Many organizations 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 increasing 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, safety programs, quality improvement, etc. have failed. The implementation of leadership competency models is sliding down that same slippery slope.

6 Reasons Many Leadership Competency Models are Failing

1. Out of Thin Air

I’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.

What’s missing is proof that these competencies impact the organization’s results. Where’s 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 a range of headings. If they’re relevant and well written, the descriptions are 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. At best, leadership development that’s a mile wide and an inch deep moves a leader from good to a bit better. More often, follow through on a personal development plan to become SuperLeader quietly joins New Year’s resolutions lost in the Neverland of good intentions.

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.

The SuperLeader model doesn’t account for the vast variances in individual preferences across leaders or their widely differing functions. Each of us is a unique mixture of strengths and weaknesses. We have skills that play to our passions and turn us on, and behaviors 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 to finding and fixing weaknesses. Our instinctive focus on improving low marks is deeply socialized, 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 skim past positive ratings and comments and look at “where I need to improve.”

Zenger Folkman research shows unless there’s a fatal flaw needing immediate attention, this is off track. The best that MIGHT happen is the leader raises a few of his or her competencies from poor to average.

Zenger Folkman 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, Zenger Folkman 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 often deadly – practice left patients weaker and less able to fight off their illness.

If a leader’s raters know that the leader’s boss will see the assessment results, they’ll often change their ratings. The entire process changes from development to evaluation. Now the conversation between boss and the rated leader moves toward performance bloodletting. After a cursory acknowledgement of strengths — and believing they’re holding the leader “accountable” — most bosses focus in on weaknesses and encourage the leader to 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

Many Human Resource professionals and senior leaders 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 organizational values. Delivering results while destroying the environment, risking safety, reducing customer satisfaction, or destroying teamwork is unacceptable.

5 Keys to Make Leadership Competency Models Flourish

Zenger Folkman is building a major body of research on the best practices for developing and effectively using leadership competency models:

1. What Really Matters: Correlate Competencies to Performance Outcomes

Highly effective leaders have a dramatic impact on morale, teamwork, engagement, innovation, customer satisfaction, quality, productivity, safety, sales, and profits. But which behaviors have the greatest impact?

Zenger Folkman’s research began with looking at survey responses from over 200,000 raters of more than 20,000 leaders. Each of the data sets represented different customized 360 surveys from a wide variety of organizations across dozens of sectors with nearly 2,000 behavioral descriptions or survey items. They searched for the competencies that sharply delineated the top 10 percent from the bottom 10 percent of leaders by their performance outcomes.

This scientific search for the key leadership competencies identified 16 competencies in five clusters:

Differentiating Competencies

Since expanded to 19 competencies, this deep research data base can serve as a menu to help organizations adapt their own customized competency models if they feel that’s needed. The key is validating their competencies and descriptions with research on the behaviors with the greatest impact on performance results.

2. Don’t Try to Do it All: Build 3- 5 Competencies from Good to Great

Extraordinary leaders rated at the 90th percentile deliver outstanding performance results that are multiple times higher than those at the 10th percentile. And top performing leaders deliver results that are double or more than average or good leaders rated at the 50th or 60th percentile.

The best news is that extraordinary leaders don’t need to be SuperLeaders, excelling at all competencies to perform at the 80th and 90th percentiles. Improving just three to five of nineteen competencies from good to great will elevate leaders to extraordinary performance. And leaders can pick those that are natural strengths, most relevant to their job, and are where he or she is most energized about developing further.

Overall Leadership Effectiveness

3. Develop Towering Strengths to Overshadow Weaknesses

Think of the best leader you know personally. What were three to five of this leader’s most profound strengths? Did he or she have any weaknesses or areas in which he or she did not excel? What kept those weaknesses from undermining his or her overall impact?

Perfect leaders don’t exist. Leader’s who excel at the 90th percentile across all competencies are exceedingly rare. Leadership development that comes across as the pursuit of perfection (“here are the pages and pages of competencies and behaviors you must excel at to be an outstanding leader”) is often de-motivating.

Leadership development that looks to magnify a smaller number of natural strengths that really make a difference is highly energizing. That’s why rates of personal growth, leadership development, and improvement can be more than double fixing weaknesses.

A Strengths Focus Doubles Improvement Rates

4. Use Competency Models for Building and Developing

The sole purpose of a leadership competency model is to help leaders improve their effectiveness. A strengths-based leadership development process built on a relevant and validated competency model is a roadmap to higher performance. Like a GPS mapping device, the competency framework and 360 feedback assessment help a leader identify where he or she is now and which routes will take them to their next performance level.

Companion Competency mapping is a critical element in this approach. This guides leaders in using strengths cross-training to plot their improvement journey. Here’s one of Zenger Folkman’s studies illustrating the dramatic difference between using competencies and 360 feedback to build strengths versus finding and fixing weaknesses:

The Powerful Impact of Building Strengths

An exception to focusing on strengths is if a 360 assessment shows the leader that he or she has a fatal flaw. That’s a competency which is important to the leader’s job and he or she is performing so poorly that others can’t see past the glare of this gap to his or her strengths. When that’s the case, the leader needs to focus on fixing that serious shortfall.

5. Evaluate Performance Results (The What), Not Competencies (The How)

U.S. General George S. Patton delivered big results in World War Two. Under his leadership his army advanced further, captured more enemy prisoners, and liberated more territory in less time than any other army in history. A German field marshal speaking to American reporters called Patton “your best general.” Patton once articulated a key element in his performance management approach; “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”

Effective performance management systems identify what to do. They set clear targets and measurement of success. An effective strengths-based leadership competency model helps people apply their ingenuity in playing to their passions and leveraging their natural strengths to meet organizational needs specific to their role.

The Power of Convergence

Download this PDF now