One of the most rewarding periods of my early career was working with young adults in business. For almost 8 years, I had numerous opportunities to guide and mentor bright and ambitious professionals on multiple graduate development programmes.

They were smart, brimming with technical and functional theory, but low in experience. Many were armed with explosive opinions and almost no psychological understanding or awareness. This made them a high-energy, potential-laden group of activists, who wanted to accelerate to the top, knowing little of how to get there.

The programmes were touted as industry leading. They were major drawcards for graduate applicants and threw a range of development opportunities at people who would normally wait another 10 years to access such content and training.

We loaded our team with the best facilitators and coaches, ramped up the integrated offering of skills development and personal awareness, and anchored outcomes on the development of future leaders. We believed we were offering the Rolls Royce of Leadership Development.

What we conveniently ignored, was that none of them were actually leaders of a team. Most had yet to complete their own performance review, even achieve or fail to reach a target. They were green behind the ears, and yet for a number of years, we bathed in the adoration and appreciation they gave us. These super talents knew they were lucky, and we knew we were too!

Then a few years ago, around a fireside chat on yet another leadership programme, I listened to a senior executive talk to a cohort of top talent about his career. As expected, he shared a recipe that was inspiring and articulate.

His message was one I hear often: ‘be your best self, and be sure to maintain balance and look after your health’. There was loud applause and then space to ask questions. A plucky young man took his chance.

              ‘Thank you for those wise words, and I have a question. You talk about balance and health, and the importance of family and all that, but when you were in your twenties and early thirties, was that really something you prioritised, or did that come later, after you had achieved your success?’

After an awkward silence, the exec shrugged, ‘well actually, you are right, that wasn’t really what I was focused on’.

He continued.

 ‘So I suppose if all you had done was find balance and do what was right for both you and your young family, do you think you would have found the opportunities you did? Do you think you would have got ahead?’

              ‘No, I am sorry to say, probably not, but I still think you should try and look after yourself, and be the best version of you!’

He tried to wiggle back to his primary message, but the balloon of his message was popped. I could see he meant it, and I agree with the sentiment, but what had emerged in this conversation was a much ignored reality in the development of employees – their stage of adult development.

We seem to treat all people the same, no matter if they are 25 or 55-years old. We know they are different, often struggling to understand the generation gap. What we don’t do well is recognise how stages of development dovetail with lifecycles, and impacts human needs, wants, desires and focus areas. So what exactly do I mean?

I find it useful to explore the work of Dr Susanne Cook-Greutner about leadership maturity and how it alters our patterns of attention and energy. There is enough evidence to suggest that these stages are linked to age, but not exclusively.

Getting and Defending | Self-centric (Stage 2 to 3):

They focus on their own self-protection, personal needs and immediate opportunities. They may manipulate and deceive, or suspect others of doing the same to them. Their behaviour often reveals weak self-control, humour that can be hostile, stereotyping and scapegoating. To them, they win by someone else losing, justifying whatever they can get away with. They see rules as a loss of freedom and will seek revenge when they feel attacked.

Conforming and Belonging | Group-centric (Stage 3):

They observe protocol and socially expected behaviour, driven by the need for approval, acceptance and status within the group. Feedback is heard as personal disapproval, so they avoid conflict and creating a negative impression of themselves. Feeling shame if they violate rules, face-saving is essential to self-worth. An ‘us versus them’ mentality has them attending exclusively to the welfare of their own groups.

Comparing and Perfecting | Skill-centric (Stage 3 to 4):

Desiring competence in an area of interest, to stand out and be respected, shows in a consistent effort to improve techniques and efficiency. They value high standards, but can get stuck in detail, becoming reactive and perfectionistic, especially when the need to prioritise among competing demands arises. They tend towards dogmatism, regarding their decision-making as incontrovertible. Their strong opinions make them critical of others and competitive.

Analysing and Achieving | Self-determining (Stage 4):

In charge of their own agency, they play initiators rather than pawns of the system. They work on delivering results and effectiveness, rather than efficiency only. Their future-oriented perspective keeps them focused on longer-term goals and success, but they may feel guilt when not meeting their own standards or targets. Valuing mutuality and equality in relationships, they can collaborate by ‘agreeing to disagree’, accepting behavioural feedback as useful for improvement.

Relativising and Contextualising | Self-questioning (Stage 4 to 5):

Due to their increased understanding of complexity and systemic connections, there is also a heightened awareness for the unintended consequences of actions as well as their impact on others. A new focus on their own inner life emerges, from where they can perceive the subjectivity of beliefs and talk of interpretations rather than truth. Concerned with the difference between reality and appearance, they question assumptions, seeking systemic solutions and change where needed.

Integrating and Transforming | Self-actualising (Stage 5):

They recognise higher principles, are aware of the social construction of reality and hold an appreciation for the complexity of interactions within dynamic systems. With this sophisticated perception comes the acceptance of the contradictions in both system and self. They also have a deep tolerance of difference. This power leads to more creative problem-solving, but also the temptation to abuse it. Feedback from others and the environment is seen as vital for growth and making sense of world.

Construct–aware and beyond | Post-Conventional (Stage 5 to 6+):

They focus on transforming themselves and others in real time. Being invested in continuous self-redefinition and storytelling, change is welcomed as a necessary part of life despite the constant yearning for permanence and certainty. They embrace reality in a way that liberates them from many defensive constraints, increasing the probability of making wise choices. Events take on symbolic, analogical and metaphorical value in addition to their linear and literal meaning.

The reality is that when we are developing leaders, we are attempting to grow capability to do what is both right for the self and for the greater good. We are often trying to evolve their character by enhancing their integrity, ethical orientation and judgement.

Yet so often, younger employees are still in the cycle of their lives dominated by gaining security, independence and status. They are only looking after themselves, their needs and desires, and are often more self-centric than focused on others.

So why burden them with the false and extended expectation that they should be operating at a higher level of development? Why don’t we rather equip them with skills and opportunities to maximise their impact and reach the next level?

We need to rethink how we go about our development work. As I have often written, we need more focus on character development, which should incorporate into the foundational elements of programme design and delivery, a deep understanding of how the perceptions and behaviour of adults changes as we grow.

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