Using Leadership Competency Models

Using Leadership Competency Models… Too much of a Good Thing?

If you are using a leadership competency model I’m sure you can easily list oodles of benefits you and your organization have gained:

  • Leaders’ opportunities for growth are pinpointed.
    • Development opportunities can be precisely targeted.
    • Competency levels can be compared across the organization.
    • Leadership expectations are clarified and consistent across the organization.

Then of course there is the ability leadership competency models offer to identify leadership strengths. In our experience, though, that particular gold mine of information, leaders’ strengths, is often overlooked in the fervour to shore up any weak spots.  After all, that’s what development is all about…well isn’t it? Or can it be more than that?

When senior management, the talent management group and HR read the annual Leadership Competency Report it is usual for attention to be quickly locked onto the weaknesses and immediately comes, “What are we going to do about this?” HR then is required to run off and develop solutions so that next year’s report shows strengthened competencies. Perhaps focus groups are organized or more questionnaires are sent out to get more information as to why a particular competency has been scored lower than others. Learning processes may be developed which take time and $$ to design and implement and leaders take time from getting the job done to participate.

The challenge is that a competency model can take on a life of it’s own and drive the creation of all kinds of frenetic activity with very large costs attached to them. The leadership competency model can end up managing us rather than us managing the model.

So using a competency model well is critical. First examine the strengths that are identified and:

Celebrate Them, Reinforce Them

Consider how this valuable knowledge can be used. For example are the strengths carefully examined and used in effective talent management, including the placement of people? In individual situations do the strengths compensate for the weaknesses? Often leaders can perform well and produce the results the organization is aiming for and still have one or two weak spots that are not their natural strengths and learning sessions may not make a huge difference. Would we like everybody to be able to score high across the competency board? Definitely…but the reality is… In the people development process we know that focusing on someone’s strengths first and weak spots second creates a confidence and energy within the individual that makes it easier for them to manage their performance gaps.

Of course, use the information that the lowest scores provide, but also consider the bigger picture in the process. For example, suppose an item within the competency assessment reads, “Communicates effectively with staff.”, and it is scored considerable lower than the previous year’s assessment. If the population responding has not changed significantly, it is likely that the issue is not skills or ability as these were present the previous year. It’s important, then, to look at the organization. Has the workload increased preventing leaders from having the time to communicate as effectively as was previously the case? Have there been major organizational changes that could have affected the response? In general, is it likely that the responses are influenced by the organization and may not accurately reflect the leaders’ ability in the area described by that particular item.

Two key points to remember to get the best from a competency model:

  1. Look for ways to use the information provided by the strengths identified.
  2. Consider the bigger organizational picture when analyzing results that raise concern. The organization’s climate and the situations it is dealing with can strongly affect the competency scores.


Keep in mind that one of the best ways to identify leaders’ strengths and development needs is to assess their team’s effectiveness. The results of a reliable team assessment not only describe the strengths and performance gaps within a team but provide valuable information about the leader’s abilities.  Check out our web based team assessment tool Performance Plus for Teams – a quick and easy way to identify your team’s strengths and weaknesses.

About The Author:

Leslie Bendaly is recognized as a leading thinker and practitioner in the areas of organizational leadership, teamwork and change.

She is the founding partner of Kinect Inc. and author of several books on leadership including on Strength in Numbers, Winner Instinct, Organization 2005, Games Teams Play and Leadership on the Run. Leslie co-authored her latest book, Improving Healthcare Team Performance: The 7 Requirements for Excellence in Patient Care with Nicole Bendaly.

Her models, tools and books are used in organizations worldwide and her books have been selected as mandatory reading for MBA and other postgraduate programs in both the U.S.A. and Canada.

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