Vertical (Leadership) Development

This week’s post goes deeper into Kegan’s Constructive Developmental Theory which underlined last week’s post about DDOs, by looking at 3 whitepapers by Nick Petrie at the Center for Creative Leadership:

While the overall context is centered around leadership development programs, which is of particular interest to me, many of the insights here have much broader applicability.

Nick starts by identifying key failure modes that cause leadership programs to be ineffective and ascribes ways to address them:

  • Wrong focus: too much time is spent on delivering information and content and not enough on the hard work of developing the leaders themselves –> focus more on development, less on content
  • Lack of connectivity: content in the programs is often disconnected from the leader’s work, making it hard to convert what was learned in the program into actions that address real problems –> make the development and the work inseparable
  • Leader in isolation: most programs fail to engage the leader’s key stakeholders in the change process, leading to resistance when they are surprised and disrupted by the changes leaders make to their behavior –> Create strong developmental networks at work
  • Too short: programs are designed as events rather than as a process over time. –> Make leadership development a process, not an event

Digging deeper on the first point, Nick distinguishes between two types of development:

  • Horizontal development – development of new skills, abilities, behaviors. Technical learning.
  • Vertical development – refers to the “stages” that people progress through with regard to the way they “make sense of the world”. This is where Kegan’s work and other developmental theories come into play.

The metaphor Nick is using, is that if horizontal development can be equated to filling up a cup with more water, vertical development can be equated to making the cup bigger.

Nick cites several academic papers that show that people at higher level of development perform better in more complex environments, because they can think in more complex ways. Therefore, since the world around is and hence the problems that we ask leaders to solve are becoming more complex over time, investing in a leader’s vertical development is a worthwhile investment.

To give a more nuanced notion of what Vertical Development really means here’s a short expert explaining three of Kegan’s stages:

  • 3–Socialized mind: At this level we are shaped by the expectations of those around us. What we think and say is strongly influenced by what we think others want to hear.
  • 4–Self-authoring mind: We have developed our own ideology or internal compass to guide us. Our sense of self is aligned with our own belief system, personal code, and values. We can take stands, set limits on behalf of our own internal “voice.”
  • 5–Self-transforming mind: We have our own ideology, but can now step back from that ideology and see it as limited or partial. We can hold more contradiction and oppositeness in our thinking and no longer feel the need to gravitate towards polarized thinking

Next Nick addresses the primary conditions necessary to drive vertical development. If one (or more) of the three is missing, no progress will be made:

  1. “Heat” (intense stretch) experiences (“the what” – initiates)
  2. Colliding new ways of thinking  (“the who” – enables)
  3. Elevated sense making (“the how” – integrates)

He then goes deep into 15 different approaches one can use to create an environment/program in which these necessary conditions exist, as summarized by the table below:

vertical leadership dev - matrix

To sum things up on a more personal note: when I decided to make the career change into People Ops, I made a commitment to myself to adopt a “first principles” approach to all “HR best practices” that I engage with and am now responsible for. Traditional leadership development programs was a clear area with a “bad smell” which requires some deep rethinking. Nick’s work draws the full arc for how one may go about fixing this area: from clearly articulating what’s broken with the existing paradigm, through providing a compelling alternative, to offering actionable building blocks that can be used to design the next generation program.

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Vertical (Leadership) Development

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