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Leadership Development Part 2: Supporting Flat, Vertical, and Growth-edge Learning at Minimal Cost

21 Dec

This is the second part of a two-article series on a way to support Leadership Development that is radically effective, gives any organization an instant competitive advantage, and costs little.

In a previous post I described the difference between “flat” learning (shorter-term, skills-based, cognitive, discrete, disconnected) and “vertical” (longer-term, deep and unifying, all-encompassing). I noted that vertical learning leads you to form increasingly sophisticated understandings of yourself and the world, which in turn help you handle complexity. The world is complex, it goes without saying. And leadership challenges get increasingly complex as you move up the ladder, so to prepare people for them, investment in vertical learning makes sense. I also noted that we’re all slowly growing on this deep, meaningful level, anyway–especially if we’re in challenging roles–so the trick is not so much to conceive of and shoehorn a wholly new and foreign way of learning into a workplace ecosystem: supporting vertical development just means you find ways to amplify, reinforce, improve, intensify, or engage healthy processes that are already there.

What would it look like to improve vertical learning at work? Here’s a recipe.

Assess in a Topic Area: Decision-Making

It’s a principle of improvement that if you can see how you’re doing, you can improve faster: this “seeing how you’re doing” is, of course, assessment. Advanced assessments emerging in recent years can give us a sense of where we are on the life-long track of vertical learning; known as “developmental” assessments, these tools feel different than other tests: they use open-ended questions, or a guided conversation, to lead you to talk about the world, and they look for deep structures in your thinking that are visible through the way you talk about things. One of my favorite of these assessments is the Subject Object Interview, which can tell you your level of development according to Robert Kegan’s scale of ego development. But the assessment I am thinking of for leadership development is a different one: it’s the Lectical Decision-Making Assessment (LDMA), created by a spunky nonprofit specializing in developmental assessment: Lectica. The LDMA uses open-ended questions to measure your vertical level in the context of decision-making, according to the much-researched “Lectical Scale” of hierarchical complexity. Why this particular content area? There are other ways to approach leadership: through ethics or reflective judgment, for instance. The advantage of decision-making is that is it as once practical and deep: decision-making is perhaps the most important facet of leadership; after all, making decisions is what leaders do. So getting better at it pays dividends immediately; but it is also a rich terrain of philosophical inquiry, drawing on a complex expanse of ideas, concepts, and frames of meaning, so it’s a fruitful context for working through the layers of ambiguity and complexity that you will encounter as you progress on the vertical dimension.

Make that Assessment an Embedded, Formative Assessment

So now we have a way to assess your vertical level in the topic area of decision-making. But we need to do more than assess your level; we need to think of that assessment as part of a regular, ongoing learning process. We need to commit to working on improving in vertical learning over a long term period (say, of years). For one thing, that’s the time scale of change in vertical learning; for another, if we can commit to investing a little time, then we get two special gifts: first, we can use the assessment regularly to show us how well we are progressing; that makes it an “embedded” part of the learning process. But more importantly, we can use the data from the assessment to directly help us progress. The LDMA, for instance, tells us how we are thinking now, but it also tells us how we are about to think. Because it is built on a scale of increasing complexity that extends well beyond anyone besides Einstein, the LDMA knows what’s coming for us. Importantly, it doesn’t obscure this knowledge: it openly describes the next step on our path in a way that’s accessible to us, and even intriguing. Using an assessment this way is “formative.” The LDMA makes its formative use particularly easy by going one step further. It offers individualized learning recommendations targeted to our learning level, from articles and books to specific hands-on activities.

Add Back Some “Flat” Learning

So we have a long term commitment to learning, and an assessment that both tells us where we are on the level of vertical development in decision-making and helps us see and work towards the next step. That’s a lot already; but we can add more. We started this article by making a distinction between “flat,” skills-based, short-term learning, and vertical development. But in truth there is no real reason to exclude flat, shorter-term learning just because we’re working on vertical; in fact, the two go together. In whatever context we work in, there is a constellation of key skills used on a regular basis that you might reasonably want to work on as you gain in experience–and you might address these skills in a sequence of short bursts of learning. This, in fact, is the approach of most Leadership Development programs. The LDMA recognizes the value of a combined approach and identifies a handful of skills important in decision-making, among them: communicative capacity, perspective taking, perspective seeking, perspective coordination, argumentation, and decision-making process. It assesses them at the same time it assesses your vertical level: this adds an additional dimension to the assessment; now we’re not just assessing your growth at the deep, vertical level, but we have some focused, practical skills related to that growth that we can also work on simultaneously.

