Tackling Tough Challenges Requires a New Perspective

What kind of thinkers do you need in your business? What types of leadership will get you desired results? To answer these questions, you’ve got to be thinking about a different kind of learning.

You’re probably providing all sorts of opportunities for horizontal development — disseminating more knowledge, skills, and information.

But vertical development is entirely different. It’s about more complex and sophisticated ways of thinking. It’s called vertical development because it is based on levels, or stages, of thinking. It involves gaining new perspectives and leadership mindsets needed to make your business strategy work.

For example, managers and groups learn to tackle a problem with inquiry — questions, observation, and reflection — before jumping into advocating, lobbying, or deciding. This opens the door to deeper understanding, greater clarity, more options, and multiple right answers — which are especially needed for leading in complex, uncertain situations.

What is Vertical Development?

Our research has found that 3 primary conditions support vertical leadership development:

1. Heat Experiences

Leaders have the opportunity to respond to heat experiences when they face a complex situation that disrupts and disorients their habitual way of thinking. These situations help leaders discover that their current way of making sense of the world is inadequate. As a result, they seek out new and better ways to make sense of their challenge. Heat experiences are the what that initiates development.

Learn more about how to harness heat experiences to accelerate learning in our white paper, Heat Experiences for Development.

2. Colliding Perspectives

Leaders also have an opportunity to challenge their existing mental models when they’re exposed to people with different worldviews, opinions, backgrounds, and training. These relationships increase the number of perspectives through which leaders experience their world. Colliding experiences are the who that enables development.

3. Elevated Sensemaking

As leaders process and make sense of these perspectives and experiences, they enter an elevated stage of development. A larger, more advanced worldview emerges and, with time, stabilizes. This is the how that integrates development.

Many well-intentioned leadership development programs fail to deliver results because they hit on only 1 or 2 of the conditions for vertical development. Any one can provide some value, but it is not until you combine all 3 that development really takes off.



Is Your HR Function Focused on Vertical Development?

Is vertical development factored into how you think about your talent, your culture, and how people learn and grow? Consider these questions about the perspectives of the human resources/organizational development functions:

  • Does our organization understand the difference between horizontal and vertical development? Are both vertical and horizontal development incorporated into our leadership development methods?
  • Is our organization aligning our leadership culture to our strategy? Leadership cultures develop through different vertical stages: dependent/conformer, independent/achiever, interdependent/collaborator. Has our team worked out which leadership culture our strategy requires? Are we designing leadership development to match? Learn more about why leading culture change starts with a shift of thinking in Changing Culture: 5 Principles for Interdependent Leadership.
  • Do we have a good understanding of how leaders make different sense of the world at each of the stages? Whether explicitly or implicitly, is this understanding blended into the way we develop our leaders?

HR’s Role in Tailoring Leadership Development

Remember, employees come into their roles with different experiences, skills, perspectives, and stages of development. As an internal or external Human Resources leader, your role is to tailor development and meet people where they are; not everyone is ready for the same stuff at the same time.

For example, you may emphasize horizontal development for your early-career talent, but you can plant the seeds for vertical development for them, too. Learning from heat experiences, colliding perspectives, and elevated sensemaking can support them through many first-time challenges and accelerate their learning.

For senior or experienced leaders, their process of vertical development will likely be more complex and collaborative — but their mindsets or approaches may be more fixed.

There’s an important difference between helping a leader grow and trying to force it, though. Each stage of development and both types of development are important. The role of HR is to create the right conditions in which many different people can grow.

Emerging Leadership Trends Report

Download our Vertical Development: Culture Still Wins Over Strategy white paper to learn more about how vertical development of executive teams can improve your organization’s culture and the effectiveness of its strategy. 

And take our Vertical Leadership Development Audit to see how well your organization understands and is leveraging vertical development.


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