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Why Competency Modeling Matters in Leadership Development

Posted by Rick Lepsinger August 7, 2019

Onpoint_Why Competency Modeling Matters in Leadership Development

Hiring, promoting, and evaluating people based on their natural strengths, expertise, and ability to perform the job for which they were hired seems like common sense, but all too often, companies don’t define this clearly enough. Many job descriptions fall into this trap by calling for a leader or manager who “is a team player,” or who can “successfully run a large global team.”

While these qualities are undoubtedly important, they could describe virtually any leader. The real problem is that they don’t describe the specific skills and behaviors someone needs to be successful. In many cases, the job description fails to consider how someone might go about achieving them. For instance, what skills does someone need to “run a large team” or “be a team player?”

The Value of Competency Models

Competency models provide a much more comprehensive view of a job. Rather than simply identifying what someone in a particular role should do, competency models identify key skills that are essential to performance. They define observable, measurable behaviors, skills, and attributes that are needed to meet critical business challenges. This is not only beneficial for selection purposes, but it also helps to establish a very clear development path for leaders. 

An effective talent management and development program uses competency models to both assess performance and identify opportunities for growth. When the most critical roles in an organization have an associated competency model, it is much easier to see what skills a leader needs to develop in order to be successful in a given role. 

3 Reasons Why Competency Models Matter 

1. They Help To Align Behavior With Culture and Strategy

Behaviors are directly influenced by skills and knowledge, which take time to develop. Skills and knowledge can be shaped by a leader’s aptitude to learn and personal characteristics, which are innate and more difficult to develop. An organization’s culture is made up of the aggregate of its employees behavior and cultural fit is often described as the glue that holds an organization together. Maintaining that culture is a business strategy in itself, and it doesn’t happen by accident.

Competency models can help organizations to ensure that they’re developing leaders who provide the “right” leadership and set the “right” example in all that they do. Many companies have similar leadership structures with broadly similar job responsibilities in each role. However, a manager in one company may be expected to take a totally different approach to those responsibilities than a manager at a competing company. A good competency model needs to take this into consideration, ensuring that it can help leaders develop the skills and behaviors they need to produce specific outcomes within a specific culture.

Southwest Airlines, for instance, has built a unique culture by unabashedly putting its employees first, customers second, and shareholders third. In many ways, it has turned the traditional model of airline management on its head. The core competencies expected of its leaders, therefore, look quite different than those found among many of its competitors because they focus on the behaviors that align with its company culture.

2. They Make It Easier To Coach Leaders

Competency models establish clear expectations for leaders. They aren’t just a list of qualities; they help to define what success looks like for a specific job. This shifts the emphasis from results-based performance to process-based performance (or from “what” to “how”). A leader who is able to produce results in the short term, for instance, but lacks the soft skills necessary to build more sustainable team success in the long term might go unnoticed without competency models in place. Over time, however, their behavior can result in burnout and employee turnover, which will eventually undermine performance.

Competency models not only make it easier to assess leaders, but also make it easier to coach them. With specific skills and behaviors to emphasize, development programs can target the areas where a leader needs to make the most improvement. A well-designed competency model should be integrated with an assortment of development tools and other resources to help leaders build the skills they need to be successful in their role. These models can also provide examples of success by identifying appropriate mentors and coaches for leaders who need to make improvements.

3. They Help Companies To Invest In Training And Development Activities That Have The Greatest Impact

When it comes to training and development, almost every company faces the same constraints: time and money. With only so many dollars allotted for leadership development, organizations must focus on developing the skills that are most clearly needed. Without taking the time to define what success looks like and how it should be measured, it’s all but impossible to accurately assess each leader’s strengths and opportunities for growth.

By contrast, building a strong leadership pipeline is much easier when a clearly defined set of competencies is in place. Justine Staub, Director of Workforce Development at AmeriGas, quickly discovered this when she began developing a succession management program for her company’s Area Directors. Before she could create a meaningful training program to help them excel, she realized she had to take a step back and define exactly what they needed to succeed in their position.

Now that the program is rooted in a defined set of competencies, it’s much easier for Staub to identify which employees should be considered potential Area Directors and how development tools can help them to become better in their new roles. Employees also have more clarity over what they need to do to advance their careers, which has boosted retention and morale within the company.

Establishing clear and detailed competency models that reflect the unique expectations an organization has for different positions can be a big undertaking, especially for a smaller company with flattened organizational structures. The long-term benefits of making that investment, however, are significant, allowing companies to scale more effectively, provide clarity for employees looking to advance their careers, and aligning their values with job performance and strategy. 

With a more accurate idea of what it expects from each position, companies can do a much better job of cultivating high-potential leaders to step into those roles and provide developmental support to people who aren’t meeting expectations. Both of these measures can significantly reduce turnover and boost engagement, ensuring that an organization can continue to focus on its business goals and grow into the future.

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