Identify your Growth Edge and Design Activities to Engage It: In Your Workplace

So now we have a lot of data: in the domain of decision-making, we’re looking at how we’re doing at deep levels of vertical development, and we’re tracking how well we do in a variety of relevant associated skills, any one of which might have been the centerpiece of any other leadership development program. We also have a list of resources and activities we might undertake as part of our learning. The challenge now becomes mining the data for the parts that are most relevant to us, and thinking about what to do. We’re looking, in other words, for our growth edge: the individualized, deeply personal part of our learning that seems most compelling and rewarding to us. How we frame and think about this will be different for everyone; but the point for everyone is to design some activities that would activate or instantiate or explore that learning edge: research, real-world engagement, experiments, conversations. These activities we will frame as short term, iterative learning projects. Lectica’s way of modeling these is helpful: they use the acronym “VCoL,” or Virtuous Cycles of Learning, to describe the components of successful learning activities: for each, you should make sure you’re engaging in a fully-formed process that starts with a goal, seeks information, applies it, reflects, and sets a subsequent new goal. We’re creating a process, that, if it works, can continue indefinitely; in fact, a Lectical assessment is designed to give you a year’s worth of data to unpack and explore in this way.

One key point: the design and implementation of these individualized learning sequences happens in the normal ebb and flow of life and work–it’s not something that requires an off-site–it therefore avoids the well-known problem of learning transfer, and it’s immediately effective. The workplace effectively becomes the place of learning, supported by the use of the assessment, and under the guidance of a coach. Which brings me to my next point.

Use a Coach

Does all of this sound like a lot? It is. Processing the rich data from the LDMA, considering how it reflects your life and work, comparing what you’re learning there to what you’re seeing elsewhere in your life, looking for central themes that can evolve into your growth edge, identifying ways to design VCoLs that instantiate the learning in meaningful and practical ways, implementing and following up on those VCoLs: that’s a lot to do on your own, while you still have a job to do and a life to live, and an even bigger job if you you’re new to the ideas of vertical learning, VCoL design, decision-making, formative assessment, and so on. For that reason, I think you’ll do better with a coach: someone ideally very familiar with the assessment you’ll be using, expert at identifying growth edges, comfortable with designing personalized learning around those growth edges, familiar with what it takes to implement an iterative sequence of personalized learning activities, and able to help you make sense of everything. Fortunately, coaching with the LDMA is similar to other developmental coaching (like Immunity to Change, for example), and Lectica provides coaching certification training, so there is a rich pool of coaches available to draw from.

Instant Competitive Advantage: But at What Cost?

Assessing regularly with a developmental assessment; using that assessment in an embedded, formative way; mining the data to develop and implement personalized learning activities in your context; and working with a coach: these are the key components of what I think make a remarkably robust and, really, revolutionary way to support vertical development of leadership. There is very little extant in the workplace that can compare in terms of the learning enabled: this approach has such dramatic potential to increase an individual’s ability to lead, I see it as an immediate competitive advantage for any organization that undertakes it. But what is the cost? Let’s think about that for a minute. The cost of the assessments is minimal; Lectica is a nonprofit committed to keeping costs low; so the investment is essentially the time invested and the cost of the coach. If we imagine a coach working with you every few weeks for a year; at, say, 20 sessions of an hour each, we’re looking at something like $2,000 – 3,000 per person; at scale it’s cheaper. A coach working full time might manage 40 or 50 program participants, for example, as well as perform some administrative and reporting duties (reporting on the progress of the program, for instance).

Alternative: Use A Developmental Assessment With Your Leadership Development Program

Maybe hiring a coach full time or paying $2,000 as in individual feels like a lot. Maybe you already have an active, successful leadership development program that you don’t want to throw out! If this is the case, there are alternatives. One is to continue to use your program to focus on the identified skills you deem important to leadership in your context, and to supplement it with the LDMA, or other developmental assessments, to begin to add a component that supports vertical learning. Doing so has a lot of advantages. Among them: you’ll only be paying the price of the assessments themselves; they can serve as objective assessments of what is being learned in your leadership program; and, because they are designed for a variety of contexts and topics, one or more of them will likely touch on whatever skills you are specifically targeting, and so help reinforce those skills in a formative way.

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Flat Learning, Vertical Learning, and Leadership Development

17 Dec

I want to contrast a couple of ways to think about learning; one that informs much of what we do, and another that I think ought to inform more of what we’re doing. The first way is to think of learning as flat, linear, time-limited, and cognitive. The second is another way to think of learning as vertical, longitudinal, all-encompassing, and continuous.

In the “flat” model, learning is essentially a two-step process: ingest information, and then, sort of magically, learn. The emphasis in the learning design and assessment is on the definition, provision, organization, and repetition of the information. Less emphasis is placed on what the learner does with that information, or on the larger contexts in which the learning happens. Learning is seen as happening in discrete, isolated bursts: a course, a workshop, a webinar. Little thought is given to how these bursts connect with the person living through them. This learning is, as it were, shallow, or almost extrinsic: it’s not really expected to penetrate to the core of the individual and change the way they understand themselves or the world, for example.

In the “vertical” model, the bursts of flat learning are still there: but they are understood to be playing out against the backdrop of a deeper, more meaningful, longitudinal change in the individual, one that encompasses all their faculties: cognition, yes, but also emotion, motivation, behavior, self-understanding, mindset, and so on. In this model growth isn’t measured in terms of external content, but rather in deep, intrinsic, qualitative changes, increased ability to handle complexity, new ways to make meaning: and these changes percolate through and connect all the aspects of the person, ultimately appearing as long term behavior change. This learning is at a deeper level: learning here registers specifically as changes in understanding the self and the world.

