The only way to create sustainable organisational change | Leadership Development Blog

The head of culture for a multinational division once called us for strategic advice. I asked her what she had implemented so far. She had been busy with endless events and webinars on a huge range of relevant and interesting subjects. Her people were practically drowning in cool events and awesome guest speakers.

‘How effective has it been so far?’ I asked.

She was silent for a moment, before admitting with embarrassment that the culture and leadership behaviour was as bad as ever.

She was implementing what we call an ‘information spray-and-pray’ approach to development, throwing masses of information at people, hoping at least some of it would stick and actually change behaviour. But all the information and skill building in the world are not enough to deliver long-term, significant, sustainable cultural change. We need to go deeper.

There are two approaches to personal and organisational change: horizontal development and vertical growth.
As I define them, horizontal development means developing the skills and gaining the knowledge you need to work in the organisation to get your job done efficiently, effectively and safely. Vertical development means developing the ability to change how you perceive and value your inner and outer world (mindset), then building the self-regulating awareness to support the development of new behaviours in a sustainable way aligned with your core values.

Focusing on horizontal skills and training without vertical growth is like planting a flower in poorly fertilised soil. Unable to take root or gain the necessary nourishment to grow, it cannot flourish and will inevitably just wither away. An organisation can spend millions of dollars training its leaders in horizontal skills and knowledge, but it’s a poor investment unless it’s preceded and supported by vertical growth (and the use of behaviour science). Without a foundation of vertical growth, our ability to apply horizontal skills and knowledge wisely is limited, although, ironically, we typically remain in denial of these limitations. To change our behaviour we must first see it and explore it objectively in order to best understand where it comes from as well as cultivate the ability to manage it in real time.

With vertical growth training, we transcend the unconscious emotional and reactive brain to connect with our higher-order brain functions that allow us to self-regulate as well as make more informed and creative decisions. Vertical growth enables us to more readily bypass the conditioned reactions that have kept us safe over the years but now hold us back from our full potential and deepest happiness.

Furthermore, personal vertical growth enables leaders to empower and develop their people. As Susanne Schaffert, President of Novartis Oncology, shared with me, ‘When it comes to dealing with a crisis, what leaders are asked for is not specific skillsets. It goes much deeper than that. What we are asked to do is inspire people toward achieving common goals. We are asked to energise and comfort people and give them confidence. The biggest impact we can have as leaders is not what we personally do with our skills, but rather what we inspire our people to do through our character. And we can’t become inspirational leaders if we are not grounded, balanced and mindful.’

Horizontal development may be useful, sustainable organisational change is impossible without the deeper insights and tools of vertical growth.