Competency models are widely used for 360 assessments, performance management, and leadership development. When used well, they provide a strong framework for defining and developing key behaviors, increasing leadership and culture effectiveness.

But most aren’t used well. That’s a key reason so many studies have documented so many failed leadership and organization development programs.

I recently updated an article on Leadership Competency Models: Why Many Are Failing and How to Make Them Flourish for Zenger Folkman’s monthly newsletter. Virtual assistant, Lee Dantzer, has been doing an excellent job working with us for many years editing The Leader Letter and articles like this one. The comment she sent after editing this article is a good example of a key problem with many competency models — and how to make them flourish:

This made me think about where I was many, MANY years ago versus where I am today. After high school, I went to a visual arts college, aspiring to be an artist. I worked part-time in the finance office to help pay for school, and when I graduated started working there full time as I had to get a “real job” to pay the bills. Many years later, I still found myself in finance and admin-type positions and was quite miserable.

 I was looking for answers and read somewhere that sometimes you have to do what you have to do to pay the bills. However, finding creativity in the work you do can change everything.

 This spoke directly to me! It changed my course. It elevated my strengths, and I found more enjoyment in the work I did. As the years went by, I grew into this mindset, and today I absolutely love the work I do, so much so that I now feel I am the artist I always wanted to be.

Here’s a summary of the key points in Leadership Competency Models: Why Many Are Failing and How to Make Them Flourish (click to read a deeper explanation of each point):

6 Reasons Many Leadership Competency Models are Failing:

  1. Out of Thin Air — many competencies have no empirical link to performance outcomes.
  2. It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s SuperLeader — leaders don’t need to excel at all competencies to be extraordinary.
  3. One Size Fits All — competencies aren’t all equal for all leaders across a range of roles.
  4. The Way of the Weakness — focusing on fixing weaknesses weakens motivation for, and effectiveness of, development efforts.
  5. Here Comes the Judge — using competencies for performance evaluation/appraisals is destructive.
  6. Performance (Mis)Management Systems — often competencies (how) and performance outcomes (what) are confused.

5 Keys to Make Leadership Competency Models Flourish

See the article for charts showing the research behind these approaches:

  1. What Really Matters: Correlate Competencies to Performance Outcomes
  2. Don’t Try to Do it All: Build 3- 5 Competencies from Good to Great
  3. Develop Towering Strengths to Overshadow Weaknesses
  4. Use Competency Models for Building and Developing
  5. Evaluate Performance Results (The What), Not Competencies (The How)

Competency models are sometimes invisibly embedded in leadership and performance development 360 and other surveys, training models, and performance management systems. Like Artificial Intelligence algorithms, their leadership biases and assumptions can be hidden.

What competency models underlay the development approaches you’re using? Where’s the research supporting their design? Are they perpetuating failed approaches? How do you know?