Misuse of Leadership Competency ModelsThe December 2008 issue of the Harvard Business Review contains at least one example of the annoyingly shallow material that seems to take up more of its space nowadays than in the not-so-distant past, when more of the authors had strong academic credentials (and, BTW, were allowed to use footnotes).
I'm referring to a sidebar on page 66 which cautions about "The Dangers of Competency Modeling." The sidebar is in an article by Jeffrey Cohn, Jon Katzenbach, and Gus Vlak dealing with "Finding and Grooming Breakthrough Innovators." Cohn is a consultant at Spencer Stuart; Katzenbach and Vlak are partners at Katzenbach Partners.
The sidebar tells us:
Leadership competency models can be found in virtually all major corporations. They seek to institutionalize managerial behaviors, knowledge, values, and motivations to produce steady, predictable results. They provide a common language to help supervisors and HR discuss emerging talent in the organization. These are worthy goals but overdependence on competency models inevitably reinforces sameness rather than unity or cohesion, by eroding the conditions in which unique points of view and ultimately innovation itself can arise.My complaints:
Training programs built on these models primarily teach participants how to manage within the organization as is and emphasize formal structures at the expense of informal ones. At the same time, they condition managers to minimize uncertainty and mitigate risk.
The organizational vetting process filters candidates for promotion according to well-known and widely communicated competencies that are ingrained in the company culture. As a result the field of rising stars narrows to those who most closely resemble their peers and bosses. Unique attributes and a willingness to deviate from the norm, take real risks, and embrace different points of view are not cultivated or integrated. Rather, they are slowly and methodically squeezed out of the system.
- Companies do not necessarily adopt leadership competency models "to produce steady, predictable results." I believe companies effectively using such models intend for them to produce good results, defined in whatever manner a particular company considers meaningful.
- "Overdependence on competency models inevitably reinforces sameness" is basically a truism. Smart management will not place excessive weight on how well rising talent seems to fit a particular competency model.
- Effective training programs do not "primarily teach participants how to manage within the organization as is," nor do they "emphasize formal structures at the expense of informal ones." Obviously, a company designing leadership training should steer clear of such defective content. (For more on how companies are using social networking analysis to ensure that managers understand their companies' informal structures and intervene to optimiaze them, see here.)
- Effective training programs do not "condition managers to minimize uncertainty and mitigate risk" in a way that defeats innovation. As indicated in my recent posts on enterprise risk management (e.g., here), the best companies are taking an increasingly sophisticated approach to risk management that identifies its purpose as helping the company achieve its goals, which presumably include innovation where appropriate.
- As indicated in the second and fourth points above, smart companies indeed cultivate and integrate "unique attributes and a willingness to deviate from the norm, take real risks, and embrace different points of view."
[Previous posts dealing with competency models are here, here, here, here, and here.]