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The HR manager’s guide to developing leaders vertically, no matter what their personality or style (Vertical Leadership series, 5/5)

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Interview with Andrea Cardillo, Managing Partner TPCL Italy

When we consider vertical leadership development (see here here blog 01 of series) from an HR perspective, it is quite different to horizontal leadership development. We’re talking about developing people’s ways of being instead of their skill base. So rather than ask what talents we need to develop in our organisation, we should first ask: what culture does this organisation need? 

The evolution of an organisation’s culture (blog 02 of series) is supported by the meaning-making capacities of the individuals within it. These capacities usually fall within seven progressive action logics (blog 03 of series) or paradigms that shape how leaders think, feel and behave: the Opportunist, Diplomat, Expert, Achiever, Individualist, Strategist and Alchemist (Harthill Leadership Development Framework).

The more mature our meaning-making capacities, the more flexible our organisation becomes. 

But developing leaders towards the later developmental stages is not a simple task, for this relies on transforming people’s paradigms. Instead, it is better to ask: which action logics will support the culture our organisation needs? Then we can address the ways in which our organisation reinforces or inadvertently subverts these paradigms.

The role of HR in vertical development

Robert Kegan, a Harvard professor and recognised authority in the field of adult development studies, considered the different environments in which adults operate within our society. As a developmentalist, he effectively asked, “If we examined modern organisations as intentionally developmental contexts, what curriculum would we notice they are teaching?”

Coining the term “deliberately developmental organisations”, Kegan described those who consciously engage in helping individuals to expand their meaning-making capacities. Such organisations asked which action logics their environment supported or disabled. Then they intervened by integrating a community of practice, reflective practice, coaching, supervision, action inquiry and action learning.

Kegan also introduced the idea of the holding environment, which could assist individuals in moving from one stage of vertical development to another. “Just as labour pains are a part of bringing new life into the world, the process of human development, of seeing and overcoming one’s previous limitations, can involve pain” (from An Everyone Environment). But the holding environment could provide a safe place to transition. 

So HR can create space for leaders to develop in two ways, first by consciously helping people to expand the meaning-making capacities to support the culture. And second, by creating space for individuals to safely transform from one paradigm to another.

How action logic works on a system level

Each type of action logic creates its own kind of gravity in an organisation, influencing team dynamics and playing off one another to create friction in some areas, innovation in others, and chaos elsewhere. 

One of our clients is a public sector organisation governed by highly regulated processes. Most of the leaders there are ‘invited’ by the system (and by management culture) to operate primarily from the Expert action logic, focusing on accuracy and efficiency. 

This means that technical and professional competency are highly valued in this organisation, and that individual professional reputation is an asset to be treasured. While this brings great benefits in terms of conscientious application of policies and processes, it also creates a risk-averse culture where innovation and change, and the uncertainty they bring, create huge amounts of stress and disengagement. 

Meanwhile, senior leaders in this same organisation seem to be operating more clearly from an Achiever paradigm. Senior leaders and directors demonstrate an incredible energy to deliver on challenging goals, no matter what, while operating in a business environment that becomes more and more complex and uncertain every day. 

These leaders seem at ease when given a direction and target by the GM, while feeling free to get on with it in their own way. But sadly this does not always happen, due to the highly regulated and politically influenced environment where they operate.

Interestingly, this is not only because middle managers and professionals demonstrate less flexibility and more difficulty in operating with change and uncertainty. It’s also because the HR structures and performance management processes do not support a healthy level of risk-taking, nor do they hold managers accountable for staff engagement, work-life balance and soft-skills development. 

To stay with Kegan’s metaphor, the organisation seems to require an Achiever-like culture to deliver on its ambitious goals, but teaches mainly an Expert (or even Diplomat) curriculum through its structures and processes.  

How visionaries can make matters harder

The GM of the organization does not have it easy either. Operating primarily with an Individualist Action Logic, they tackle ambiguity, complexity and paradoxes without always trying to resolve them, asking senior managers to find their own way to navigate these waters. 

In an environment that grows more complex and uncertain every day, the GM’s ambiguity and fluidity about goals, roles and expectations puts increasing stress on both senior and middle managers, who are trying to hit their targets. The disconnect between the GM’s leadership and the demands of the organisation fed disengagement and low morale.

In such a context, although the GM  was bringing a highly fluid and visionary thinking to the table, the environment was crying out for increased simplicity and clarity, together with increased empowerment and efficiency.

In short, the GM’s Individualist capabilities were throwing three-dimensional lighting onto a two-dimensional image. The demands of the environment, the GM’s mindset, the HR structure and the wider organisational culture were not matching anymore. They needed intervention.

What HR interventions will work?

When we consider developing vertical leadership across an organisation, we have to take the broad view. There will be cases where individual interventions can assist, but it is the interplay that happens on the systems level that will either enable or disable most mature meaning-making capacities. 

So we have to start by asking what culture is needed to support the business strategy. This will help us to make appropriate interventions that will nudge those of diverse action logics in the most helpful direction. 

For instance, we worked with a tech client who’s strategy focused on developing agility and adaptability to match the needs of an unpredictable environment. However, the performance management system the business used was still based on a traditional model from a large corporation, one that operated within the framework of a classic predict-and-control strategy.

The performance management system did not use tech, it required lots of paperwork and had just one touchpoint each year. It did not correspond to the fast-paced, flexible culture the tech firm needed. Instead, it taught them to value meaning and progress in a slow, even slightly rigid way. 

Once we know the kind of meaning-making we want to support, we can put into place management structures, training programmes and other developmental initiatives to help people and culture develop in this direction. 

We can consider, for example, whether our performance management system only measures technical expertise and individual-based goals. Or if we recruit people on the basis of their CV rather than on an assessment of their potential – knowing this may reinforce an Expert culture. 

If this is not what the business needs, then structures need to change in order for the culture – and the individuals within it – to evolve. In other words, we need to write a more advanced organisational curriculum.  

It’s always possible to consider what kind of meaning-making we are rewarding and punishing, reinforcing and discouraging – and to assess if we are creating a suitable holding environment for later action logics where we need them. 

HR professionals, managers and directors have an important leading role to play in supporting the evolution of business and culture. Their vantage point enables them to identify how strategy, structures and culture interplay to generate unique organisational dynamics. And when it comes to business transformation, the environment they help create can be the most powerful asset on the road to success.

For more insight into vertical leadership development, be sure not to miss the (re)evolutionary secrets every business leaders needs to know (blog 01 of series) or our broader perspective on how organisational culture has evolved (blog 02 of series).

@ copyright TPCL (2021)

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