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7 Lessons from the Vertical Incubator

Last week we ran the first Vertical Leadership Incubator in Austin. It was a big success (we thought!). Carl Sanders-Edwards and I created the Incubator for practitioners who want to learn how to design and deliver great Leadership Development programs. Everyone came with a specific leadership program they were responsible for designing and delivering. Over the 2 days people learned about Vertical development (how to evolve mindsets) and worked on designing their programs. Here were our 7 biggest lessons:

1. Everyone wants to see what other companies are doing We probably underestimated just how much people enjoyed learning from other companies. In the room we had groups from: Silicon Valley, big box retailing, pharmaceuticals, education, consulting and more. There was so much diversity that there was a feast of different organizational approaches. People were super motivated to find out over the 2 days what other companies were doing that they could learn from. A big lesson for Carl and I was just to shut up and get out of the way!

2. People don’t want to be taught, they want to build something We had a hunch right from the start that people don’t really want to come to a ‘training’ and simply learn about Vertical Development. They want to create something. Therefore we designed the Incubator so that day 1 was about experiencing the fundamentals of Vertical and day 2 was all about creating a leadership program for your organization. The meta lesson here was that we were running the Incubator so that WE could build and learn at the same time the practitioners were. This led to our third lesson.

3. Help people accomplish their ‘jobs to be done’ This concept comes from Harvard Business School’s Clay Christensen (the Disruptive Innovation guy). He points out that your customers have jobs they need to get done and if you can help them complete them you help them win. Therefore, rather than designing the Incubator around some made up learning objectives we decided to design it around the attendees ‘Jobs to be Done’. In this case our target market was practitioners who were responsible for designing kick-ass leadership development programs for their companies. Our goal for the 3 month Incubator process therefore was not just for people to learn more but to help attendees design and deliver the best leadership program of their lives.

4. There is a lot of interest in Vertical Development. When we launched the Incubator we debated whether we focus it on leadership development in general or on the narrower niche of Vertical. We went narrower and are glad we did. There was more interest in this topic than we expected. Even practitioners who were new to this said, “I don’t know what Vertical is, but I feel like I should.” Having said that……..

5. You don’t have to call this topic ‘Vertical’ We learned from the practitioners that many wanted to use different language. The term Vertical (evolving mindsets) had connotations of hierarchy or theory that didn’t jibe in some cultures. Some companies preferred to talk about: complexity, agility or adaptive leadership. The lesson is that the Vertical principles, tools and methods do help leaders grow. But when it comes to choosing the language that fits your culture use the words and phrases that make sense for your people.

6. Complexity and Vertical are two sides of the same coin. One thing that became obvious to us was how intertwined Complexity and Vertical were. On one side of the coin is the challenge of ‘Complexity’ which represents the environment leaders now find themselves in. Flip the coin over and you have the solution of Vertical Development which develops leaders to: be comfortable with ambiguity, think strategically, connect the dots and think in systems. When speaking to practitioners it can be useful to talk about the theories and practices of Vertical development. But when working with leaders they are much more interested in talking about their work which is full of: complexity, overload, and ambiguity. Same coin – just two different sides.

7. If you want to go fast go together………many experiments are better than one There is an African proverb ‘If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.’ We found that the group went both faster AND farther by designing together. Over the next 3 months all of the attendees are running leadership program experiments back in their organizations. Through our online platform and mentor group check-ins we are following each other’s experiments and learning what does and doesn’t when introducing vertical programs. Why design your next leadership program in isolation when you could be learning from and designing alongside 10 other leading edge companies? If you want to go fast…….. design together!

The next Vertical Incubator is in San Francisco on Sept 13, 14. There are a bunch of cool companies from around the world already signed up. If you are interested in applying to join, read more here –


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