Are You A Deliberately Developmental Leader? Here's Why You Should Be.
The way a CEO conducts herself has a direct impact on the people she leads and works with. It is not uncommon for a leader to have consciously reflected on the kind of leader they want to be, investing time into developing and furthering their skill set. A wealth of resources is available on leadership styles and ways to think about leadership. Yet there is an approach to leadership that is not talked about nearly enough, but which has the power and potential to create an impact on the people a CEO leads for years to come – even long after she has stopped working with them: Deliberately Developmental Leadership.
Adapted from the term Deliberately Developmental Organisations (or DDOs, as they are often known), which was coined by researchers and authors Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey Laskow, the term Deliberately Developmental Leader (or what I’ll be calling DDLs) refers less to a ‘style’ of leadership and more to an entire philosophy and approach to leadership. In the much referenced, game-changing book An Everyone Culture, Kegan and Lahey Laskow profiled three extraordinary companies (Bridgewater Associates, Next Jump and Decurion) that have thought about workplace culture and the role that the personal growth of their people plays in their culture to such an extent that the entire functioning of the business has personal development woven into their fabric. Company-wide, in a DDO absolutely everyone – from the most senior people to the newest hires – is deeply engaged in an ongoing, relentless and intense personal growth journey. Everything, from meetings to working practices, from the way people are hired and onboarded all the way through to how they are let go, from the way the businesses’ values and mission are understood to how those translate and come to life in the organizations, revolves around the simple but profound idea that when a business pursues and prioritizes profitability alongside continuous and explicit focus of developing its people, everyone wins. Coaching, high potential programmes and the like are not reserved for the few. They are for everyone and they are designed into the operating system of the company. That is why these companies create what the authors call an ‘everyone culture.’
DDOs are a relatively new phenomenon and most people do not have the pleasure of working for one. It is possible to start to create your own DDO environment and one of the most powerful levers for translating the developmental principles into an organization is via the leadership. Any leader, regardless of how senior they are, exerts a level of influence that has the potential to create a ripple effect in the organization. A leader who is deliberate about developing the people they lead can find ways of doing this in almost any organization, regardless of whether the pursuit of personal growth at work is taken up across the whole organization or not. Adopting a DDL mentality makes leadership more productive, more fulfilling and incredibly rewarding as you see the people around you flourish.
Here are four fundamental principles to bear in mind if the idea of being a deliberately developmental leader appeals to you.
- Rethink happiness
Happiness can be thought of, the authors of An Everyone Culture point out, as a state fundamentally characterized by pleasure. Typically, in our society, we attempt to achieve this through banishing pain and boredom. The other way we tend to try to reach this state of pleasure is through pursuing the experience of positive emotions – and there is almost no limit as to how people do this.
There is a second definition of happiness though, one which, while it does overlap with the ‘happiness as the absence of negativity’ model in some ways, is nevertheless distinctly different in others; this second model proposes that happiness occurs within a process of human flourishing. Inherent in this perspective is the understanding that difficulty, struggles and even emotional and psychological pain and stress are not things to be avoided; if experienced in the pursuit of growth, challenges and pain can ultimately contribute to a sense of deep meaning and fulfillment. This, in turn, engenders happiness.
Although it is less appealing in some ways, because it involves embracing rather than avoiding discomfort, we can all relate to this second definition of happiness. Perhaps you remember a project that kept you up at night, but which ultimately became one of the proudest accomplishments in your life. Maybe you recall a sense of being in above your head when launching a new phase of your career and the sense of satisfaction that arose when you mastered a new skill set. Perhaps you have many hours in the bag of trying to master a complex skill such as learning an instrument, and you can remember the frustration of repeatedly getting it wrong. Whatever your personal experience, overemphasize how important the distinction is between the conception of happiness that aims to banish pain and suffering versus understanding that in the pursuit of flourishing, struggling can hold enormous value. Athletes know this. Entrepreneurs know it. Actors developing a character with richness and depth know it. In fact, anyone pursuing a creative endeavor knows that frustration is an inherent and utterly necessary part of the process. Pressure, after all, creates diamonds and fire refines gold. As clichéd as this can sound, it is also a powerful and often accurate metaphor. For leaders, two thoughts are worth bearing in mind.
- Pressure can help you grow as a leader.
It is a common yet too little spoken about experience for people in leadership positions that they are the target for overt and covert psychological pressure from those they lead to somehow make work less stressful and challenging. Leaders are often subconsciously asked to ‘contain’ the pressure their direct reports feel and to not show any stress so that those around them do not feel it either. In the metaphor commonly used in the hospitality industry, leaders are asked to be like swans: visibly graceful, with all effort and franticness hidden away from others’ view. At the same time, enormous pressure can land on leaders from those more senior to them in a system. The pressure to deliver, to meet deadlines and to get it right can be very stressful and challenging to manage.
