Want to stay on top? It’s time to take your leadership development vertical

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,People Management(HR),Strategy & Leadership] March 3, 2020

In a fast-changing business world, it is no longer enough for our leaders to simply take their firms along the same tried-and-true path when the focus should be on providing real guidance that helps those enterprises navigate a different route, writes Keegan Luiters.

A 2017 report from professional services firm BDO states that the “almost unanimous view from 98 per cent of the law firms’ leaders surveyed is that the pace of change in the legal industry is accelerating. Four out of five believe it is accelerating significantly”.

The report goes on to highlight that leadership capability across a firm was considered by participants to be a significant factor in being able to adapt in response to this change. The upshot is that developing leaders is likely to be an important part of the strategic response as most firms seek to adopt a more responsive and client-focused way of working in changing (and sometimes volatile) market conditions.

There is often value in reviewing whether your current approaches to leadership development are delivering the benefits you need. This article offers one way in which to consider leadership development and how to begin to implement the new approach.

Horizontal or vertical?

We can consider the development of leaders on two axes – horizontal and vertical. Horizontal development is typically about helping leaders develop knowledge, skills and competencies. It focuses on applying skills based on the leader’s current perspective and experience.

Vertical development is an umbrella term that captures more than a dozen concepts presented in psychological and social literature, identifying how adults develop new ways of seeing and understanding the world. Vertical leadership development means that leaders are able to take different perspectives and have the ability to think in more complex, systemic, strategic and interdependent ways.

Based on this distinction, most leadership development is biased towards horizontal development, with much less attention being paid to the vertical. This is understandable and, in many ways, a sound strategy. The development of specific knowledge, skills and competencies is more easily able to be measured, observed and transferred for leaders. There is no doubt that this is an important aspect of leadership development. It is, however, insufficient for firms experiencing the current and forecast rates of change.

Ready for action

Typically, what firms need more from their leaders is the capacity to make decisions and take actions when there is ambiguity and no clear answer. This requires more than horizontal skills. As leaders develop vertically, they are able to increase the perspective they can take.

Professor Tatiana Bachkirova, of Oxford Brookes University in the United Kingdom, notes that these leaders are “better able to notice increasingly complex patterns, it improves their ability to describe, articulate and influence change”. At its heart, this is what leaders are now most responsible for – it is not sufficient to only move more efficiently in the same direction that they have been in the past. Leaders need to be able to guide others in the most effective direction amid a rapidly changing environment.

I recently spoke with the head of partner development at a leading international law firm based in Australia. As we explored the topic of leadership development, she described a significant challenge of supporting leaders from thinking purely tactically to thinking strategically and as part of a larger system.

To paraphrase Ronald Heifetz, of Harvard University, it was the description of using a “technical solution for an adaptive problem”. For this reason, incorporating vertical development in your leadership development is an astute decision. It is also a decision that remains challenging and complex.

How to do it

Here are some ways to incorporate vertical development principles in mind-leadership development initiatives.

1. Prioritise experiences over information

If we are looking to provide leaders with the opportunity to develop new perspectives, then experiences are significantly more valuable than information. We rarely change the way that we operate based purely on information. Meaningful and relevant experiences are what shift people.

2. Embrace paradoxes and ambiguity

Typically, adults develop new ways of seeing the world as they find that their current perspectives are insufficient to make sense of what they are experiencing. By creating the right level of tension in leadership development programs and highlighting that there may be more than one valid solution to a problem, we are able to help leaders consider different perspectives.

3. Include diverse participants and perspectives

Having different perspectives, experiences and backgrounds in a program allows the opportunity for all leaders to consider new viewpoints on issues and to make sense of the same situation in more than one way.

Finally, the decision need not be horizontal or vertical. It is about incorporating both axes within your leadership programs. As Nick Petrie, of the Centre for Creative Leadership points out, it is important “not to force development on someone. [Our] job is to create the right conditions in which someone can grow. Challenge and support, but don’t force”.

By valuing vertical development and providing the right conditions for it to occur, your firm is more likely to support your leaders as they operate in a complex, fast-changing world.

Keegan Luiters is an independent consultant who works with leaders, teams and organisations to lift their performance. Visit www.keeganluiters.com for more information or connect with him on LinkedIn.