Your organization probably has a leadership competency model. It has probably been carefully crafted, with significant thought and heated debates like “Should we use the word ‘adaptability’ or does ‘proactive’ better get at the core of what we mean?” Yet regardless of how carefully thought out your model is, I have observed three significant traps of leadership competency models during my work and interaction with organizations of various stripes and sizes. Below I outline these three common ailments and restorative practices that can help to ensure that your organization is best developing its leadership talent.
Too Proud, Too Certain
The first ailment is being too proud and certain of your gleaming model. In our leadership development programs at the Center for Leadership, Florida International University, we have made an observation that is consistent with the last several decades of leadership research: there are multiple ways to be highly effective. Often, competency models rigidly put their stake in the ground and promote only those who “fit” the model. By promoting these people who fit, you run the risk of an organization that is homogenous in leadership styles – and in doing so you lose new perspectives and competitive edge. To be clear, this is not to suggest that all styles are equally effective - but it would be equally problematic to suggest that there is only one way to get to the finish line.
With the best intentions, even a great competency model may discourage people from using alternative competencies to lead effectively. In doing so, your organization may be discouraging talented leaders who don’t “fit” but are still highly effective. What’s worse, you may be systematically stifling your organization’s ability to adapt to a changing environment. The most effective organizations have a great competency model, but recognize that being too proud of it leads to a steely focus on the model rather than the spirit of the model or the results that a leader produces. A leader may not display all of the competencies (or may display a unique set of competencies)yet still produce strong results and be aligned with the values of the organization. The most effective organizations are not so strangled or impressed by their own competency models that they ignore alternative pathways.
Lost in Translation
The second ailment can be summed up as a problem of “Lost in Translation” across the organization. Different users have different interpretations of the competencies and how they can be behaviorally demonstrated, causing a type of organizational schizophrenia and confusion around both assessment, and then also certainly around development of those competencies.
If your organization is like most, your leadership competency model contains somewhere between 6 and 8 very broad competencies along with a brief description of them. Or maybe your organization is a bit more detailed. Sophisticated users (in other words, people like you) might have a solid idea of what these competencies mean in practice. Yet, for the average “user” who is trying to move from manager to director, or just generally trying to get ahead in the organization by demonstrating these leadership competencies, they often have no idea what this means in practice when it comes to actual behaviors.
As a result, leaders try to demonstrate these competencies, but may not know what specific behaviors or actions are actually involved. Competencies like “competitive edge” or “authenticity and integrity” sound great, but what does this actually look like in practice? One place to start is by aiming for mid-range competencies that are neither too specific to be generalizable nor too broad as to lose behavioral meaning (see lead.fiu.edu/research for a research-based mid-range competency list).
If you are confident that your leadership competencies are clear, there’s an easy way to test this assumption: Go talk to a few people at different levels of the organization and ask them to be VERY specific about behavioral or action-oriented examples of these competencies. Skip your HR colleagues. There is almost always something that is lost in translation between general competencies and the specific actions, skills, and behaviors that are truly the foundation of effective leadership.
Keeping it Real
The third major ailment that many organizations face is a failure to connect their competency model to real and practical development opportunities and practices. Leaders are typically evaluated against the list of competencies, but then when there’s clearly work needed to get better at a competency, most people have no idea where to actually start. Sure, your boss might give you suggestions and ideas, but that is only part of the equation. Leadership development takes time, and requires self-insight and deliberate practice of new behaviors and skills.
Development requires a combination of mentoring, challenging new assignments, and formal developmental programs. But how can someone, at a practical level, find the right program and access it? And which types of new assignments or experiences will allow a leader to develop which competencies? The best organizations provide clear lists and guides for the development of each competency. Sure – not all competencies are easy to develop, but if you and your colleagues can’t create some type of system and institutional memory around how leaders can develop these competencies, the emerging or aspiring leader, who isn’t as well-versed as you on this topic, doesn’t stand a reasonable chance of accelerating their development.
Leadership competency models help organizations to create a yardstick and a common language around leadership. But the leap from any leadership model to actual development of leadership capacity in your organization is far from guaranteed. By making the
focus less on your competency model itself and more on real ways for individuals to develop new behaviors, skills, and action
possibilities that make them better leaders, organizations can restore health to a well-intentioned but often-ailing system.
Dr. Nathan J. Hiller is Associate Professor of Management and International Business and Academic Director of the Center for Leadership, Florida International University. As an academic, his focus is on understanding the strategic implications of executive personality, as well as enhancing the way that organizations build their leadership pipeline. As a consultant and practitioner, Nathan has worked on cutting-edge projects related to strategic leadership development, organizational change, culture, human capital planning, and teamwork with clients including: Johnson & Johnson, Boeing, Burger King Corporation, Beckman Coulter, Norwegian Cruise Lines, and The United States Marine Corps. He is also the Faculty Director and primary facilitator in the Center’s The High Potential Leader program - a 4-day intensive leadership development program designed to accelerate the leadership capacity of mid-level leaders.