The Leadership Edge - 5 things to make your leadership approach fit for the 21st Century

1 - Learn about Vertical Development:

Vertical development has been around for some time now, popularised by Leadership Development authors such as Nick Petrie, Robert Kegan and more recently Frederic Laloux, in his book ‘Reinventing Organisations’.

Unfortunately, very few HR and OD professionals fully understand vertical development enough to integrate it successfully into their leadership development approaches. 

Why is vertical development so important?

Put simply, understanding vertical development is THE critical skill-set for working with complexity, disruption and constant change.

I see far too many leadership programs deploying leadership approaches from the 1980's, many of which fail to build the capabilities even close to the requirements of a 21st-century business. As reported in the 2016 study of Australian leadership, “Do Australian leaders have what it takes?” by the Centre Workplace Leadership, many business schools and universities are no longer providing the right skills to empower leaders for the type of environment we now face on a daily basis.

“Empirical research has demonstrated that business schools have not yet achieved the 'right' teaching curriculum on key matters important to organisations, such as ethical practice and decision-making (Bazerman & Moore, 2009; Ghoshal, 2005)…This is also the case for leader and leadership development (Klimoski &Amos, 2012).”

“While most business schools claim they are producing leaders who make a significant difference, there is limited evidence that they fulfil what they promise” (Pfeffer, 2009).

These failed attempts become failed investments over time, which leads to hesitation when further investment is desperately required. It’s a cyclic problem that needs to be addressed at its core for organisations to get their ROI. 

Insight question: When assessing your leadership provider do they know what vertical development is and can they tell you the difference Vertical and Horizontal approaches to training and development? 

Note: While many consultants say they know what vertical development is, very few actually know the important part, “the how”, so it’s always beneficial to have a thorough discussion on the subject to ensure you are receiving the return on your vertical development investment. 

2 - Work with the willing: 

Many leadership programs have participants that don't always want to be there in the first place, often selected by management or human resources because of their organisational position. Too often I see senior level employees participating in leadership workshops just to make up the numbers. At best their engagement levels are low and at worst they subconsciously (or actively) railroad the entire process which deeply impacts the overall outcome.

If you have experienced these obstacles in your organisation (and most do so you are not alone) I usually spend some one on one time with them prior to facilitating workshops and working with teams. Particularly if they are a critical part of the overall change management process. 

Select those with the capacity and or desire to create organisational impact. Leadership is no longer a position, it's a mind and an action-set. It should not be limited to where you sit in the organisation.

More importantly, bringing people from different parts of the business into one room helps break down silos, facilitate cross-functional collaboration and builds mutual understanding of the business as a whole.

I'd much rather see four people from different levels of the business in a development program with a passion for transforming their organisation, than a bored senior executive who wants to maintain the status quo.

Insight question: What is the mental model that you use to strategically plan your leadership development budget, is it behavioural or developmental? Could it be time for a change?

3 - Focus on integration:  

You need on-the-job integration, not on the job learning. As with many things, distinctions are critical to enable a deeper learning experience. There is a substantial difference between on-the-job learning and on-the-job integration.

In the majority of leadership programs, on-the-job learning primarily focuses on deploying new content into a participant’s current role. You are encouraged to shift your learning into an environment and structure you are already familiar with, not much changes. A more effective approach is on-the-job integration where you take the learning and use it to alter the previous structure of daily work.

For example, utilising Holacracy principles for your meetings is changing the operating structure. You are altering the ‘system’ in conjunction with new leadership behaviours. It is a small distinction but a critical one. In is why so many leadership programs fail to deliver sustainable change and impact.

Insight question: Do you strategically create safe-to-fail spaces after your leadership development training, or do you leave it up to participants to create it for themselves?

4 - Employ coaches that understand vertical development:

It's not just a question of competence it is a question of relevance as well. Vertical coaching is as much an art as it is a science. Think of it terms of race cars - just because a particular kind of race car performed well in the 70's or 80’s, does it have the capability to be rolled out on today's Formula 1 track? Probably not, the operational environment has changed substantially.

This is one of the fundamental key reasons why businesses and organisations continue to be held back. You need to engage coaches based on the same principle by not associating time and experience with competency. What worked even five years ago requires adaptation. Operating environments do not stand still, your competitors do not stand still, and furthermore technology (digital disruption) will leave many organisations and companies floundering.    

When I work with other coaches with the intention of seeking to develop my own skill base, I don’t pursue someone who has worked with the same models and principles I am familiar with. I am not looking for thoughtful conversations that me feel safe. I want someone that's going to develop and challenge my knowledge, lead and mentor me in ways that I never thought possible. Explore what's coming, not reminisce about the past.

Look for skill sets relating to concepts such as agile, vertical development, mindfulness and a digital mind-set, if you are really looking to create impact and thrive. 

Remember, just because someone has been in the sector for a long time or held a senior position, don’t assume that they are a good fit for developing your people for the future. You can be incredible at coaching a certain thing a certain way for a long time. This approach, however, does not necessarily make you a good fit to coach leaders in today's digitally disrupted world.

Image courtesy of

Let’s look at some supporting data at senior levels. Less than 5% of senior leaders actually possess the capability to execute their roles to full effect (If you would like more information about this about this ground breaking global study please get in touch).

Put simply, experience does not equal capability. Something that human resourcing would do well investigating more thoroughly (more on this in coming weeks in my next blog, ‘Sector is the new silo’). 

Insight question: Do you employ coaches that know what vertical development is and how to create it while also having fluency with the digital required for today’s disrupted world? Better yet can they blend both together to empower your strategy? 

5 - If you do not understand it, but you know it has something to offer, but can't quite articulate what it is - buy it!

This statement has become my new motto when advising senior leaders and HR professionals (within reason, excluding new age nothingness) about what type of leadership content to buy. Most HR, organisational development professionals and senior executives invest in what we they are comfortable with, not what they need. Time and time again I see ridiculous amount of money wasted on outdated methods and approaches bought precisely from a place of comfort rather than need.

This is something that I hear from senior leaders and OD professionals all the time when presenting vertical development…

“It's too complex, can’t you make it simple”.

Actually, no I can't and neither should you. Many organisations buy training and development that is exactly that, way too simplistic for the world we exist in today and wonder why nothing ‘sticks’.

While I can appreciate the pressure of senior positions, the majority of the stress and tension comes from not being able to think at the most complex levels required for optimal task execution at those senior levels. And to be honest, it’s not always their fault, decisions are being made for them to engage and invest in outdated development programs which are no longer even close to fit for purpose.

My personal opinion is that HR and OD could use an upgrade – compliance HR is prolific and very few professionals are progressing the field in new directions as quickly as they should be.

Leaders need to also appreciate that the environment's complexity has increased incredibly in the last ten years, we can no longer existing in a linear manufacturing mind-set. At the heart of today’s leadership development programs should be the capacity to navigate today’s ambiguous environment effectively and solve complex problems.

Critically, as consultants, HR and OD professionals, we need to find more effective ways of having these critical capability conversations with senior leaders in order stop regurgitating the same ineffective processes and approaches from the past.

Insight question: Are you always purchasing the same type of leadership development from the same supplier? Can you tell me the working theories that their approach uses and how it’s relevant to your business strategy?

Pete Holliday is an organisational futurist and leadership expert obsessed with helping organisations transform to meet the needs of the 21st century.

He assists OD and HR professionals to build modern robust leadership development approaches. He is the creator of the Fit for the Future Framework, an organisational development framework for transforming business based on the principles of vertical development and capitalising on complexity.