News & Insight
April 2007

The Competency Model Controversy

“Leaders are formed in the fire of experience."
– Carlos Ghosn, CEO, Nissan Motor Company

Few quarrel with the compelling need to develop leadership bench strength – but there is widespread dissatisfaction with the effectiveness of traditional and often bureaucratic (i.e., form over substance) approaches taken by many organizations. A typical Talent Assessment process begins with the inevitable and often costly identification of what a successful leader looks like, in other words a “competency model” is designed. Some experts have even declared success in coming up with the one “true list” or “universe” of competencies most associated with executive success at any organization.

However, an active debate has begun (see Hollenbeck et. al), essentially attacking the competency model as a fallacy. Why? Because selection and promotional decisions in the real world are rarely made around such competencies, even if they can be accurately defined and measured. Placement decisions are usually made ad hoc by line managers as the result of unplanned job vacancies. It is in this context that Human Resources has been accused of being divorced from the line organization and the realities of actual business decision making.

Some professionals argue that the fundamental problem with many leadership development models, and therefore, a contributing factor to HR’s reputation for not living up to its strategic mandate or mission, is that we focus obsessively on building competency models, instead of focusing on business competency directly!

An alternative is to endeavor to identify the actual leadership experiences or challenges that are associated with success at the organization and devise ways to “share” these experiences through developmental coaching and assignments. This becomes a process of building the actual competence of the organization’s high potential executives, not just more competency models. Further, there is a growing point of view that, by re-defining “high-potential” to mean essentially “high learning agile” (vs. promotable 2+ levels) – and then using modified succession planning processes to drive well-conceived assignments of these hi-po’s to those experiences (instead of driving abstract color code schemes and replacement charts, which few follow anyway) would go a long way towards HR achieving real business impact, rather than inspiring more talent development bureaucracy!

Traditionally, leadership development programs were essentially based on an engineering model or a “great man” theory of leadership, built upon additive competencies. Perhaps most misleading are illusions around progress achieved by developing a “common vocabulary” or “truly integrated HR systems”. Then, when these efforts fall short, we surrender to the old model – “leaders are born, not made.” The new model stresses the use of executive coaching as a way to encourage reflective action learning from the appropriate developmental assignments/experiences. And, the focus of coaching is to drive those behaviors that have been found to be most relevant to achieving the organization’s bottom line goals, both at an individual and team level. This new model is more aligned with John Kotter’s idea that it takes 10+ years to make a great general manager.

The good news is that the emerging new archetype also acknowledges that many required abilities are learnable (and mostly through experience) and that successful job performance can be achieved many different ways – and not by satisfying additively a list of defined attributes or competencies. Research by Jim Collins and Robert Hogan have reinforced the multifarious nature of effective leadership and the potential folly of developing executives around standard lists of skill sets or competencies. One only has to consider the diverse styles of such successful leaders as Richard Branson, Lou Gerstner, Jack Welch, Herb Kelleher or Fugio Cho to see this.

In summary, the name of the game seems to be shifting toward more frequent feedback, more intrusive assignment management, more reflective learning, and – most importantly, a more direct linkage to compelling business goals, a linkage that cuts through traditional solutions like competency models.

Reference: Hollenbeck, et. al, The Leadership Quarterly Vol 17 (2006), pp 398-413

Next issue of WJManagement Advisor: Putting this new paradigm to work through effective Assignment Management - and other emerging trends in Assessment and Development

Ed Piccolino is a member of WJM Associates' executive coaching and organizational effectiveness faculty, and was formerly senior HR officer at Pepsi International, EMI Music and Kodak Polychrome Graphics; and Executive Vice President of The Empower Group, Manpower Inc’s foray into human resources consulting. Dr. Piccolino will be facilitating a conversation regarding this topic on March 14th (see below).

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