Unlocking leadership potential through vertical development

How leadership development can bring out the best in your team. By Aenslee Tanner and Jo-Marie Baker.

In a fast-paced world, leadership skills are often overlooked. Many individuals are promoted into leadership positions without adequate training or support. According to McKinsey & Company, in 2018 83% of global leaders felt they are unprepared for their new roles and only one third of global leaders said their organisation appropriately supported new leaders.

In VUCA environments leaders must excel at managing people, trust, systems, and diverse perspectives. Developing a person’s capacity to lead has never been more important. Yet it’s something even some of our biggest companies routinely fail to do.


Australasian supermarket steps up

At Woolworths supermarkets in New Zealand, Kari Jones, the General Manager of Analytics and Insights (A&I), recognised her team’s struggles in the ever-changing grocery retail industry. High turnover, burnout, and constant crisis management plagued the team.

Seeking a fundamental change, Jones engaged Spring Leadership to work closely alongside the 12 members of the A&I leadership team, who in turn are responsible for leading their own individual teams to enable operational excellence and exceptional customer experience, both online and across 190 Woolworth supermarkets nationwide.

Leaders often assume they can bring out the best in their teams while dealing with daily challenges and strategic planning. However, Jones found that this wasn’t the case in the demanding Woolworths environment. She realised the need for leadership coaching to build an effective team.


Vertical development

Spring Leadership’s coaching approach focuses on adult development, also known as vertical development. The company aims to help leaders develop the capacities to navigate conflicts more effectively, be more innovative, and embrace diverse perspectives.

As individuals grow into later stages of vertical development, they become better at things like handling feedback and diverse viewpoints, as well as seeing more possible options for navigating situations.

Jones and her team benefited from Spring’s coaching, moving from ‘me to we.’ They learned to collaborate effectively, communicate openly, and appreciate each other’s differences. Trust and confidence in the team grew, reducing corporate competition and friction.

“We were working remotely, with little incentive to build strong connections with one another, as our work streams rarely intersected. As a result when issues arose that required rapid and effective collaboration to solve a problem, the relationships and trust weren’t there,” Jones says.

“Now they have a better conversation around ‘how are we going to prioritise this? Or do you really need this?’ and it’s not taken defensively.”

In the end, this approach made it easier to prioritise and allocate resources. Team members became more empowered to manage their workloads and communicate with stakeholders effectively. The leadership team learned to navigate tension, maintain a healthy discussion and make decisions confidently.


Putting the development back in leadership development

While most traditional forms of education focus on shifting ‘what’ someone thinks or knows, leadership development based on principles of vertical development focuses on enhancing ‘how’ someone thinks.

Spring Leadership coach Aenslee Tanner says there’s a growing body of research evidence that shows organisations, and the people in them, benefit when leaders grow into the later stages of vertical development where they’re able to better handle the complexity of their roles, become more self-aware and better emotionally regulated, and can take a broader, more strategic view of situations.

Tanner believes ongoing, personalised leadership development coaching, which supports people to grow and mature while working through their current real-world challenges, is often more impactful and results in more sustained behaviour change than other methods.


Noticeable change

Woolworth New Zealand’s A&I team experienced noticeable improvements in collaboration, communication, and decision-making. They implemented shared values and a common approach, which facilitated trust and cooperation among team members from diverse backgrounds.

Anna Melnikova, Chapter Lead Data Engineering at Woolworths NZ says: “We’re willing to help each other more now whereas previously people wouldn’t respond to each other. When you understand why this personality has asked you something in a certain way, it makes it easier to respond. Some people have done extensive work on themselves and can now flex their operating style to work better with other people.”

The A&I leadership team comprises many different nationalities and cultural backgrounds and Melnikova says a greater level of trust now exists between them. “I feel safer now to ask questions. We’re more open with each other and we know each other’s trigger points.”

Coaching was already underway when Priya Mathur joined the A&I leadership team as Chapter Lead Data Excellence in April 2022. Her initial observation was that there was too little interaction in the leadership team. Collectively, the team has learned how to have a healthy discussion, make a decision and then stick to it.

“There’s a lot more interaction going on and there’s more opinions expressed. It’s still a journey but we seem to have trust in each other now so we can have more open discussions.”

“We are building confidence in ourselves and in our team members. The team is definitely functioning better,” she says.

Internal survey scores gathered from within Woolworths NZ’s wider A&I team show a marked improvement in almost all metrics regarding how the wider A&I team feels about their workplace following the leadership development sessions. While there was an initial dip in ‘business unit advocacy’ due to the significant workload pressures experienced in the grocery retail sector during the pandemic, this only served to reinforce the fact that A&I’s leadership needed to be a strong united group to support the whole analytics team.

Ultimately, leadership development is an ongoing journey. Accountability and conflict resolution continue to be areas of focus for the team. The team’s transformation has drawn the attention of the Woolworths Group, showcasing the progress achieved over two years.

Jones says coaching has helped them prioritise “focusing on ourselves regularly, accelerated our connectedness and trust and enabled new people to enter into our A&I leadership team and feel they are truly welcome”.

“They have facilitated a deeper understanding that has truly transformed our team. There is a lot less anxiety overall and the team is more forgiving of each other.”

Staff turnover has reduced dramatically.


Aenslee Tanner  is the director of Spring Leadership and Jo-Marie Baker is the owner of Tailor-Made Media.

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