Most organizations with a dedicated learning and development function have a solid offering of training and development opportunities for hard skills and functional competencies, and soft skills and leadership competencies. In many organizations, the persistently popular idea around using the 70-20-10 formula for learning is considered a “best practice.” However, this “one size fits all” approach ignores the fact that knowledge, learning a skill, behavior change and thinking skills are all different. In an era of disruptive change and “VUCA” (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) challenges, our profession needs to do better.

Our current mindset around learning is painfully outdated. We have yet to evolve outdated classroom pedagogies focused on lecture and information dissemination, and these are often woefully replicated in virtual and online training. Learning through experience typically lacks the rigor and focus to ensure that results can be effectively demonstrated or verified. As a profession, our L&D worldview still seems bound by the belief in a single ideal model/approach regardless of the learning or development objective.

Good L&D departments offer multiple resources, encourage learning from experience and through others. Most of us in this field learned all the fundamentals of adult learning theory, instructional design (on the learning side) as well as coaching, 360 feedback and a variety of personality/leadership style assessments (on the development side). Instinctively, we know these are different objectives, but we continue to approach them in terms of “push” development: send them to a class; tell them to observe and learn through others; and, practice applying knowledge and building skills with experience. Rarely is structure or verification built into the experiential or practice components of learning. It doesn’t help when an employee or their manager focuses almost exclusively on formal training when discussing development needs and goals.

The most a traditional training program can do is introduce new concepts that might help them rethink current perspectives, but it won’t help to internalize and act on them. In these cases, transformational learning is needed. What hasn’t really been done in our field is looking at them together: differentiating and then integrating them. By differentiating the types of development, we can look at the unique challenges of each and consider which approach is best. Having an executive “practice” keeping composure or building relationships through better listening only addresses behavior and not the underlying worldview, values and beliefs that drive automatic behavior. Offering an online course for listening skills is laughable without additional feedback and practice – and yet, it happens all the time.

Robert Kegan and Susanne Cook-Greuter both provide research supporting the position that cognitive and mental development in adults does not end at a certain age, including emotional intelligence. Cook-Greuter offers a description of horizontal and vertical development which aligns neatly with the description above of functional/technical competencies and behavioral or leadership competencies.

Horizontal Development: What you do and what you know

Horizontal proficiency looks at knowledge, skills and functional or technical competencies. Think of these in terms of what an employee needs to know and what they need to do to deliver the work expected. It’s the manager’s job to make sure the employee is clear on what knowledge and technical or functional competencies are needed and expected, what the manager’s priorities are and the quality of work expected. In most organizations, these expectations go deeper than the bulleted list of general skills and knowledge listed on a job description.

An integrated framework of formal training, learning through others and learning by doing works well for most functional and technical skills. Three approaches are 1) formal learning through online/classroom courses and reading, 2) learning from or observing others with peer coaching, job shadowing and communities of practice, and 3) learning by doing with feedback and practice.

While knowledge can be gained from training or reading, skills and functional competencies require the utilization of all approaches. Some classroom learning will involve one or all three approaches. Traditional adult learning approaches work well for horizontal development. Learning through others is often implemented through peer coaching, observation and shadowing. As social learning and knowledge-sharing technologies improve within organizations, opportunities and options for this aspect of learning will increase exponentially. New technologies in virtual and augmented reality will begin to transform how practice and feedback are implemented, and research supports the effectiveness of these immersive practices in learning.

Vertical Development: How and why you do what you do

Vertical proficiency focuses on how and why one delivers their work in the context of solving problems and working with others. Vertical proficiency is important for success in higher level roles or positions dealing with broader scope, increased complexity and diverse workforce and vendor and client populations. Behavioral competency expectations for many large companies are sometimes defined as a leadership competency framework or a competency model.

Vertical proficiency looks at behaviors, mindset, professionalism, emotional intelligence and cognitive framework. The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) asserts that to be effective, a leader’s thinking “must be equal or superior to the complexity of the environment.” Vertical proficiency is not equivalent to your current role, title or position; it is common for people to be promoted into higher levels before achieving the vertical proficiency to be effective and successful at that level.

Looking at the primary levels of leadership in a typical organization, the levels of vertical proficiency are suggested below. If a company has a level-specific leadership competency framework, it can be used here in these levels:

  • Contributor: Demonstrates the problem solving and interpersonal/relationship skills needed to perform well as an individual contributor.
  • Manager: Demonstrates problem solving and interpersonal skills needed to lead and drive performance of an interconnected team(s), with or without authority. Can motivate and develop individuals’ horizontal competencies, solve problems and build relationships across direct boundaries. Can coach a contributor to manager proficiency.
  • Executive: A collaborative manager and leader who demonstrates interpersonal skills and problem solving to address complex problems by seeing the whole picture in both a current and future state across multiple and extended boundaries. Understands interdependent variables and impacts, seeks out alternative perspectives and holds multiple perspectives simultaneously. Builds collaborative cultures and healthy relationships, and can coach a manager to executive proficiency.

Unlike horizontal development, a traditional approach to vertical development may not be adequate. When an executive needs to work on a soft skill (e.g., building relationships, keeping composure, delegating, managing conflict), or increase cognitive capacity (systems thinking, managing complexity), a cookie-cutter formula for learning is inadequate.

Use the following to improve vertical competencies. These are primarily “pull” approaches and facilitate the employee’s ability to transform internally:

  • Formal learning: For new concepts and perspectives only – often includes reading.
  • Experiential/interactive leadership development programs: Provides new perspectives, time and space to dialogue and reflect as well as opportunities to receive feedback.
  • Coaching: Professional or structured and focused informal peer coaching/mentoring.
  • Reflect and discuss: Use an “Immunity Map” to uncover competing objectives and hidden assumptions when old behaviors don’t change.
  • 360 Feedback: Uncover blind spots and identify areas for further development.
  • Personality/leadership assessments: Gain understanding and awareness of the styles, perspectives and traits of others to appreciate and integrate differences.
  • Learning or reflection journal: Perhaps an “old school” spiral notebook or a structured online tool.

Keep in mind the adage that you can’t learn from experience unless you experience the learning. Progressive L&D organizations will begin to add rigor to non-formal learning experiences and create tools and processes to track their results. In the meantime, simply keeping a learning journal and utilizing personal and shared reflection opportunities will help developing leaders extract the most growth from their observations and experiences.

Differentiation and Integration

Many L&D professionals intuitively help employees develop in the way that makes the most sense for the kind of skill or competency they want to improve. Managers rely heavily on “push” approaches when they are trying to coach for development. By differentiating the types of development and clarifying which tools, approaches and methods work best to develop in each, we can create easy to use resources and models for managers to support and facilitate development conversations.