It is essential therefore for a leader to hold onto the knowledge that difficulty, stress and even some overwhelm can be helpful, provided you know how to handle it and what to do with it. It can also be a useful reminder for leaders who want to remove all stress and difficulty for their direct reports or those who find it hard to watch other people struggling.
- Do you pursue achievement at all costs?
‘A’ type personalities have always done well in our wider culture. They are the high-flying executives that sometimes have a reputation for being willing to achieve at all and any cost to themselves and those around them, resulting in countless broken relationships (professional and personal) and, often, burnout. Type A leaders are sometimes susceptible to demanding of their reports the same sacrifices, pursuing goal attainment and achievement at all costs. Think about the characters from the Netflix series, Suits: as the seasons progress, the show captures the fact that many of the main characters have done so well at enormous personal cost. DDOs show us that pursuing excellence does not have to happen at the cost to people’s wellbeing and fulfillment.
Framing achievement as something to be pursued alongside and in parallel to one’s growth can help the most driven of leaders keep an eye on the bigger picture and to think about the values and hidden desires underpinning what they are pursuing. Think about whether and how your direct reports’ efforts towards executing on key business goals are taking place in the pursuit of their growth.
- Make weaknesses public
We all carry a mental image of a leader publicly shaming their direct reports for their failings and weaknesses. No wonder therefore that most of us spend a lot of time “hiding, lying and faking” in the workplace , to use a phrase that is part of the everyday parlance at the DDO Next Jump. The authors of An Everyone Culture heavily emphasize just how much energy, time and creativity is poured into covering up weaknesses.
This suggestion therefore – to make your direct reports’ weaknesses public – might be easy to misinterpret. It is not about shaming or humiliating anyone. In fact, to do this well, you need to be willing to be transparent about your weaknesses first and foremost.
The thinking behind this suggestion comes from how DDOs conceptualize weaknesses and failure. It is an obvious yet vital observation that most of us invest a considerable amount of energy into hiding our weak points, playing a strategic game of hide and seek in the office. This does not serve anyone: it keeps our weak points fenced off, cut off from feedback and space to grow; it sends a silent message to those we work with that having room left to grow is unacceptable (reminiscent of a fixed rather than a growth mindset). This, in turn, reinforces the message that they should also hide, lie and fake their way through the day; and it costs us, our teams and the organizations we work for a lot of time and energy.
An alternative approach and one that is already at work in some organizations involves naming and explicitly discussing your weaknesses and failings, bringing out into the open what most of us would instinctively want to hide. This is challenging and needs to be done on a foundation of trust and within a framework of understanding that people’s ‘flaws’ or development areas are being spoken about not to shame, minimize or hold power over anyone, but to further their growth and development. Carol Dweck’s work on fixed and growth mindsets highlighted that at a certain point in childhood, children begin to reject learning. The reflection that they have not achieved mastery becomes painful as the child develops self-consciousness. Unless and until a person can face and take ownership of their flaws, they cannot grow.
Counterintuitively, the more people engage in these kinds of practices – naming and taking ownership of their weak points, usually through a process of self-reflection and receiving far more honest feedback than most of us are used to hearing – the more they report enjoying it. The psychological discomfort of hearing about what you do not do well is rarely comfortable, but over time it becomes bearable and can indicate to you that you are growing. Even hearing the same feedback over and over again, which people at Next Jump sometimes report, although uncomfortable, can prove to be invaluable and can reflect to you that you are open, curious, willing and maybe even brave. I believe it takes guts to face our flaws. It is easier to focus purely on external factors, and in business, there are ample opportunities to do so.
A Deliberately Developmental Leader understands the power of self-awareness as the ultimate business ‘secret weapon’ (if there is such a thing). How you facilitate and foster that will very much depend on the kind of organization or team you run. You might initiate a check in at the start and/or end of every team meeting, like at Decurion, one of the companies featured in An Everyone Culture. You might foster psychological safety through the practice of vulnerable leadership. You might integrate exercises such as The Shadow You Cast on team away days.
Making weaknesses public – others’ and your own – brings the personal firmly into the realm of the professional. It requires a level of emotional intelligence and maturity that in decades gone by would have seemed completely out of place to all but the seemingly most ‘radical’ of thinkers. Yet with work such as Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead and conversations about the aforementioned concepts such as psychological safety becoming increasingly common, we are fast becoming aware that the most effective leaders are not only aware of the concept of bringing one’s whole self to work, but welcome and know how to navigate and respond to this, including and especially when it is messy.
- Help your people rediscover their inherent resilience
Every single person has a reservoir of resilience within them. We have all had to learn how to navigate our bodies, language and the world around us. Each of us has failed in thousands of endeavors, over and over again. Sadly, a lot of this happened during a time in our lives that we cannot remember – childhood. A lot of us have consequently forgotten how resilient we are. Luckily, there is a much-needed conversation happening at the moment about resilience. Thought leaders such as Dr. Brené Brown and organizations such as JCA are providing much-needed education on what constitutes resilience and why it matters.