The flat model has advantages: it is discrete, convenient, seems measurable, feels professional, fits into systems. And it works for a lot of things. But it is also imperative to understand the deeper learning that is going on. Some challenges cannot be solved by anyone without a particular level of vertical development; no amount of “flat” learning alone will address them. Among them are the particular challenges of leadership.

As you move up the hierarchical ladder of leadership roles, you are increasingly called on to display sophisticated understandings of the complexity of the world. Content or particular technical skills in discrete processes are helpful, of course, but what becomes more and more necessary is the ability to marshal your own and others’ full faculties–including motivation, emotion, cognition, behaviors–build systems of meaning across disciplines, and construct ways to understand and make decisions in emergent, ambiguous, and diverse contexts.

This vertical development often slowly happens in the background in life; we sense it happening, especially as we look back over where we’ve been and think about the ways we used to understand things. It explains a lot of tension between people in the workplace: that between workers expecting direction, and managers expecting initiative, for instance. Just working in leadership roles and making your way through the succession of problems you face there is a kind of support of this longitudinal, qualitative development. But that’s an inefficient and unpredictable support. As with any process, it can be improved with reflection, self-awareness, consistency, and by looking for ways to “see into” what is going on. You can manage and track vertical growth in people and teams as you already manage any other workplace system. And the overhead is minimal.

So how do you “see into” and more efficiently support this necessary growth in your leaders? That I’ll talk about in my next post! But here’s the short answer: a very special kind of formative assessment paired with a more-than-lip-service culture of learning or reflective practice. And a coach.

Instructing and Coaching, in Coaching

27 Oct

I was recently asked about the tension between “instructing” and “coaching” in a coaching context. My impromptu thoughts.

Using an instructive approach can efficiently give context, direction, a sense of definiteness, reassure a worried coachee, and may be the most comfortable coaching paradigm for people at certain orders of development. I’m thinking of linear thinkers, perhaps, who “want answers.” It might also be OK for a more advanced thinker, a gifted autodidact, or a fellow teacher or coach, who is comfortable with the development environment, addicted to creating their own learning cycles–who just needs a hint of the path and they’re off to the races. Instruction seems necessary if you’re in a situation where you have a limited time and you have some fixed goal you need to meet in that time (though I can’t imagine any coach seeking out such constraints). The downside is that there isn’t much room for the coachee to participate in the meaning-making; little co-learning; which means less learning for the coachee and the coach, too (!). Your coachee will be mostly “recording” data during the session in order to (hopefully) reflect, process, and apply later; and maybe as a coach you’re not operating at your growth edge either–you maybe be a bit of an automaton rattling off wisdom. So you lose some learning opportunities. There is a consequence to the relationship, too, because an instructional style can be a distancing move.

The coaching approach is preferable if you want to create a space for working and learning together, to partner in understanding what is going on in the general assessment and to conceive of, develop, implement, and build on applications of the knowledge in that assessment in the coachee’s social context. Coaching is also a better transition to a self-sufficient coachee: you’re thinking with them, and going through experiments and applications with them.  Because they’re more actively involved, they’ll have a better chance of building habits, skills, and awarenesses that can continue after the coaching sequence is over.

I think you will ultimately blend both approaches as a coach. There are parts of even an extreme-coaching-style coaching process that require a kind of meta-narrative that can feel like instruction (here’s what we’re going to do), and there are also parts where you need to step out of coaching and give context (here’s what this means; this is what I say to folks when we get to this part). And even if you’re leaning instruction, it would be unusual that you don’t invite some kind of input and engagement from the coachee. No matter how much you are in control, it would be strange not to respond to or allow to develop a question or, better yet, spontaneous recognition on the part of the coachee, and that’s coaching.

An additional thought: I think it is actually very difficult to resist instructing, to get out of the comfortable seat of your knowledge and control and be available to the coachee’s perspective . . . or perhaps it is better to say to be suspended between your knowledge and the moment and the coachee’s perspective. Edgar Schein calls the problem “content seduction,” and advocates against it in his recent book Humble Consulting. This is the master move that gifted and experienced teachers and coaches learn at some point, but I don’t really see people doing that right out of the gate, and it feels like it requires a developmental stage. 11 on the Lectica scale, or 4 on Kegan.

Which style am I inclined to use? Coaching with instruction in reserve. My plan is usually to frame the session around key points and themes that emerge from the data we are gathering. I float these points for discussion when it feels natural–often I don’t need to, because the points tend to float themselves, because the coachee sees them, too–and then I approach them each from a perspective of mutual inquiry. “I noticed this. Does this seem interesting to you, too? What is your take? How shall we think about this?” There will be places I will need to instruct. What does a particular term mean? Where are we in whatever process we are following? What is our next step? So I’m prepared to say something at those points. (Although often I don’t need to: even the instructive pieces seem to “say” themselves.)