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The world is increasingly volatile and complex. Businesses need leaders who can think through complex situations and find innovative solutions. Enter vertical development.

Key Takeaways:

  • Vertical development focuses on how employees think more than what they know
  • As leaders rise through the ranks, how they think becomes more important to business success than what they know
  • Vertical development helps grow leaders who can handle the complexities and fast pace of the business world
  • Vertical development experts can help you enjoy its full benefits 

Over the years, organizations have developed leaders by focusing on skills and competencies – a practice known as horizontal development. However, there are several challenges with this kind of leadership development approach.

First, horizontal development doesn’t equip leaders to thrive in this fast-changing and complex business environment. How leaders think becomes more important than what they know as they rise through the ranks. 

Moreover, emphasizing skills and competencies alone can become uninspiring and leave employees feeling stuck in a rut. As a result, it’s no surprise that top-tier businesses are turning to vertical development, which focuses on improving leaders’ capacity to think critically and make good decisions in response to an ever more chaotic world. 

If it’s your first time hearing about vertical development or the details are unclear to you, we’re here to help. In this article, we’ll explain all you need to know about this exciting and effective way to develop exceptional talents. 

What is vertical development?

Vertical development refers to advancements in personal thinking and feeling capability. A leader trained through vertical development can think in complex, systemic, and strategic ways. 

As a person begins to grow vertically, they’ll notice the following growth or shifts:

  • Self-awareness: The ability to be mindful and conscious of behavior and to make adjustments in real-time.
  • Opposable thinking: The ability to accept and think through seemingly contradictory ideas.
  • Seeing complexity: Being able to cut through the clutter and see how everything is interconnected. 
  • Perspective shifting: This stage involves appreciating and stepping into others’ perspectives and ideas. 

Vertical development vs. horizontal development

Let’s bring it closer to home. Think about a smartphone. You can add all kinds of applications – apps for games, productivity, entertainment, health and fitness, shopping, sports, weather – just name it.

However, after a while, the phone will begin to slow down and won’t be able to take any more apps as the space fills up. One way to solve that problem is to upgrade the operating system. This scenario is a clear example of the difference between horizontal and vertical leadership development. 

Horizontal development focuses on adding more apps so the phone can do more things. Similarly, many organizations train their employees to know more or acquire more skills. However, this produces leaders who may not be able to handle tough and complex situations. 

On the other hand, vertical development is about upgrading the operating system. This method increases the capacity of employees rather than piling skill after skill. In essence, vertical development is the concept that how leaders think is just as, if not more important, than what they know.

VUCA and why leadership development is a no-brainer

VUCA is short for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. It’s a managerial term coined in the 1980s. The US military popularized it, adopting it as their reference to worldwide conditions after the Cold War.

Our world is becoming increasingly volatile and complex. Case-in-point is the COVID pandemic, which has affected everything, especially how we work. There’s no telling what changes could come up in the future. If your employees can’t be resilient, innovative, and agile, they’ll be found wanting when they face new challenges. 

Let’s look at the complexity side of things. In short, complexity is the connection between cause and effect. Businesses generally thrive by being able to discern the factors behind their results. 

As conditions become more complex, finding the connection between cause and effect becomes harder,  (nope that’s not what this is – the complexity gap/crisis is the gap between complex environments and leaders’ lack of capacity to meet it). Only agile, dynamic, and resilient leaders can tease apart the tangles to offer clarity and creativity. That’s why businesses today need leaders who have more capacity, not just more skills

How to leverage leadership development

Many businesses wonder how to implement leadership development in their organizations. Well, here are a few ideas:

  • Offer keynotes or lunch ‘n’ learns on vertical development to open up a new dialogue around leadership development
  • Offer vertical development assessments and developmental coaching to key leaders
  • Integrate vertical development to existing leadership development programs or create new programs specifically focused on vertical development
  • Create new programs that focus on vertical leadership development
  • Begin to incorporate vertical development concepts into human capital programs such as organization design, job descriptions, performance management, and succession planning

Whichever strategies a business goes with, they should meet the business and employees where they are. In other words, consider current leadership efforts and how they dovetail with vertical development. 

For the best results from vertical development, a business should bring in expert help.

Get professional help with vertical development

Adding vertical development theories to a company’s leadership training strategy is doable. The challenging work is personal coaching and development. The program will deliver better results when it’s run by professionals with a track record of success. 

The Sparks Group is comprised of deeply seasoned experts who are leaders themselves and who have been responsible for developing leaders to produce sustainable business results. We maintain a diverse bench of practitioners, so you get the best person for your project. Everyone on the team has an advanced degree or training and relevant industry certifications. We offer assessments, executive coaching, and leadership development solutions to help you get the best out of your employees.

Book a free 30-minute discovery call to see how the Sparks Group can offer tailor-made leadership development solutions for your business.