Jean Piaget (1896–1980) was the father of developmental stage theory but he originally thought that cognitive development stopped once you became an adult. Not so! We continue to develop ‘vertically’ if we are challenged by new circumstances. Where we are developmentally is critically important in leadership roles because it dictates what perspectives we are able to take and therefore what roles we are capable of.

Here is a metaphor. Imagine your adult development as a tower block. Each floor is a vertical developmental level and the higher the floor, the more perspectives you can have. Moving up the stairwells to the next level is often a time of confusion and disorientation. You will go up and down the stairs many times until you are sufficiently comfortable on the next floor. You now have some, but not all of the capabilities of this new level. Getting all the capabilities of a level requires horizontal development. One never loses the perspectives developed on previous floors. These capabilities can always be accessed. We transcend and include.

As you move up our metaphorical tower and get to the higher levels you also find that it gets lonelier. There are just fewer people up there! A critical advantage of being higher up though, is that you can see much further, in both space and time. It’s no surprise that the level expected of a CEO role has often been given the label ‘Strategist’.

To complete the metaphor, this strange tower block of your development has yet another feature and that’s there is a new language to be learned on every level. Level 3 may speak Spanish, but on level 4 the language is Urdu. One source of confusion for people on a higher level is that some of what they say is incomprehensible to people still on lower levels. It’s impossible for someone on a lower level to comprehend the perspective of someone on a higher level so that explains why some people may just not get what you’re saying, no matter how many times you try to explain! We have to use the language of their developmental level.

Transitions can be quite scary as the world can stop making sense like it used to and one can have thoughts that are both unfamiliar and confusing. Not only for us but our family, our bosses and our teams. Why is he/she acting so differently?

Horizontal development should be valued every bit as much as vertical though, because if you don’t develop each level sufficiently it will mean your tower block is unstable. It will be much more likely to topple over when put it under stress. Expanding horizontally is needed for stability as well as capability and this is where most coaching is applied, and results show up in days or weeks. In developmental coaching, these more transformative changes are more significant shifts and may take months to embed. One shorthand is to say is that horizontal development is about what you do; vertical development is about who you are.

Where is developmental coaching applicable? Examples include when you may be experiencing confusion and asking questions like why is this role or organisation no longer compatible with my values? Or why am I so hugely challenged in this role when I was so great in my prior one? Another area is dealing with less desirable aspects of personality, maybe experienced under stress, that are now blocking you from thriving.

When we experience a stressful event, it is sometimes due to part of our persona that is under-developed. We might not have gained the skills earlier in life to cope with the stresses presented now. In these cases, we may ‘crash’ back to an earlier level of development. Part of developmental coaching is identifying and addressing gaps in prior levels of development and part is solidifying vertical transitions. It is not therapy but uses knowledge of developmental stages to enable the right development.

If you’re in a place of confusion in your life, maybe you need some developmental help.

Executive Coach Gregor Findlay helps leaders and leadership teams be the best they can be so they, in turn, make the biggest positive difference for themselves, their people and society.