Organisational context as an enabler of vertical development

Copyright© 2019, Peter Bluckert. All rights reserved.

It’s important to recognise that our context shapes and creates us, just as conversely, we shape and co-create it.  We can only ever begin to understand people in their contexts and within their worlds.  So, it’s the combination of intrapersonal (inner) and contextual (outer) factors that affects the rate of vertical development.

Inspiring, exemplar developmental organisations

During my consulting and coaching career, I have worked with more than two hundred organisations and this has afforded me a wealth of opportunities to see inside senior executive teams and wider organisational cultures.

In the earlier years, they looked much the same to me. I cannot say whether that’s more a reflection of how they were, or how I was. At that time, I hadn’t seen any inspiring, exemplar developmental organisations and would have been skeptical about whether they really existed, except in small pockets where groups of like-minded people wisely kept themselves under the radar screen of the mother ship.

Developmental Organisations

In recent times, I’ve been fortunate to act as an executive coach and leadership consultant to several organisations who have been consciously developing what some call coaching cultures, and others, deliberately developmental organisations (Kegan 2016).

The experience of working in these types of organisations for leaders and employees alike clearly has a bearing on their opportunities for vertical development and the rate at which it occurs.  As an outsider coming into their system, this becomes evident fairly quickly.

Stage development theory in organisations

Laloux (2014), whose book Reinventing Organisations, I mentioned in the previous chapter, applied stage development theory to organisations in terms of their structures, practices, policies and cultures.

It’s important to note that he was not referring to the stage development of their people, or the defining nature of social interaction. Clearly, in any sizeable organisation there will be a range of individual stages represented.

His focus on structures, practices and policies did however lead him to the conclusion that these reveal the centre of gravity that pervades the ‘main’ organisational culture.

Using the Spiral Dynamics adult development framework with its colour referencing system, he identified the different characteristics of red, amber, orange, green and teal organisational cultures.

In summary:
  • Red organisations constantly use command authority and power to keep people in line. Fear is the glue of the organisation. Highly reactive and short-term focus. A good decision is the one that gets me what I want.
  • Amber organisations exhibit top-down, hierarchical control through highly formal roles. Stability is kept through rigorous processes. Future is repetition of the past.
  • Orange organisations aim to beat competition, achieve profit and growth. Innovation is the key to staying ahead. Management by objectives (command and control of what; freedom on the how). Orange organisations are achievement focused, where rationality, effectiveness and success are the yardsticks by which decisions are made.
  • Green organisations focus more on culture and empowerment to achieve high employee engagement and motivation. Belonging, engagement and harmony become increasingly important.
  • Teal organisations reflect a different relationship with power and authority and focus more on trust, purpose, fulfilment of potential, and community/societal impact.”

He also concluded that whilst there may be pockets of different ways of operating which reflect a different stage of consciousness, in the main…

…the culture will be a reflection of the developmental stage of its senior leadership.

In other words, without necessarily being conscious of it…

leaders put in place organisational structures, practices, policies and cultures that emerge from their worldview

(with all that is positive about that, and with all the limitations that go with any worldview).

Teams or divisions within those organisations that are operating at a higher centre of gravity are usually the result of later stage leadership and where there is greater scope for autonomy and sufficient support to cultivate developmental team cultures.

Case vignette

Some years ago, I was invited by the CEO and Group HR Director of a medium-sized telecommunications company to engage with them on an ambitious organisation development programme aimed at shifting the cultural centre of gravity, beginning with the executive leadership team.

Their burning platform for action

A recent externally-led cultural audit had diagnosed this company as a ‘red organisation’. This had disturbed the CEO and other organisational leaders, though in truth, they accepted it as an accurate assessment. It became their burning platform for action. They committed time and resources to changing the situation and they started by taking a long, hard look at themselves as the companies’ most senior leadership team.

They could see that their previous ways of addressing these issues had mostly been technical – one thing after another had been tried, usually after a good deal of fighting between them as to the relative merits of the so-called solution.

The bigger challenge remained relatively untouched

The strangest thing about all of this was they had all worked to some extent and yet, the bigger challenge remained relatively untouched. They began to understand that they could go on finding and implementing technical solutions forever, or at least until they were so old and fed up that they would hand the reins over, but the real challenge they were facing would never be solved that way. It required adaptive change – change in themselves. This was a massive shift, and one that many leadership teams in organisations and political life never get to.

So, using a reputable stage assessment profile, they discovered that one out of their seven members profiled at Red (Opportunist), five at Orange (Achiever) with one operating from Green (Individualist).

Under pressure, many of them had a tendency to fallback to red behaviours

What they also noticed, as did the next tier of leaders, was that under pressure, many of them had a tendency to fallback to red behaviours. And they were often under pressure.  This made life together as an executive team very hard and exhausting: it also made for a tough and stressful life for their direct reports.

What followed was an intensive period of vertically-oriented interventions led by myself and my team which included: individual and senior team coaching; team coaching cascaded throughout the company; large-group workshops to bring everyone into dialogue; our Courage and Spark© vertical leadership development programme; and a highly structured coaching culture programme across the entire company.

The results were slower to arrive than the executive leadership would have liked. They were mature people but, as with most leaders, impatient to see progress in each other and themselves – a perspective shared by the vast majority of senior managers.

This, however, is a good news story. By their own assessment, and confirmed by re-running the original organisational culture audit, there was a significant shift in the organisation culture with a new centre of gravity at Orange and some pockets of Green. The journey of development of the executive leadership team played an important part in the bigger transformation story.

Progress was uneven and hard-won – joy and disappointment went hand in hand over a timescale of four years.

When they again profiled individually using the same stage assessment instrument, one member was assessed at Teal (Strategist), two at Green (Individualist), three at Orange (Achiever) and one at Amber (Diplomat). This shift at the top was visible to the rest of the company and was met with a mixture of surprise and delight.

The CEO’s own personal journey was a revelation to him reflected in these comments:

I’m conscious of how I am now. I can see the impact I have on other people – before I couldn’t.

It’s helped me find my purpose. I will continue to be the CEO of this company but there is something far more important now and it’s this – I want to devote my life to developing my consciousness and helping others do the same.

I’m sharing my journey with others, not just my leadership team, but also the other managers, and they’re sharing them back. They never did that before.

These new conversations are about how we want to work and live – what our purpose is together. They are developmental conversations, not about task or results. It’s the best part of my day.

I really do think we’ve matured both psychologically and emotionally.

Further resources

Courage & Spark



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