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VUCA environments are prompting engagement with ‘vertical’ leadership development

The need to equip leaders with different perspectives to better lead and respond to change in a rapidly fluctuating, complex business environment is driving HR practitioners’ engagement with what is becoming known as ‘vertical development’.

The need to equip leaders with different perspectives to better lead and respond to change in a rapidly fluctuating, complex business environment is driving HR practitioners’ engagement with what is becoming known as ‘vertical development’. 

This was the feedback from delegates at a recent conference on the topic of vertical leadership development hosted by MDV Consulting and attended by 80 senior organisation development, learning and development and talent experts from major companies including AstraZeneca, Barclays, BT, Mars, Prudential, PwC, Rentokil, Thomson Reuters, and Waitrose and significant law firms, such as Slaughter and May, BLP and Hogan Lovells. This message was further highlighted by a poll on the day which saw 79 percent of respondents say their existing development interventions are not delivering the pipeline of leaders they need.

Finding development approaches which enabled more precise targeting of interventions to the individual’s own personal stage of development, was also cited by one in three, as the area which would have the greatest positive impact on effectiveness and return on investment. Chaired by Mike Vessey, Managing Partner of MDV Consulting, in a collaboration with other leadership development consultancies*; the event saw guests discussing topics ranging from ‘what is capacity building or vertical development?’, ‘defining the different stages of adult development’ to ‘what are the catalysts to create an environment where individuals demonstrating ‘Strategist’ capabilities are valued and retained?’.

Mike Vessey explains the background to the event: “We see clients literally coming to us and saying ‘our leaders are in over their heads’, they just don’t have the transformational capabilities and perspectives to make sense of the increasingly complex demands of modern life. The application of a vertical development approach to capacity building holds out great potential that people can grow, to make better sense of multi-dimensional situations and take those difficult decisions required in today’s world. The event, held at ‘The Yard’ in London, gave attendees an interactive and reflective environment using a variety of sensory experiences which included; an art installation of MDV Consulting’s ‘3D model of vertical development (photo below)’, musicians to interpret the audience mood and photo montages illustrating the stages of development and rites of passages in humans’ lives.

Karen Ellis of MDV Consulting, explained the theory of constructivist adult development and defined the different transitional stages of adult development seen amongst leaders**. She demonstrated how this could be applied to development by enhancing a leader’s ‘3D capacity’, to think, feel and act in new ways (see sidebar). Karen drew attention to the fact that growth across these three strands was not always at the same rate which explained why two people at similar levels and ages show different capacity to cope with further complexity in their jobs***. Systemic Coaching Partners and Hennessy Consulting then illustrated how to tailor the specific development activity to the edge of a person’s current development stage in order to grow their capacity to transition to the next development stage. The importance of developing all three aspects of capacity and specifically ‘personal’ capacity was emphasised by further poll results which saw 50 percent cite ‘Self-awareness’, as the key differentiating factor in leaders seen as most capable from those who are seen as least effective. A further 1 in 5 highlighted ‘sophisticated relationship skills an aspect of interpersonal capacity, followed by ‘ability to develop strategy’, a cognitive aspect (13 percent) as the key differentiator.

Mike Vessey summarised delegates’ discussions as follows: “Although the idea is now gaining traction in the business world, the concept of adult development and individuals transitioning from one stage of development to another is not new, but is underpinned by many years of scientific and theoretical research.” There is clear buy-in to the approach being used to complement horizontal development – experts on the day did not see this as an ‘either or’ option as they acknowledged that leaders still require the knowledge and skills to be able to perform effectively. Users also see vertical development as a powerful modifier of organisational culture – as one client explained to me; ‘if you change the people, you change the organisation”. In an era of financial budgetary constraints where the return on investment is carefully scrutinised, the approach provides a valuable method to precisely target the development interventions for a person to achieve a greater developmental outcome. Delegates cautioned that people thinking of incorporating capacity building into their leadership development programmes should also consider how the organisational system will support this. Alongside the development of leaders to transition them towards ‘Strategist’ capabilities, there are considerations around how to build the culture which nurtures this type of individual and gives them the opportunity to think creativity and be experimental without being seen to fail.”

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