Most progressive organizations today are using leadership competency models to outline the key skills and behaviors they want to see in their supervisors, managers, and executives. Leadership competency models can provide a structured framework for defining and developing those behaviors that have the biggest impact on an organization’s performance. Used effectively, they become a roadmap to dramatically higher leadership effectiveness.
There’s a decades-long history of failed organization initiatives. Dozens of studies have shown that 50 – 70% of organization improvement initiatives like customer service, leadership development, performance management systems, restructuring, quality improvement, etc., have failed. The implementation of leadership competency models is clearly heading toward that same cliff.
Here are six common traps ensnaring many of today’s leadership competency models:
1. Out of Thin Air
We’ve been guilty of facilitating workshops with management teams pulling competencies out of thin air. In one case, we had 140 of the organization’s top leaders in an offsite retreat go through a shifting process to identify and vote on their top 10 competencies. The descriptions of each one were then crafted by a small group of leaders based on the blizzard of Post-It-Notes grouped around each of the competency clusters. Some organizations shuffle, sift, and prioritize card decks listing generic competency sets.
As I outlined in Leadership Lessons from Evidence-Based Medicine, what’s missing is proof that these competencies matter to the organization. Where is the empirical data that these are the key behaviors that have the greatest impact on employee engagement, attraction and retention, customer service levels, quality, innovation, safety, productivity, sales, and profits? How do we know we have the right competencies?
2. It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s SuperLeader!
Many leadership competency models provide a series of behavioral descriptions clustered around 6 to 16 or more headings. If they’re relevant and well written, the descriptions are very helpful. What’s implied is that the pathway to peak performance is improvement across dozens of skills and behaviors.
This pathway to perfection is overwhelming and completely unrealistic. At best, leadership development that’s a mile wide and an inch deep moves a leader from good to a bit better. More often, motivation to develop and follow a personal development plan to become SuperLeader fizzles out and crashes.
3. One Size Fits All
Most competency models weight all the competencies and dozens of underlying behaviors equally. Some models layer the competencies across organizational levels starting with frontline staff, and moving up to supervisors, managers, and executives.
This SuperLeader model doesn’t account for vast variances in individual preferences across leaders or their widely differing functions. Each of us mere mortals is a unique mixture of strengths and weaknesses. We have work areas that play to our passions and turn us on and areas that are a real chore and turn us off. One-size-fits-all competency models don’t account for those differences.
For example, a supervisor, manager, or executive in accounting or IT will have a very different set of competencies and passions leading to their successful leadership than someone in sales or customer service. Competencies such as analytical and problem solving or technical/professional expertise versus those of communication or building relationships take on a different weight for each role. And each competency plays quite differently to the natural strengths and weaknesses of each leader and the personal preferences that motivated him or her to choose their field or profession.
4. The Way of the Weakness
We’re largely unconscious of how we equate improvement, development, and personal growth with finding and fixing weaknesses. Improving low marks is deeply socialized in us going way back to our school report cards. When a leader gets a 360 feedback report from his or her direct reports, peers, manager, and others his or her natural instinct is to quickly skip past positive ratings and comments and look at “where I need to improve.”
Our research shows unless there’s a Fatal Flaw needing immediate attention, this is badly off track. The best that MIGHT happen is the leader raises a few of his or her competencies from poor to average.
Our research also shows that leaders who focus on their weaknesses consistently create weaker development plans, allocate less of their time to personal growth, and abandon training efforts more quickly. In one study we found executives working on weaknesses reported their leadership improvement efforts had minimal impact on business results and even less effect on the commitment or engagement levels of their direct reports.
5. Here Comes the Judge
In the dark ages of medicine, sick patients were often bled under the badly misguided belief that bloodletting released toxins (“humors”) and restored the body’s proper balance. This unscientific — and sometimes deadly — practice often left patients weaker and less able to fight off their illness.
If a leader’s raters know that the leader’s boss will be seeing the assessment results they will change their ratings. And the entire process is transformed from development to evaluation. Now the conversation between boss and the rated leader generally moves toward performance bloodletting. After a cursory acknowledgement of strengths — and under the misguided belief they are holding the leader “accountable” — most bosses (often with poor coaching skills) will focus in on weaknesses and demand the leader address and improve these. It’s little wonder many performance appraisals are put off and approached with as much enthusiasm as a medieval doctor’s house call.
6. Performance (Mis)Management Systems
Too many HR departments and executives confuse competencies and performance outcomes. They’ll use competency models to try evaluating and holding supervisors, managers, and executives accountable for all of the competencies and the dozens of behaviors describing each one.
Effective performance management holds people accountable for delivering results. These targets are the “what” and might include sales, margins, profits, new products/services, project implementation, production levels, service/quality levels, productivity rates, budget numbers, and the like. Well designed and well researched competency maps provide pathways for the “how” to reach these performance goals.
The BIG CAVEAT is that both the “what” and the “how” must be delivered within the bounds of core organizational values. Delivering results while destroying the environment, risking safety, reducing customer satisfaction, or destroying teamwork, is unacceptable.