If you were a Brownie Guide in the 70’s and 80’s, you might be interested to know how the badges have changed. No more “Hostess”, “House Orderly” or “Needleworker”.
Gratifyingly, these days you prove your competency as a modern day Brownie by collecting “Crime Prevention”, “Healthy Heart” and “Science Investigator”!
I tried desperately to get the whole set to prove I was the perfect Brownie Guide and I can still remember the thrill of my Mum sewing another new declaration of competency onto my uniform sleeve.
As grown-ups, we have a new set of challenges set for us. Just as demanding – but sadly, no badges. The ubiquitous Leadership Competency Framework. These frameworks present a set of skills and behaviours which, if we are brilliant enough and get the whole set, will prove we are perfect leaders. Almost every organisation has one. I have produced and implemented them several times over the years – worrying about getting the wording right, each competence painstakingly described with its indicators and contra-indicators. But I question the impact of these beautifully crafted documents. Leaders often ignore them or find them too confusing and complex and they rarely seem to play any significant role in leadership recruitment or promotion decisions.
I believe it’s time we set aside our leadership competency models and consider a fresh approach. But first, let’s look at why they don’t work.
1. The concept of the perfect leader is of course, totally flawed. We’ve all got our strengths and things we’re not great at. But the Competency Framework keeps the myth of the perfect leader alive. It acts like a kind of leadership ‘bingo card’ where we try and tick all the boxes. This results in leaders focusing on the bits that are missing and attending training to develop skills in areas at which they’ll only be mediocre at best. It also perpetuates the idea that leaders need to be the ones with the greatest array of personal strengths – the biggest and best – whereas the leaders who will thrive in this disrupted world are those who can get the best from their teams rather than through individual endeavour and achievements.
2. We can’t hope to prescribe all of the leadership behaviours that we may need in our organisations. Leadership is contextual and we may need different styles, behaviours and strengths at different times and circumstances. If we build and distribute these models from the centre we are neglecting cultural nuances and we often can’t keep pace with the specific needs of our business units.
3. By trying to articulate what leadership competence looks like, we end up focusing on how leaders will demonstrate their abilities in ways that allow little room for interpretation. Every leader is unique and will do things in their own way. We can’t say one style is necessarily superior to another. For example, “good communicator” could be delivered in a multitude of ways depending on the situation and it’s the individuals’ experience of being communicated with that matters rather than the way it’s done. I believe this focus on the definitions of what a good leader looks like, rather than the conditions, the culture and the outputs they need to build, has underpinned our lack of diversity. We end up with the leaders who are more extrovert, who seem to be very confident and charismatic rather than those who can build genuine trust, who build capability and capacity in their teams and who collaborate effectively.
4. We have a tendency to over-complicate, don’t we? I’ve implemented some real shockers that were instantly forgotten by my leadership colleagues. One company I worked at had a competency model with 12 competencies and 144 behavioural indicators. No leader I met could ever remember what they were and the A3 spreadsheet with them on was only ever referred to by the Head of L&D. And we make matters worse by building a machinery around it to assess, rate and compare people against the model. 360 degree feedback charts, nine box grids, psychometric assessments and other dubious methods spring up with alarming speed and at great cost.
5. Finally, my biggest criticism of leadership competency models lies in the fact that they overlook the biggest drivers of leadership development – self knowledge and a genuine desire to be better. I remember being subjected to two days of tortuous psychometrics against our complex leadership model whilst at Serco. I was sharing my results with our COO, who was, by the way, a great leader. We had both scored low marks in a particular element and whilst I fretted about the impact this would have on my promotional ambitions, he just laughed. We spend a fortune and countless hours trying to make these models perfect. If the leaders don’t care about personal growth, even the most perfect model won’t make a difference.
So, what could our approach to leadership look like? Here’s the model we suggest.
1. Start with Self-knowledge
Rather than spending loads of money and effort assessing leaders against a set of competencies, we need to invest more in helping leaders understand themselves. What’s unique and special about them and how are they deploying these unique qualities? What are their strengths and how could they focus on these to become even better at them? How do their behaviours impact on the team? What are their personal values and how do these align with the organisation’s. What gives them purpose and meaning? How do they respond to stress? How do they learn best? How could they be the very best version of themselves? Companies such as Google, Unilever and Sky are doing some really pioneering work in this space.
2. Some ‘no-brainers’
Choose a few broad areas that are well proven to give a higher chance of success in a disrupted world, regardless of your sector. The great HBR article from a couple of years ago suggested resilience, insight, curiosity, the ability to engage your team and humility. Red Bull have recently launched their brilliant Wingfinder tool to help them recruit and they have gone for similar qualities; drive, creativity, the ability to make connections and “thinking” – smart, analytical problem solving. These attributes work well in a fast-paced world and can be demonstrated in a range of contexts and personal styles.
3. What’s special about you?
Choosing something that is unique to your culture and business is important to ensure you get the leaders you want. For example, Cisco has done some amazing work around leaders’ personal connectivity and networks because they believe that the ability to form these connections and to collaborate brilliantly across the organisation is so critical to their future success. SouthWest Airlines place great emphasis on leaders showing humility as it is fundamental to their culture and approach with customers. What would be the one attribute that would define your culture and which might determine hiring and firing decisions?
4. Focus on outputs and conditions
Instead of trying to detail every behaviour, re-frame your leadership model to describe what the outputs might be. For example, instead of defining that ‘good’ leaders meet with their teams every week, describe the desired experience of your employees, ie: they will feel included, aware of what’s going on the wider organisation, etc. Then leaders can find the method of delivering that experience in ways that suit their personality and style. Instead of insisting that leaders be ‘innovative’, focus on how you want the leader to create the conditions for greater innovation – then allow them to find ways that work for their team and their part of the business.
So, if you’re working on the next iteration of your leadership competency model and you’re having doubts about whether it’s going to make any difference, why not take a step back and take a fresh approach? Help your leaders to know themselves better, focus on a few attributes that are proven to contribute to success in a disrupted world, be really clear about what is special about leaders in your culture and articulate the employee experience and outputs from their people leadership – then allow leaders to find a path that works for them.
As unpopular as it might be with leaders who often crave certainty, great HR is just ‘messy’. The HR leaders who are having the most impact, who are creating the conditions where people and organisations can thrive in our disrupted world are those who have the courage to avoid the neat solutions and instead offer messy solutions to the challenges we face. In this blog we explore what 'messy' HR looks like in practice.