I often ask experienced designers of executive education programmes what organisations should be doing less of to be more effective in developing top talent. The (almost) unanimous answer? “Competency models, especially at senior levels.” Indeed, these outlines of required skill sets are overwhelming in number, often very generic and typically a few steps behind the marketplace demands. But are they really the problem? I don’t believe so. In my opinion, the real issue is that organisations still haven’t recognised the need for two very different types of development.
Lateral & vertical development
When psychologists talk about adult development, they distinguish between the lateral and vertical varieties. Both are important but occur differently. Lateral growth and expansion happen through many channels, such as training, self-directed and life-long learning, as well as simply through exposure to life. The result is the development of new skills, knowledge and behaviours, which together are known as competencies. Vertical development in adults is much rarer. It refers to how we learn to see the world through new eyes, how we change our interpretations of experience and how we transform our views of reality. It describes increases in what we are aware of, what we can pay attention to and what we can influence and integrate.
Most current training and development is geared towards expanding, deepening and enriching a person’s way of meaning-making – in other words, competence-based learning. This can be very useful if a manager needs to close a very specific gap in knowledge, behaviour or skills. Vertical development, on the other hand, refers to supporting people to transform their way of making sense towards broader perspectives. Such development leads to ‘bigger minds’, and is usually more powerful than any amount of lateral development.
Learned mind or bigger mind?
Recent CEO surveys by thought leaders such as McKinsey, IBM and Hay Group consistently return the same message over and over again: the top talent bench is not strong enough to deal with the growing complexity, interconnectedness and changeability of the marketplace. When asked about what is missing, the CEOs refer to ‘complex thinking abilities’, rather than isolated behavioural competencies. Digging deeper, the former appear to consist of heightened strategic ability (pattern recognition, game simulation, boundary spanning and network thinking) and adaptability (ability to adapt to circumstances, self-awareness, collaboration, comfort with ambiguity and ability to change).
According to these surveys, such strategic-adaptive abilities are lacking. On top of this, the majority of developmental programmes fail to consistently accelerate or even facilitate their development in top executives. Why? To me, the answer is simple: they are trying to fix the problem of vertical development with the toolkit of lateral development. They persist with more competency-based development where bigger minds are required.
How to make minds bigger?
Most developmental psychologists agree that what differentiates leaders is not so much their knowledge, philosophy of leadership, personality, or style of management. Rather it is their stage of vertical development, which impacts how they interpret their surroundings and react when their power or safety is challenged.
In the April issue of Changeboard magazine, I will explain how minds become bigger, how vertical development can be accelerated, how it is addressed in L&D interventions, and how these could be improved.