5 Keys to Make Leadership Competency Models FlourishLast week’s two blogs on leadership competencies generated some stimulating discussion and feedback on the promise and problems of this popular approach to leadership development. Given the central importance of this issue to leadership and organization development, both blogs are now available as a white paper. Click on Leadership Competency Models: Why Many Are Failing and How to Make them Flourish to read it online or download a PDF version.

Jack Zenger and I had further discussion on the use and abuse of leadership competency models following these blog posts. I asked Jack for his views and experience on why many leadership competency models are struggling but we don’t yet have clear research on their failure rates such as we do with other strategic initiatives. He offered these insightful observations/ assumptions:

  1. There are no good metrics that tell you that it succeeded or failed. That is unlike a merger, acquisition, or reorganization.
  2. There is a great deal of emotional investment in competency models, especially when they were developed by interviewing all of the senior executives. It is hard for them to acknowledge that they were wrong or misguided in their original decisions. So they persist even when they are nonsense (such as one organization that listed as a competency “seeing around the corner to anticipate future events”).
  3. Many companies don’t pay all that much attention to the competency model. So there is no great motivation to change it.
  4. The changes usually occur when there is a new cast of characters that come into make their mark in the HR arena. So the change in competency model change is often attributed to the regime change.

Chapter Four, “The Competency Quest,” in Jack and Joe Folkman’s foundational and ground breaking book, The Extraordinary Leader: Turning Good Managers into Great Leaders provides deeper research and useful perspectives on this issue. They identify and expand on four reasons “why the competency movement has not borne more fruit:

  • Complexity — … it’s not unusual to see organizations with lists of 30 – 50 competencies for their leaders to be evaluated and developed against.
  • Some Faulty Assumptions About Competencieseach organization has its own unique set of competencies, competencies within each person are distinct and separate from each other, the more similarity or congruence between an individual and the organization’s unique pattern, the better leader he or she will be, competencies are all of roughly equal importance, and the best way to develop a competency is to focus directly on that specific trait or behavior.
  • Unintended Consequencescompetencies are a checklist, everyone needs to be adequate in each competency, the greatest value comes from moving a competency to a middle range where it no longer stands out, and no emphasis has been given to taking a relative strength and making it “off-the-chart” strong.
  • Poor Executioncompetency models have evolved into a process for compiling the collective beliefs of senior managers regarding the important attributes of the firm, the more general the competencies become, the less accurate they are, focused on past requirements and not what the future will require of leaders, and competencies are not being used for selection and promotion.”

What’s been your experience with using leadership competency models? What’s worked and what hasn’t been effective?