Bottleneck to senior management skillsets

Written by
Changeboard Team

25 Mar 2014

25 Mar 2014 • by Changeboard Team

Developing top talent

When I ask experienced designers of executive programmes what organisations should be doing less of to develop top talent, most point to competence models, especially at senior levels. They are typically overwhelming in number, too generic and a few steps behind what the marketplace demands. But in my opinion, the main issue is that organisations are failing to see the value of lateral and vertical development.

Lateral vs vertical development

People develop laterally through training, self-directed learning and exposure to life. This way, they end up with new skills, knowledge and behaviours, which together are known as competencies. Vertical development in adults is much rarer. It refers to how we shift our mindsets, learn to see the world through new eyes, change our interpretations of experience and transform our views of reality.

CEOs say there is a lack of strategic-adaptive skill set, i.e. complex thinking abilities such as heightened strategic ability (pattern recognition, game simulation, boundary spanning, network thinking) and adaptability (ability to adapt to circumstances, self-awareness, collaboration, comfort with ambiguity, ability to change).

Also, the majority of executive programmes still use the toolkit of lateral development. 

I believe senior managers are most differentiated by the stage of vertical development they are in, which impacts how they interpret their surroundings and react when their power or safety is challenged.

How do minds become bigger?

Vertical development is like a spiral of lived human experience and how you make sense of those experiences. Most people do not grow through the entire spiral, but settle in the level that is most familiar or supported by the environment. Vertical development moves from simple to complex when there are increases in autonomy, strategic insight, flexibility, tolerance for differences and ambiguity, and a lowering of defences. 

Research by Torbert, Rooke and their associates based on a sample of nearly 5,000 managers revealed that while some of them evolved vertically throughout their careers, most were in the middle of the developmental continuum. They categorised the general management population as follows:

  • Opportunists (4%): Win any way possible. Self-oriented, manipulative, ‘might makes right’
  • Diplomats (11%): Avoid overt conflict. Want to belong, obey group norm, rarely rock the boat
  • Experts (37%): Rule by logic and expertise. Search for improvement and rational efficiency
  • Achievers (30%): Meet strategic goals. Deliver results by most effective means, including teams. Success focussed. Juggle managerial duties and market demands
  • Individualists (11%): Innovate on processes. Hold relativistic negotiation position with fewer fixed truths. Focus on themselves, relationships and interaction with the system. Create unique structures to resolve gaps between strategy and performance
  • Strategists (5%): Create personal and organisational transformations. Link up principles, contracts, theories and judgment. Exercise the power of mutual inquiry, vigilance, and vulnerability for the short and long term
  • Alchemists (2%): Generate large-scale social transformations. Exercise interplay of awareness, thought, action and effect. Transform themselves and others

Only 15-20% of managers − individualist, strategist and alchemist – reach the higher levels of vertical development necessary to attain the strategic-adaptive skill set. They have a capacity for more integrated and complex thinking, doing and feeling, as well as a broader, more flexible and imaginative perspective on the whole organisation and its multiple contexts. They cultivate relationships with many stakeholders, see promising connections and opportunities in novel places and deal with problems in adaptive and proactive ways. 

What are the conditions for vertical development?

To develop vertically you need:

  • Lasting and consistent challenge from the environment in which you operate, at a level higher than your level of vertical development
  • To be aware of different ways of making sense of reality and consider changing how you do this rather than going into denial
  • To analyse and challenge your existing assumptions; define, test and experiment with new ones and practice these in daily life over a prolonged period of time

Vertical development, however, is not irreversible. Most people respond spontaneously from the higher level of vertical development they have mastered, but will regress to patterns of behaviour from lower levels when they are under pressure or facing rapid change. Peak moments of perceiving life in ways associated with higher vertical development levels are rare, but executive developers can create the ideal support conditions needed for this to happen.

How can vertical development be enhanced?

Programmes that target vertical development are still very rare. They are still viewed as highly experimental and risky, but executive developers are recognising that there is a systematic bottleneck in the build-up of the senior management skill set. 

Blue-chip companies are increasingly using experiential programmes that simulate the client company’s challenges and create a space for participants to test alternative mindsets and fail under safe conditions. 

For example, a global pharmaceutical company integrated its top managers into slum neighbourhoods in India. For several weeks they worked with local chieftains to solve community problems, which helped them to understand local needs and better ways of serving bottom-of-the-pyramid consumers with drugs. 

However, corporations are still not widely adopting any reliable testing of vertical development.

Executive developers often remark that one-off experiences only temporarily shake up the participants’ worldview. To create more permanent change, they should combine elements of lateral and vertical development over a period of 1-2 years. They must simulate context and strategy-specific constructive adversity that does not dissipate over time, stay much closer to real workplace challenges and deliver measurable developmental outcomes.

Whats next?

Organisations have yet to solve the vertical developmental challenge, but by understanding its perspective they can see what is missing in their approach. The challenges of the marketplace mean that ‘bigger mind’ now takes priority over ‘learned mind’, but ideally, your programme should support both vertical and lateral development. To be effective, it must also be aligned to how willing and able the client is to self-reflect and change their behaviour, which will depend on where they are at in their vertical development.