Designing your High Potential Leadership Program: Vertical Growth

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In the previous post in this series on designing executive pipeline programs, the focus was on identifying those with executive potential. 

To increase our bench strength, we need to look for analytical skills and learning agility (how fast can you learn?) drive (how much can you take?) and emergent leadership or career orientation (how much do you want to give back?). Having identified your high potential group, the next question is the design of a development intervention. What strategies are most effective in building executive readiness?    

In moving to the next level of leadership we can assume that we are preparing our pipeline group to navigate increasing organisational complexity. The challenge therefore is not only improving skills but developing mindsets; the way our future leaders think about the world around them and how they frame problems and opportunities.   

Nick Petrie (2015) studies effective leader development for the Center in Creative Leadership (CCL). He proposes that growth in leader effectiveness comes when the focus is on vertical over horizontal development. Vertical development isn’t about more skills but about greater cognitive abilities and the way we show up as a leader. Effective leaders will develop a bigger mind to stay effective as the future unfolds in unexpected ways.  He uses the analogy of the cup:  

A traditional, horizontally focused program aims to pour new content into the leader, such as how to develop staff and how to communicate effectively. The trainer passes along new tools, skills, and models. The problem for most leaders, however, is that the cup of leadership knowledge is already full. They have heard this all before. They already know it; they just can’t be it. The limiting factor is no longer the content (the leader’s knowledge); it is the cup (the leader’s mind). The aim of Vertical Development is not to add more to the cup but to grow the size of the cup itself. 

Petrie emphasises that a development intervention needs to have strategies for both horizontal and vertical development.  However, the question shifts from “Do our leaders possess these competencies?” to “From what level of development can they apply them?” This approach asks our program participants to find in themselves new ways of deciding, performing, and sensemaking, guiding them to evolve in ways that make them fit for the increasing complexities of organisational life at the executive level.   

This is the second in a three-part series about developing high-potential leaders for executive roles. The next will be Does Your Leadership Program Pack Heat?  

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Petrie, N. (2015). The how-to of vertical leadership development Part 2. Center for Creative Leadership White Paper.  


Dr Kate Joyner is the Interim Director, Corporate Programs and Learning Innovation in the Graduate School of Business, QUT. Kate provides academic leadership for the Public Sector Management Program and delivers executive education in the areas of leadership, systems thinking and strategy. Kate’s speciality is developing leaders and leadership groups for the challenges of the 21st century.

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