Bringing resilience into the conversation in team meetings, check-ins, away days and performance reviews can help create a culture that supports your people to be comfortable with thinking and talking about resilience. Get to know your people – notice when they are depleted, in need of a recharge, dancing on the edge of burnout, or out of touch with their inherent resilience. This again requires a level of emotional intelligence and willingness to talk about emotional and psychological wellbeing, which can be intimidating and even uncomfortable at work, but the results are worth it: staff who can be more honest about what is really happening for them, who pay attention to their wellbeing and take action when they notice warning signs. Prevention is better than cure.
- Focus on Feedback
A deliberately developmental leader understands the powerful role feedback plays in developing people and driving a business forward. Despite the prevalence of feedback in the many online spaces we inhabit – Amazon, Air BnB, Etsy, Trip Advisor and the like – most of us, if we are honest, are not huge fans of feedback . We do not particularly like giving it, and we bristle and brace ourselves inwardly when we receive it. We know it is valuable, but in most workplaces, feedback is typically just incorporated into quarterly, half-yearly or annual intervals, only given or asked for during performance reviews or leadership 360s.
This does not mean that we are short on opinions. Quite the contrary. Many of us are quick to tell others exactly what is bothering us about the people we work with, but something happens when the person in question is in front of us. We instinctively balk, sugar-coating, softening or outright hiding our opinions and thoughts from the person those thoughts are about. It is in many ways an entirely human thing to do: generally, people do not revel in the possibility of upsetting others or hurting their feelings and hearing about the things you did not do well or could have done better, or about the negative consequences of your decisions and actions, can be painful to stomach.
This does not apply to everyone; on the contrary, many people are known for being extremely sharp-tongued, direct and blunt. While this can be refreshing – you pretty much always know where you stand with someone like this because you know that if they have something to say to you, they will say it – it can nevertheless leave people walking on metaphorical eggshells, especially if the feedback is given in an unstructured, aggressive or erratic way. There is a big difference between giving feedback for the purposes of supporting a colleague to grow, and lashing out. Not knowing if you are going to be the target of criticism can erode psychological safety and may even create an anxiety-fuelled, decidedly unsafe climate in a team or organization.
Deliberately Developmental Leaders know that giving feedback is an inherent and inescapable part of leadership. They know feedback is a central ingredient in providing effective mentorship, and that it is also vital in facilitating innovation, productivity and progress. DDLs think deeply about feedback and how to effectively incorporate it within the teams, departments or organizations they lead. They are conscious of the need to balance considering their colleagues’ unique personalities and the ways in which they can most effectively receive feedback with making sure they are not ‘protecting’ their feelings by not giving feedback while at the same time not lashing out under the guise of ‘giving feedback where it is needed.’ Intelligently incorporating feedback as a practice requires thought and reflective practice: trying something, reflecting on what works, and iterating.
Getting to know the people well enough to know what is effective and useful is usually a vital part of building a feedback culture. Build feedback into the structures so that it is part of the fabric of how the team functions. A lot of the empirical evidence I have reviewed from companies that explicitly incorporate feedback into their day-to-day functioning shows that although people find it psychologically tough (having your weakness highlighted and talked about out in the open can be challenging ), they also find it incredibly refreshing and ultimately rewarding. There is a huge sense of relief that comes from knowing that people are not hiding their thoughts about you. Also, studies have shown that transparency helps foster psychological safety and that in turn, psychological safety allows for greater levels of honesty.
Leaders who take feedback seriously need to be open to receiving as well as giving feedback, from above, below and within: in practice, that means you might have to proactively seek out feedback from your seniors, from those you lead and from yourself through self-reflection (coaching can provide a productive space in which to do this). As a leader, you set the precedent, which means you might have to confront any resistance you feel to receiving feedback.
A culture characterized by the presence of a lot of feedback tackles people’s development areas with more gusto. When weaknesses are pointed out as the norm rather than the exception, the business stops investing energy into what Kegan and Lahey Laskow call the “second job no one is paying for” – the job of covering up, hiding and faking our way through the day.
Ideally, in a Deliberately Developmental Organisation, the whole business would be engaged in practices designed to foster personal growth alongside the pursuit of the business’s priorities and tasks. If the rest of the organization you work in avoids the challenging yet rewarding work of being rigorous about self-development, as a leader you can instill practices that encourage transparency with the team you lead.
The low levels of disengagement in workplaces globally are in part because too many organizations ask people to work in challenging, stressful, high-pressure environments – often with little-to-no let-up – without the crucial ingredient of personal growth. Adopting a deliberately developmental mentality and approach can help transform these conditions into an incubator for growth rather than a prescription for burnout. That alone is a compelling reason to explore becoming a deliberately developmental leader.
This blog was co-written with Elloa Atkinson.