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Rethinking Competencies, Part 3: Is Your Program Broken?

Rethinking Competencies, Part 3: Is Your Program Broken?

by Andrew Robertson and Nate Dvorak

Story Highlights

  • The dream of competencies is laudable, but results are scarce
  • Simple programs beat complex ones; developmental beats evaluative
  • Effective competency programs identify emerging leaders

This article is the third in a series about rethinking competency behaviors, feedback and programs.

Leadership and management competencies are part of the organizational DNA of modern business. Since the 1970s, competencies have offered the guiding principles of managerial excellence. Competencies were designed as a foundation for people leader development, a means to generate value, a precursor of organic growth, a guide to engineering consistent cultures -- and even as a part of compensation programs.

If only.

Since their well-intended introduction, competencies have taken on a life of their own. Rather than serving as a set of must-have skills, many competency programs have become a list of contradictory demands and subjective rationales that can be used to justify almost anything.

Confusing, demoralizing and only occasionally linked to employee development and organic growth, most leadership competency models have not created the organizational value that they were meant to.

And because every leadership role demands its own competencies, each role -- or sometimes, each leader -- requires a unique format. Running many different competency assessments for many different people with the input of many, many other people takes a great deal of HR's time and energy, introduces rater bias, may expose companies to privacy issues, and may not identify the qualities proven to improve leadership performance.

It may also ruin your leadership pipeline.

Examine Your Competencies Critically

Gallup research shows that 91% of people who have recently changed roles left their former company to do so, that the most talented are the likeliest to leave, and that 87% of millennials and 69% of older generations say "professional or career growth and development opportunities" are chief concerns in a job.

A competency model has to promote growth or it wastes HR's time and leaders' patience. But if the program is so confusing that it fails to attract and keep talented people, it's creating a leadership vacuum for the future. So if your leaders raise their eyebrows at your company's must-have competencies, or your must-haves don't seem to measurably affect their performance, it's time to rethink the model. Before you start, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Is your competency program too complicated? Too many competencies on the list, too many competency models being used at the same time, too many measures and too many raters baffle leaders and managers about who is rating whom, on what, for what purpose -- and HR leaders can get lost in the weeds too. As a result, that overcomplicated program just confuses people and won't improve performance much.

  2. Does your program focus more on evaluation than development? If most of your investment is spent on the upfront administration and reporting, and not on using the results for coaching, learning, growth and development, the focus is misplaced. An effective competency model clearly connects results to learning and growth.

  3. Is your 360 used for rankings? 360s are often used to rate or rank. That's not what 360s are for. That is what goals and performance management systems are for. The most effective use of multi-rater feedback is developmental, so if a 360 is used to evaluate performance rather than guide growth, it may miss the mark.

  4. Is your competency assessment dismissed as "just a year-end thing"? Leadership competency acquisition must be measured at some point in time, of course, but if the assessment seems like a chore and the results aren't put to effective use (i.e., ongoing conversations with clearly defined goals and outcomes) the whole process can feel like a check-the-box exercise.

The Right Model: Simple, Strengths-Oriented and Development-Focused

Too many "yes" answers to the questions above indicate that it's time to build a new model. Gallup recommends basing it on the findings from a recent study of more than 550 job roles and 360 unique job competencies, which shows that nearly all competencies fall into seven dimensions (everything from building relationships to creating accountability).

Use those seven dimensions to develop one model, and introduce variations when a role is quantifiably unique. One model is easier to create, administer, communicate and use in subsequent development.

That said, any model should reflect achievable, future-oriented performance goals. And it should focus on what the leader is most capable of and what they're naturally great at, rather than weaknesses the leader must fix. Predicating a review on strengths helps HR align learning and growth opportunities with the review and the individual's areas of greatest potential.

But that's not enough. The program should communicate all coaching resources, individual self-paced learning, cohort or classroom learning, and experiential opportunities that allow people to use the feedback as a starting point for development, not a summary or evaluation.

A more simplified, strengths-oriented, development-focused performance review comes a lot closer to the original vision for leadership competencies. And it's far likelier to achieve the outcomes that companies want -- the outcomes they hire leaders to accomplish -- while increasing the capacities of the leaders they have.

So if your current competency program is at all contradictory, overly complicated or demoralizing, it is not doing what you need it to do. It should fill your leadership pipeline with emerging leaders who are learning and growing in their role. It should have a measurable positive outcome on performance. It should create organic growth.

If it doesn't do those things, why bother with it at all?

Most performance development programs simply don't work. Build one that does.


Andrew Robertson is a Managing Consultant at Gallup.

Jennifer Robison contributed to this article.

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