If you ask any leader to recall a personal growth experience that shaped their leadership and the chances are they will describe a time at work when they stepped out of their comfort zone to rise to a challenge or deal with a crisis. Most of what is learned about leadership comes from exposure to job or life challenges.
But unfortunately, most jobs are perfectly designed to make job holders efficient at what they do every day. The demands and expectations of the role set boundaries on what people can learn, or how far they can grow. Jobs are designed for performance, not conceived as transitional spaces for practice, learning or growth.
Even when organisations take a strategic approach to workforce planning, mapping the people and organisation capabilities needed to deliver the strategy, and creating learning roadmaps or critical roles to prepare leaders for roles of greater scope and complexity, rarely are these experiences designed with the vertical growth of the individual in mind. They usually layer on subject matter expertise – horizontal skills – like customer insight, innovation, or digital transformation ~ adding more apps, rather than upgrading the human operating system that drives them.
The challenge is to design developmental experiences into the flow of work, simultaneously building horizontal capability while at the same time expanding the capacity for complexity. The experience must elicit a radical shift in perspective which is deeply and fundamentally transformative. In practice this means engaging in work that pushes against the safety, roots, stability and familiarity of the known. The willingness to self-analyse, confront limiting beliefs, and develop a leadership mindset enables leaders to absorb greater complexity, more demands, and increased levels of ambiguity.
In order to reimagine work as a system of experience-driven development that unlocks leadership potential, we need to integrate four principles:
- Baseline assessment. The trigger for individual development is self-understanding of the individual’s growth edge and trajectory. Horizontally, this entails a forensic examination of key skills and knowledge missing from the leader’s repertoire, including those that differentiate the best performers in destination roles. Think communications training, dealing with conflict, adopting a more strategic stance to organisational growth, and similar – all of which can be measured through a 360-degree leadership assessment. Vertically, it means distinguishing the individual’s ‘complexity of mind’, finding the centre of gravity for the way they think and behave, and the possibilities and implications that arise for growth.
- Role Sculpting. More than a decade ago, as the war for talent bubbled up, Tim Butler and James Waldroop argued that organisations should design jobs around the life interests of top talent in order to motivate and retain them. To sculpt jobs for performance and development is to ensure the role is designed around the growth edge of the individual. This presupposes a deep interpretive understanding of the current developmental stage, and a tight connection between this and the type and sequence of experiences that can accelerate personal growth.
- Experience Maps. The parameters of a developmental experience will reflect the individual’s developmental trajectory. For example, a developmental map for a leader transitioning towards roles requiring a self-transforming mindset might be to envision their current function over longer time horizons and multiple scenarios, to surface tensions between different parts of the ecosystem, and to convene other leaders in making meaning of important events and experiences.
- Self-Reflection. Experience on its own is insufficient to produce learning. Without time and space for reflection experiences are little more than memories. Productive reflection on growth experiences – as opposed to the horizontal learning at the centre of the role – arises when the individual’s past experience, knowledge or perspectives encounter unfamiliar or unique and ambiguous situations. These experiences present a watershed moment, a disorienting dilemma that triggers an expansion of awareness that unlocks a more robust capacity for complexity.
Designing work in a way that reconciles performance and growth in the flow of work presents organisations with a significant challenge, but is essential in the quest to become a next-stage organisation. People develop when they lead, and our goal should therefore be to create work environments that encourage, support and nurture leadership. Taking on difficult, important human and organisational problems, coupled with catalysts and structures that extract maximum growth, is the best way to combine horizontal and vertical leadership development.
As organizations confront increasingly complex challenges, it is important to understand developmental movement, what triggers it, and how it can be channelled in the development of leadership capacity. The challenge for organizations is to create potent experiences that embed developmental principles into the workplace, and challenge job-holders to find developmental stretch in all the seasons of their role.