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Leader Evolution Through Stages

April 23, 2021

Susan is a newly promoted healthcare leader to her role in revenue reporting with four staff members. As a new manager, she feels overwhelmed trying to learn all she needs to know about her role, manage her team, and respond to her boss's demands. In her role only a couple of months, Susan has damaged many key relationships because of her overly assertive communication style. Her manager, the CFO, has voiced his desire for her to delegate more downward to join his strategic planning meetings with the CEO. Susan has recently started to doubt the wisdom of taking the promotion and feels exhausted as she works most weekends trying to learn more about the technical aspects of her direct reports roles.

Overview of Stage Theory

Numerous theories explain the process of how one becomes an effective change leader. Bill Joiner and Stephen Josephs developed an agility framework that explores leader evolution based on developmental stages. This type of model provides a valuable roadmap to navigate leader growth based on predictable stages of development. As leaders evolve up the ladder, they are better able to lead increasingly complex change initiatives successfully.

Leadership Agility Stages

The five stages include expert, achiever, catalyst, co-creator, and synergist.

Expert level managers focus on the subject-matter competence and solo efforts to get things done. As a result, they are generally capable of leading simple change projects. Approximately 45% of managers are functioning at this level.

Achiever-level managers are attuned to strategic views of their role and organization, as well as producing results. Research suggests that 35% of managers function at this level.

Catalyst-level managers can build capacity by developing and empowering people, building innovative organizational cultures, and adaptive communication capabilities. Approximately 5% of managers function at this level.

Co-creators are skilled at building shared purpose, collaborative relationships, and service to others. Researchers estimate that only 4% of managers function at this level.

Finally, synergists embrace a holistic perspective that integrates their life purpose with their vocation. Only 1% of managers reach this stage of development. Synergists are capable of navigating the most complex types of organizational change and transformation.

Susan as an Expert Stage Manager

As an expert stage leader, Susan experienced limits to her ability to lead change projects - mostly incremental process improvements. These limitations stem from her limited ability to think strategically, over-reliance on her capabilities versus leveraging others' talents, and limited self-awareness.

Coaching Approach with Susan

We began with a 360-degree assessment to help Susan understand how others perceived her. We then created a development plan and met with her manager to align on coaching's successful outcomes. Our goal was to help Susan begin advancing toward the next stage of development: Synergist.

My approach to working with Susan included:

  • Enhancing self-awareness, including her assumptions, self-beliefs, emotional triggers, and unproductive patterns.
  • Reframing what it means to be a leader from subject-matter expert to building relationships with others and leveraging their talents to augment her weaknesses.
  • Building her skills in learning how to enlist and engage her stakeholders instead of overusing assertive advocacy skills and talking at them.
  • Adopting a broader view of her role to examine interdependencies with peers and the organization's broader direction, including strategic priorities that could influence her focus.
  • Leveraging her talent better by explaining her expectations, providing feedback, and helping team members step up more so she could delegate more.
Coaching Outcomes

After working with Susan for six months, she achieved some notable outcomes:

  • She became more aware of her emotional triggers and learned to avoid reacting at the moment, helping improve trust with others.
  • Focusing her efforts more on creating successful outcomes instead of overemphasizing her technical expertise.
  • Developing trusting relationships with her peers and building greater alignment, enabling her to break down silos that limited her department's effectiveness.
  • More successful outcomes from change projects she was managing since she leveraged others' talent and skills to augment her capabilities.

Stage theory is a valuable way to support leader growth by defining critical developmental milestones on the journey to the top. These frameworks can be a big difference in helping new managers accelerate their evolution into highly effective change leaders.


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Dr. Kevin Nourse has more than 25 years of experience developing transformational change leaders in healthcare and other sectors. He is the founder of Nourse Leadership Strategies, a coaching and leadership development firm based in Southern California. For more information, contact Kevin at 310.715.8315 or info@nourseleadership.com.

(c) 2021 Kevin Nourse

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