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How Focused and Flexible is Your Competency Model?


In 1973, Dr. David McClelland, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, wrote an article entitled “Testing for Competence Rather than Intelligence.” Although he did not know it at the time, the article would become a landmark in the field of competency modelling. In 1982, his protégé, Richard Boyatzis, wrote a book entitled “The Competent Manager,” which would help turn competency modelling into the most widely-accepted form of leadership development.

In this era, most leadership development and assessment programs are based on competency modelling. It is estimated that as many as 80% of all companies use some form of competency modelling, most notably 360-degree feedback, to develop their leaders. Competency models are universally acknowledged to provide three important benefits: consistency, clarity, and connectivity.

Competency models help define the capabilities, behaviours, values, and mindsets that are most valued within a company, and therefore essential for progression into leadership roles. This provides consistency by establishing a preferred management model. Competency models are usually built around frameworks that help quantify managerial performance through feedback and uniform measurements across an organisation. These frameworks also provide connectivity to organisational processes.

However, competency models have at least two characteristics that often run contrary to a firm’s needs. First, they are based on a concept that one set of competencies produces a universal leader who is perfect for all situations.

Compounding this problem is the second potential weakness: the model is often complicated. Some competency frameworks contain as many as fifty different essential behaviours. While no specific studies have been done, even the most evidence-based professional would concede that it is difficult for most people to focus on fifty behaviours simultaneously.

The core issue here is that the standard competency model strives for the universal, but often detracts from diversified leadership. Different management situations require different skill sets and reward different strengths. Competency models should be recalibrated on a regular basis to provide flexibility and allow management to adjust to the marketplace.

This can be easily accomplished by valuing strategic commands over mere behavioural models. More than a set of competencies is required to fully develop an effective leader. It is more important to focus on providing the experiences needed to develop leadership capability that is relevant to the company’s business strategy.

Ron Cacioppe

Ron Cacioppe is the Managing Director of Integral Development and holds a BSc, an MBA and a PhD. He has taught in the Graduate School of Management at Macquarie University, Curtin University and the University of Western Australia.

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