructivist Adult Development brings to light that in the same way children mature through predictable stages, thinking, relating and acting in more sophisticated ways, adults also progress through a series of development stages in how they make sense of, think about and interact to organise the world around them. However, unlike the automatic development of a child, an adult needs to work at transforming their underlying capacity to continue to move through these developmental stages. In addition, certain conditions and life experiences have been found to aid and accelerate this transition.

Looking beyond what we are and into what we might become

At MDV we clearly see the benefits of complementing traditional approaches to leadership assessment.

Traditional assessment approaches examine traits, competencies or behaviours.  These define the skills, knowledge and personal qualities needed to perform ‘business-as-usual’ leadership functions in the steady-state predictable world.  They help to ensure alignment of people with business strategy through selection, performance management and development.

However, in today’s fast-moving environment we know that behavioural competencies can quickly date and become redundant.  So in addition to looking at the behavioural competencies, we also need to look to the more transformational capacities – an individual’s ability to make sense of complexity, navigate complicated relationships both within and outside the organisation, and manage their own reactions to uncertainty.

A useful analogy is to think of your smartphone – building competency is like adding new apps; increasing the breadth of skills that allow you to successfully perform different functions.  But building capacity is like upgrading the underlying operating system, making the phone capable of doing more than it could before.

A distillation of the best theories, points to three interconnected strands of Conceptual, Interpersonal and Personal under which are four key capacities which help describe a person’s evolving thinking and being:


  • Complexity Processing – the person’s capacity to interpret all the information coming towards them in a situation.
  • Fluidity of Thinking – how a person constructs different and new ways to think about problems or situations.


  • Perspective Shifting – how the person shifts perspective to understand different views, understands their own assumptions or biases.


  • Self-observation – how the person understands and manages their own emotional and relational patterns and how they are affected.

If you’re not looking for these underlying capacities in your leadership assessment, you could be missing a significant facet of individuality that’s often hidden.  If concerned with identifying the right people for the right roles, we believe the time has come to consider the field of adult development and the new dimensions this unlocks.

MDV’s approach to capacity building assessment

We have always adopted a distinctively holistic, developmental approach to assessment, whether for selection, promotion or talent identification:

  • Inside out – Rather than assessing from the outside, ‘clipboard and stopwatch in hand’, we get close to the individual and work from the ‘inside out’ in a person-centric manner. What that means is that we help people reflect on their own unique experiences and patterns of behaviour.  We help them identify core underlying characteristics, capacities, values and drivers, and to reflect on what has served them well in the past, what will help them realise future aspirations, and what is at risk of being overplayed.
  • Holistic view – Rather than dissecting people into a series of separate component scores, scales and competencies, we work with individuals to develop a holistic understanding of what makes them distinctive as leaders. This enables us – and them – to gain powerful insights into performance and potential.
  • Engaging experience – Developmental assessment is something we do with people, not to them. We work in a transparent and relational way, encouraging participants to open up and engage in self-exploration and to focus energy and attention on accelerating their self-development.  This experience sparks participants’ internal drive to develop – participants are left with the insight, motivation and wherewithal to address their own challenges – hence the developmental aspect.

Our core approach is the lifecycle interview, which we sometimes refer to as a ‘DNA interview’ as it gets to the essence of the individual.  The interview typically also incorporates insights from various psychometrics.

In interviewing for underlying capacities, our assessors not only look at the content of a candidate’s response, but are also specially trained to identify nuances in the way a candidate structures his or her thinking, giving insights into their sense-making processes across the conceptual, interpersonal and personal