After working on vertical development, a leader helps her team see new ways to overcome challenges in the workplace.

How to overcome the biggest challenges in the workplace with 7 lessons from vertical development

Key Takeaways

  • Understand the differences between horizontal and vertical development 
  • Embrace vertical development over horizontal development to meet the complexity crisis
  • Increase leaders’ capacity for collaboration
  • Seek out multiple perspectives
  • Learn how to hold opposing ideas at the same time
  • Commit to self-reflection
  • Select leadership development partners who can help the business grow vertically

As the world becomes more complex, business leaders face new challenges every day – but unfortunately, they aren’t always ready for them. There is a growing gap between leaders’ skills and the complexity of their environments. This is called the complexity crisis, and organizations that intend to thrive must be ready to face this crisis head-on. 

The world is changing too quickly for leaders to keep up. There’s so much uncertainty about what’s coming next that it can be impossible for leaders to prepare themselves or their organizations. If a business wants to be successful in this increasingly complex environment, it can’t rely on traditional methods of leadership improvement. 

Traditional or horizontal development focuses on obtaining skills. But in a complex, rapidly changing environment, skills are not enough. What knowledge leaders have is not enough. To be ready for these challenges, leaders must increase their capacity to deal with uncertainty and change, which is a focus on how people think. That requires vertical development

Trying to figure out how to overcome challenges in the workplace? Then, get ready to grow with these seven tips. 

1. Understand the differences between horizontal and vertical development

For leaders to grow in a way that prepares them for complexity, they need to understand the differences between horizontal and vertical development. Horizontal development is like installing more programs on a laptop. The laptop has the ability to do a lot more things, but it has limits. Eventually, it will run out of space. It won’t be able to host any more programs. 

Vertical development, in contrast, is like improving the operating system of a computer and expanding its capacity. With this type of growth, the computer can not only hold more programs, it can run them faster and in a more efficient and sophisticated fashion. This type of growth is more powerful. How leaders think is more important than what they know. 

2. Shift from horizontal to vertical development

Once a business understands the difference, it’s time to go beyond horizontal development and include vertical development. Horizontal development is skills-based. Of course, the right skills are essential for strong leaders. But when they’re dealing with a world of constant change, horizontal development prepares leaders for the challenges of yesterday. It doesn’t prepare them for the challenges of tomorrow. 

Shifting towards a more vertical-oriented development approach includes taking on challenges that cause a leader to feel some heat or that they are in over their head. Leaders should feel as though their current way of looking at the world and approaching challenges is insufficient. They are forced to go back to the drawing board to examine their beliefs and ways of doing things. With appropriate resources and support, leaders are able to mature to handle more complexity and rise to the occasion.

3. Increase the capacity for collaboration

Part of addressing complexity means admitting that leaders cannot deal with everything on their own. There must be collaboration with others. This applies on an organizational level. To be effective, teams should not work as silos. 

At earlier stages of vertical development, leaders are more oriented to self and less able to take other perspectives and collaborate with key stakeholders. As vertical development progresses, the abilities to team, manage, lead, motivate, and inspire come online.

4. Work with people who have different perspectives

The ability to take multiple perspectives is an important component of vertical development. When leaders can take multiple perspectives, they more fully understand where key stakeholders are coming from and can more effectively integrate those perspectives into ideas and solutions that are better and more comprehensive.

Leaders can cultivate this capacity by spending time being curious about how others are thinking about things and asking questions of them with a desire to understand them and their perspectives better. This seems easy on the face of it – but to set aside one’s own perspective and really climb into another’s world is no easy task.

5. Learn how to hold opposing ideas simultaneously

Humans have a tendency to oversimplify complex things, which creates poor results. As the world gets more complex, there are fewer problems to be solved and more dilemmas, or opposing ideas, that must be managed. Centralizing and decentralizing, structured or flexible, even horizontal or vertical development!

The capacity to hold opposing ideas simultaneously moves leaders beyond a simplistic problem-solving approach to a more sophisticated way of navigating and optimizing situations for maximum benefit. It’s about capturing as much of the upside of both ideas while limiting as much of the downside of those same ideas and making adjustments between them as circumstances necessitate.

Holding opposing ideas simultaneously is difficult. But when done well, the range of available options and the quality of the decision-making improves.

6. Commit to self-reflection

Most people are unable to reflect on their own thinking and behavior. This means that emotions drive behavior and there’s little to no learning about how to get a better outcome next time. Self-reflection is about putting some space between the stimulus and the response, and in that space, there is a choice about how to proceed.

Cultivating self-reflection allows leaders to learn about themselves – their strengths and weaknesses – and understand how they are as much a factor in the system as everyone and everything else is, impacting what happens and how things turn out. As self-reflection and self-awareness grow, leaders are able to name their emotions and beliefs and make good behavior choices increasingly in real-time. The self-reflect-and-adjust loop gets faster and faster.

There is tremendous power in a self-aware leader who is more intentional about the moves they make in response to any given situation.

7. Work with leadership development partners committed to strategic growth

Don’t throw away time or money working with development partners that focus only on horizontal development. Instead, be strategic when choosing leadership development partners. To ensure leaders’ growth helps them deal with complex challenges, businesses should work with development partners who understand the nuances between horizontal and vertical development. 

Ideally, they should select a partner that is business-curious. The partner should want to know as much about the business and its strategic direction as possible so they can tailor development to their leaders’ needs in a way that will ultimately drive the business, too. Businesses need to be strategic with their spending on leadership and development, and that boils down to choosing the right partner. 

If an organization wants to thrive, it can no longer rely on horizontal development centered around skills and competencies. Instead, to deal with the complexities of the world, businesses need to embrace vertical development. 

We can help. At the Sparks Group, we offer assessments, executive coaching, and leadership development to guide the vertical development of leaders. Want to see how the right development can fuel the growth of a company? Then, contact us at the Sparks Group today. Business leaders and their stakeholders deserve to be successful, and we want to help them achieve that.