The Shift that Executives Need to Make, but Only 8% Actually Make
Written by: Ryan Gottfredson
There is a novel and transformational approach to developing executives and leaders that is reaching the business world from the field of developmental psychology. This approach is called “vertical development.”
Research stemming from developmental psychology has found that 7% of executives operate from the lowest level of vertical development, 85% of executives operate from the middle level of vertical development, and only 8% of executives operate from the highest level of vertical development. Let me explain what this means and how you can help executives in your organization shift to operate at this highest level.
Introduction to Vertical Development
Vertical development differs from our traditional notions of leadership development, which emphasize a form of development called “horizontal development.” Horizontal development involves helping leaders develop new knowledge and skills. Ninety-five percent of all development efforts are primarily horizontal development. Think about your college classes. Almost all were focused on helping you gain new knowledge and skills. These were beneficial because they broadened your functionality. But, just because you may have learned how to balance a budget sheet in your accounting class, that knowledge and skill did not improve your ability to navigate the stress and pressure of college life. If you want to improve your ability to navigate the stress and pressure of college life, you need vertical development. Vertical development involves helping leaders upgrade their internal operating systems such that they can navigate their world with greater cognitive and emotional sophistication.
Where Vertical Development Comes From
The field of developmental psychology has long been interested in how humans develop. From the 1880s until the 1960s, the primary focus had been on children and how they develop. Psychologists discovered that as children grow from infancy to adulthood, they pass through different developmental stages or milestones. And, they do so rather automatically. Their development is a function of their age.
In the 1960s, select developmental psychologists started to ask:
- Do adults develop?
- And if so, do they pass through different stages?
They have discovered that, yes, adults can develop during adulthood, and that there are specific adult development stages. In fact, they have discovered that there are three primary adult development stages. But, they also discovered that most adults do not develop during adulthood (64% of all adults, to be exact). Thus, these psychologists learned that adult development is not a function of age but effort.
>>Learn more at the webinar: How to Help Executives Operate at a Higher Level
What Are the Three Adult Development Stages?
At each stage of adult development, individuals at those different stages possess an internal operating system programmed to fulfill different needs.
At Stage 1, where most adults are at upon entering adulthood, adults are internally programmed to ensure their safety, comfort, and belonging. They fear being unsafe, uncomfortable, and not belonging. In this mode, they are dependent thinkers. They don’t want to be leaders or tell others what to do, but they are happy to be told what to do. Effectively, they are programmed to be “Good Soldiers.”
At Stage 2, adults change their needs. They become internally programmed to ensure they stand out, advance, and get ahead. In fact, they are willing to be unsafe, uncomfortable, and not belong to stand out, advance, and get ahead. In this mode, they are independent thinkers. They have self-directed goals related to standing out, advancing, and getting ahead, and they commonly want to step into leadership roles and employ Stage 1 adults to help them accomplish their goals. Effectively, they are programmed to be “Progress Makers.”
At Stage 3, adults again change their needs. They become internally programmed to ensure they contribute, add value, and lift others. In fact, they are willing to not “stand in” (Stage 1) or “stand out” (Stage 2) so that they can contribute, add value, and lift others. In this mode, they are interdependent thinkers. They are willing to explore other perspectives and embrace complexity in their effort to improve their ability to contribute, add value, and lift others. Effectively, they are programmed to be “Value Creators.”
Connecting Vertical Development to Adult Developmental Psychology
Vertical Development then is focused on helping adults level up from one stage to the other.
What vertical development researchers have found is that:
- 7% of executives operate at Stage 1 – Think John Antioco, former CEO of Blockbuster, who passed on purchasing Netflix and failed to invest in the digital distribution of videos until it was too late. He was holding onto what was safe and secure (i.e., what has worked in the past).
- 85% of executives operate at Stage 2 – Think Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, who wrote a book entitled “Winning,” and operated in a manner that emphasized stock price increases but ultimately left GE in a terrible long-term position. GE is now a shell of what it used to be.
- 8% of executives operate at Stage 3 – Think Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft. Rather than chase after a higher stock price, he focused on improving the organization. He transformed Microsoft’s culture through a focus on growth mindsets, got rid of stacked-ranked performance management systems, developed a new purpose statement, and focused on collaborating with competitors instead of competing against them. All in an effort to create greater value.
Helping Your Executives Vertically Develop and Make the Shift to Stage 3
What we need today, more than ever before, is vertically developed leaders. We need leaders who are internally programmed to effectively navigate the increasing change, pressure, uncertainty, and complexity that their organizations are facing. Unfortunately, only 8% of executives operate at Stage 3, the level required to navigate effectively amidst tumultuous environmental conditions. When organizations have executives that operate from Stage 1 or Stage 2, their organizations are, at best, surviving. But commonly, they are suffering or struggling. It is only when an organization has Stage 3 executives that they thrive.
If you want to learn more about how you can help your executives vertically develop, join us for our upcoming webinar: How to Help Executives Operate at a Higher Level – 8/17/22 @ 2:00 p.m. EST