Article: Designing a competent leadership competency model

Leadership Development

Designing a competent leadership competency model

Here are the key ingredients that make an effective leadership competency model
Designing a competent leadership competency model

Competency identification and capability building to compensate for deficiencies can be a tedious task. So much so, that it ends up being treated as an ad-hoc task, done with little effectiveness, yielding limited results. The process of development of a competency model may involve a group of senior executives collecting together and identifying the competency deficiencies in leaders based on their observations; or it may be done by comparing a high performing group with an average performing one and noting deficiencies and areas for improvement in the average lot; or in some of the ‘worst practices’ cases, the team responsible to deploy the competency model, would just scribble anything that they feel is appropriate for leadership development across the organization and roll it out to see it fall on its face in some time. 

The problem with such competency models is that they are all based on observations, giving a lot of room to biases to creep in their observations. The biases may be either conscious or unconscious; directed at an individual or a complete group; developed by recency or matured over-time – the biases that can cloud both observations and judgments. 

The premise of being effective at competency models is to – 

  1. first, base them on accurately acquired empirical data (through robust psychometric assessments of representative sample audience); 
  2. second, apply for the capability development programs in the correct manner; and 
  3. third, measure the efficacy of the competency model by measuring the progress (not by observation, but by scientific assessments) made by leaders exposed to it.

All of this is easier said than done. The real challenge that organizations face is in implementing the steps 1-3, in designing that effective competency model. In this article, we look at the key characteristics of a competent competency model, based on the research done by Joe Folkman of Zenger Folkman.

The key ingredients of an effective leadership competency model

Folkman suggests the following six characteristics of a “great competency model”

  • Simple and memorable
  • Thorough
  • Tested and proven
  • Developmental and evaluative
  • Provide a shared language
  • Embedded in the human resources system

Simple and memorable: Organizations tend to overcomplicate competency models by using different nomenclature for skills which are the extension of one another and fall under the same bracket. For instance, client emails are a subset of client communication. But some organizations may end up having them in two separate brackets in the competency models. Yes the capability development process has to be different for different sets of people, but the organization could make it simple by naming both of them as client communication, and keep the training content customized to the students. The idea behind keeping it simple is so that it becomes memorable, and the competency model is known by all in the organization – that is how it gets embedded into the culture of the organization.

Thorough:  It is important to not oversimplify the competency model as well, Folkman argues. He advises against reducing the number of competencies to a handful of behaviors. Zenger and Folkman, in their decades of research, have identified 16 behaviors of great leaders. Classifying unrelated behaviors into one category can lead to confusion among the ones subject to the model. Folkman illustrates this with an example of a company which had just five competencies in its leadership competency model. The oversimplification bundled unrelated behaviors together creating a lot of complexity, not providing enough “bandwidth necessary for all leaders to excel”.

A “great competency model” is ‘Simple and memorable’, ‘Thorough’, ‘Tested and proven’, ‘Developmental and evaluative’, ‘Provides a shared language’, ‘Embedded in the human resources system’ - “Creating a competency model that works - The good, the bad, and the ugly” by Joe Folkman

The 16 differentiating competencies of great leaders fall under the categories of “Character”, “Personal capability”, “Focus on results”, “Interpersonal skills”, and “Leading change”, according to research by Zenger and Folkman. These categories act as pillars of the “Leadership tent”. (Source: Key insights from the extraordinary leader, by Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman)

1. Displays High Integrity and Honesty

Personal Capability
2. Technical/Professional Expertise
3. Solves Problems and Analyzes Issues
4. Innovates
5. Practices Self-Development

Focus on Results
6. Drives for Results
7. Establishes Stretch Goals
8. Takes Initiative

Interpersonal Skills
9. Communicates Powerfully and Prolifically
10. Inspires and Motivates Others to High Performance
11. Builds Relationships
12. Develops Others
13. Collaboration and Teamwork

Leading Change
14. Develops Strategic Perspective
15. Champions Change
16. Connects the Group to the Outside World

Tested and proven: The competency model’s efficacy also has to be tested to prove that behaviors are being measured correctly. An important strand to this is Folkman’s suggestion, “The competency model needs to verify that the way behaviors are measured accurately predicts organizational outcomes.” By this, he implied, that if the leaders show progress in the behavior being measured (example, drives for results), it must also translate into the organizational outcomes (example, sales closures by the team). For instance, the leaders who have higher leadership effectiveness are also leaders of teams which perform better. If the proportionality doesn’t match universally, then the methods of measurement of the competency are incorrect and need to be revisited.

Developmental and evaluative: The competency model has to be linked to the performance evaluation system of the organization or the organization’s High Potential program. A developmental-only program cannot alone motivate leaders to keep improving but with no reward. Folkman argues, that if the same developmental program is a career ladder in itself, and incentivizes people who excel at the competencies in the model, it can have a ripple effect, and show the payoff for development to everyone in the organization.

Provide a shared language: It is also important that the model provides a common language for all to speak. The behaviors of a great leader can be subjective when it comes to their definitions (if looked strictly from a language standpoint, some of them may have overlapping commonalities). A shared language eliminates the overlap, and each behavior is understood distinctly, making HiPo and HiPer identification easier. Folkman draws the corollary of high platform diving – every dive seems great to a commoner’s naked eye, yet the judges notice the slightest of differences and score the divers according to a set competency model. “With no competency model, everyone looks like a good leader,” Folkman rightly says.

Embed in the human resources system: The last step is to use it in every aspect of talent acquisition and talent management – that solves the dual purpose of bringing consistency in the organization, and also embedding it within the cultural DNA of the organization.

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Topics: Leadership Development, Leadership

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