• The Change Maker Group

Vertical Leadership Development

Stephen Newman gives us some tips on how to really develop your leadership skills in the 21st century.


Is this story familiar to you?

Attempting to meet new objectives, your organisation decided to make a significant investment in executive development to help leaders deliver its future plans. There were high expectations of success. Sometime later the programme has appeared to overpromise and underdeliver. Now, with expected results not being achieved, there is growing worry about missing performance targets. Was the programme a bad choice? Was it badly delivered? Has something else gone wrong? Did someone recommend a programme that they enjoyed and thought others would too? Finally, was enough attention paid to the sort of development programme that was really needed? These questions need answers because the cost of getting this wrong can go far beyond the cost of the programme.

Today, one place to start looking is by understanding the difference between Horizontal Leadership Development and Vertical Leadership Development.

Vertical Leadership Development is a relatively recent phenomenon (see below) but before discussing this I would like to connect this newish concept with a discovery that was made many years earlier. Here is an extract from a famous article printed in the Harvard Business Review in the early 90’s. It’s as relevant now as it was then.

Any company that aspires to succeed in the tougher business environment of the 1990s must first resolve a basic dilemma: success in the marketplace increasingly depends on learning, yet most people don’t know how to learn. What’s more, those members of the organization that many assume to be the best at learning are, in fact, not very good at it. I am talking about the well-educated, high-powered, high-commitment professionals who occupy key leadership positions in the modern corporation.

Most companies not only have tremendous difficulty addressing this learning dilemma; they aren’t even aware that it exists. The reason is they misunderstand what learning is and how to bring it about. As a result, they tend to make two mistakes in their efforts to become a learning organization.

First, most people define learning too narrowly as mere “problem solving,” so they focus on identifying and correcting errors in the external environment. Solving problems is important. But if learning is to persist, managers and employees must also look inward. They need to reflect critically on their own behaviour, identify the ways they often inadvertently contribute to the organization’s problems, and then change how they act. In particular, they

must learn how the very way they go about defining and solving problems can be a source of problems in its own right"- Prof Chris Argyris – Harvard Business School 1991

The Harvard Business Review article elaborates on this phenomenon and then proposes that a different type of learning is necessary. Argyris’s research became a “must read” in many business school curricula and paved the way for many more brilliant minds to conduct further research and add their insights.

Returning to more recent times, most people agree that Vertical Leadership first gained attention around 2013. The Centre for Creative Leadership published a report on how Leaders were coping in a rapidly changing business environment. A series of papers by Nick Petrie, provided additional and valuable insight. Since then, Vertical Leadership Development has made me think differently about how I work with clients.

In business, the pace of change is relentless. Systems and information networks are becoming immensely complex, connecting people in unexpected ways. Organisational boundaries often overlap or simply fade away. Where does this leave leaders who are under pressure to perform? With the leaders I work with, it’s not unusual to hear them talk about cycles of good progress and gratifying results, followed by periods where they plateau or performance falls. A period of stress might follow where relationships with colleagues can become strained, and this can lead to stagnation, a blame culture or even derailment. Then often by surprise, a positive breakthrough occurs and all is forgotten……and this can become a pattern which quite frankly is often not recognised or swept under the carpet.

If someone gets stuck in a negative situation, what help do they need? If what follows amounts to doing nothing or believing “things will sort themselves out”, this can be bad for the organisation and potentially unhealthy for the leadership team. We all know that leaders need to develop and grow for their own good and the good of the organisation. This is easy to say, but not always easy to do. Why do so many development programmes fail to deliver the expected outcomes?

In their book, Immunity to Change – Robert Kegan and Lisa Laney discovered how difficult it is for people to achieve significant change. Even when dangerously ill patients with severe cardiac problems were told by their doctors to change their lifestyle – diet, lose weight, exercise more etc or potentially face death, only one in seven actually managed to do anything about it. If the threat of death isn’t enough to make people pay attention to their future, what is?

As a facilitator of development programmes for many years, I realised, some time ago, that good course content on its own, does not guarantee success. It might provide new and essential skills and knowledge to bring participants to the starting line but it certainly does not guarantee to get them to the winning post. Many leaders enjoy the programmes, provide great feedback but then fall back into old habits. Why? Nick Petrie cites four common reasons:-

  1. Wrong focus - Too much time is spent delivering information and content and not enough time on the hard work of actually developing the leader. He writes “Most leaders already know what they should be doing but they lack the personal development to do it

  2. Lack of Connectivity – Even inspirational programme content can be disconnected from the real issues faced by the leaders who, when they get back to their real world, are overwhelmed with different tasks. The learning is therefore shelved (filed under “too difficult” or “not right now” and not converted into actions that address the real problems. In short, content forgotten, impact reduced or lost.

  3. Leader in isolation: Most programmes fail to engage the leader’s key stakeholders back at work in the change process. As a result, leaders not only miss out on the support, advice, and accountability of colleagues, but are also more likely to experience resistance from stakeholders who are surprised and disrupted by changes leaders make in their behaviour.

  4. Too short: The programmes are designed as events rather than as processes over time. Programmes might give leaders a short-term boost but lack the ongoing follow-up to solidify new thinking and behaviours into new habits.

Sounds familiar? It’s not just a question of taking part. It’s about doing the “hard yards”. This is not about people needing to work harder. It’s about providing better support on their journey to be both effective and successful. The scope of learning needs to consider;

Horizontal Leadership Development (The “What”) – expands a leader’s knowledge through learning new skills and processes and increasing their competence…. assuming they are practiced.

Vertical Leadership Development (The “How”) – advances a Leader’s capability to think in ways that are different, perhaps more complex or systemic and certainly more strategically or interdependently.

I try hard to work on both Horizontal and Vertical aspects when it comes to helping leaders manage change or restructuring an organisation:- If I can quote Nick Petrie one more time.

If horizontal development is about transferring information to the leader, vertical development is about the transformation of the leader”

The Three Next Steps

  1. Don’t leave the evolution of your business to chance. Know how your people bring their energy to any change programme in your organisation. Discover what change making skills exist and how they are distributed across the team. There are ways to get a pretty accurate measure of this and predict how the change programme is likely to progress.

  2. Consider your leadership development programmes with great care. Do they provide both horizontal and vertical development opportunities? Success is achieved not just by an ability to retain new learning and apply it. It also requires an ability to think differently and adapt to changing situations.

  3. Find a professional Coach who understands the importance of Horizontal and Vertical Development. For complete objectivity ideally use a credible, external Coach who is not directly connected to any project inside the organisation. These professionals should be in a position to provide high integrity unbiased support and feedback to the Leader(s) and build confidence and trust.

This is a basic introduction to a complex subject researched and documented by brilliant people. If it resonates with you, feel free to get in touch.


Contact Stephen to find out more Stephen@thechangemakergroup.com

Information Sources:-

Vertical leadership Development – Part 1 – Nick Petrie – Centre for Creative Leadership

Immunity to change: How to overcome it and unlock potential in yourself

and your organization. Harvard Business School Press. - Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. (2009).

Teaching Smart People to Learn – Chris Argyris – Harvard Business Review -1991

Change Wisdom – The Change Maker Group – Amazon, December 2017


We are looking forward to hearing from you!

© The Change Maker Group 2020. All rights reserved.

+44 (0)333 050 9467

227a West St, Fareham

PO16 0HZ, UK

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