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February 14, 2020 by Dede Henley

Research Says Vertical Development Can Make You A Better Leader

vertical-development.jpgThe environment we find ourselves leading in is increasingly complex. Maybe you’ve noticed? If you’ve ever experienced overwhelm or doubted your ability to cope with everything that’s going on right now, then yes, you’ve noticed. And guess what? You’re right to doubt your abilities. With the amount of complexity in today’s world, all leaders have to keep expanding and growing if they want to keep up and keep moving forward. But just how you expand and grow is the question.

Increasingly, it’s becoming clear that the way ahead for today’s leaders is through vertical development.

What is Vertical Leadership Development?

To understand vertical development, it’s helpful to contrast it with horizontal development, which is what we typically think of when it comes to leadership development. Horizontal development is about expanding your toolkit by adding to the tools you already have. You gain more skills, expand your knowledge and become more competent. Think communications training, dealing with conflict, developing a more strategic approach to growing the enterprise and similar areas. All of these can be measured through a 360-degree leadership assessment. And they represent what most of us in the learning provider space have been doing with clients over the past thirty years.

I’m not convinced we have moved the dial much.

Vertical development, on the other hand, is about expanding your mindset — changing the way you think and behave. Your mindset refers to the mental models you engage when you are thinking, as well as your sense of identity. Vertical development isn’t about training a leader in skills; it’s about transforming the ways a leader thinks, which will impact what they do and how they behave. In vertical development, you pay attention to becoming more adaptable, more self-aware, more collaborative and able to span boundaries and networks.

This, as you can imagine, is harder to measure. And maybe that’s why it doesn’t get the emphasis from corporate L&D that it deserves.

The Research Behind Vertical Development

Vertical leadership development is a practice my colleagues Julie Chesley, Terri Egan and Suzanne Lahl have been at work on for years in their consulting practice, SyncUp. They recently published the results of their latest research on the subject in a paper called Helping Leaders Grow Up: Vertical Leadership Development in Practice.

Robert Kegan is another bright mind who has focused on vertical development since the early eighties. In his book, In Over our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life, he points to five levels of human development — Impulsive Mind, Imperial Mind, Socialized Mind, Self-Authoring Mind and Self-Transforming Mind. Think of where a child starts out — highly impulsive and chaotic. The journey through the five levels Kegan lays out takes us from immaturity to wisdom. From being defined by others to authoring your own life.

Another expert in the field of vertical development, Nick Petrie from the Center for Creative Leadership, outlines a journey of three stages of growth, from Dependent-Conformer to Independent-Achiever to Interdependent-Collaborator.

What Growing Vertically Looks Like

Let’s take a look at Ken, a fictional leader who might be very familiar to you. You might even see yourself in Ken. He’s a seasoned executive who has been through a lot of training in his day. He knows how to give candid performance feedback. He’s learned the three steps to active listening. He knows how to build out a strategy for his team to increase production.

The challenge is his “being.” Ken is over-busy and often distracted. As a result, he’s arrogant and dismissive. He can be found checking his phone during team meetings, usually after rushing breathlessly into the meeting a few minutes late. He “knows” what to do, but what about his mindset? How does he think? It might be something like, There’s not enough time to get everything done, or I’m the only one who really knows how to run this thing. And it’s impacting his behavior and leadership in very visible ways.

So, how does the corporate learning function address Ken’s mindset? It doesn’t. Meanwhile, his mindset and resulting behaviors are having a serious effect on the culture of the organization.

Vertical development challenges Ken to make some changes in the way he is. He has to slow down and raise his self-awareness and then engage in a higher level of personalized change. Vertical development can allow a person like Ken to lead from wisdom and expansiveness rather than being stuck in a limiting (and often unconscious) mindset. It changes the culture of the organization for good.

Setting the Stage for Vertical Development

It makes a lot of sense, right? So, why aren’t more organizations becoming DDOs – deliberately developmental organizations that vertically develop their leaders and employees? Because critical elements of readiness are missing.

SyncUp’s research identifies five factors that are necessary for an organization to implement vertical leader development: senior leader engagement, making space for openness and vulnerability, capability and experience of practitioners, creating alignment in business processes and an expanded understanding of risk-taking.

Ready to roll up your sleeves and get busy working on the development trajectory of the future? Here’s how to get the pieces in place for vertical development to take off in your organization:

  • Educate senior leaders on the value of vertical development.
  • Create an environment where openness and vulnerability are welcomed.
  • Make sure you have facilitators and leaders who are skilled and personally experienced in vertical development.
  • Get your business processes aligned.
  • Build a culture where risk-taking is encouraged and applauded.

Previously published on Forbes

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