Vertical Development

Vertical Development: building leadership capabilities for the future

More is being asked of leaders of today. In a complex, rapidly changing and globally interconnected world, successful leaders will need to act responsively, but with good judgement, fail fast and pivot, take account of different perspectives while holding their own centre, navigate through ambiguous new contexts and deliver today while building the sustainable organisation of the future.

And whilst leaders have to respond to a pace of change and complexity unlikely to have been seen before, our existing development interventions are not delivering the pipeline of leaders needed:

  • 79% of respondents at a MDV event on vertical development say their existing development interventions are not delivering the pipeline of leaders they need;
  • Nearly half (49%) of CEOs interviewed in PwC’s 19th Annual Global CEO Survey are making changes to how they develop their leadership pipeline.

Recent research estimates that less than 10%(1) of the managerial population have the leadership capabilities needed to manage complexity comfortably and to systematically make sense of, and respond quickly to, changes in the environment. In this context the approach becoming known as ‘Vertical Development’ is a powerful way of understanding and predicting the precise needs of leaders as they transition through various stages of their development.

Traditional horizontal development, focuses on the acquisition of further knowledge, skills and development of specific personal qualities to become more proficient and experienced in a given aspect of leadership. By contrast, Vertical Development transforms the underlying capacity of the leader to make sense of and respond to situations, working directly on their internal ‘meaning making’, rather than just behaviours or actions. Vertical development complements horizontal development rather than replacing it – leaders still require the knowledge, skills, competencies and personal qualities to be able to perform effectively at whatever development stage they may be operating. Think of the difference between adding more apps to a leader’s repertoire, and helping them to change their underlying operating system.

Our paper What in the world is going on? Mapping Vertical and VUCA beyond the bandwagon, gives a practical guide to the vertical world.

Karen Ellis, an expert with over 15 years practice in the field of senior leadership development, explains what vertical development is and the value it adds to leadership development.  Read her interview here or watch this here.

Nick Petrie, of the Center of Creative Leadership in his paper also describes in a very accessible way the process of staged development Vertical Leadership Development: Developing leaders for a complex world Part 1.  In his second paper, The How-To of Vertical Leadership Development – Part 2, Nick describes the conditions we can create to support vertical development in our organisations.

Our approach

3D model

Our approach to vertical development emphasises the development of the conceptual, interpersonal and personal domains. By developing each of these, the underlying capacity of an individual is expanded, enabling them to transition over time onto the next stage of development and deal with greater complexity than before.

Vertical stripe

The conceptual, interpersonal and personal domains each follow their own patterns of development, so although intricately linked, development is not at the same rate for each component. This helps to explain why two people at similar levels, ages and doing similar jobs, may show different capacity to cope with further complexity in their jobs – for example, one will be better at dealing with relationships and political complexity, the other with the more strategic thinking elements of the work.

Our approach to vertical development is underpinned by the research rigor of different theorists whose work expands on these different components; Elliot Jaques advances the importance of developing cognitive complexity, Robert Kegan focuses more on the significance of internal sense making and relationship with the self and we use the ‘perspective taking’ ideas of Suzanne Cook-Greuter’s theory to underpin the development of interpersonal capabilities.

Greater development outcomes

As calls on leaders’ time increases, minimising the time they have available to take out for ‘set piece’ development programmes, organisations are under pressure to deliver better return on investment (both financial and time) on those development activities. Precise targeting of development interventions to an individual’s own personal stage of development, drives the greatest positive impact on effectiveness and return on investment.

By diagnosing where individuals are within a stage of development and for each of the three capability strands, activities can be tailored to the development edge of a leadership cohort or specific individuals, to maximise the learning outcome. The appropriateness of an activity can be determined by the level of complexity and the degree of ambiguity it introduces.

Our offer

We work with our clients to design and implement practical vertical leadership development approaches applied to real life challenges. We work alongside our clients to create the organisational conditions and support systems to support this. We help our clients to design new development interventions or advise on how to adapt existing approaches, tailoring the approach to the development edge of the specific cohort to achieve the greatest development return. We use real work and case study exercises to build the capacity to learn in action. See our case studies here.

(1) Harthill Consulting