Building a Leadership Competency Model

This should not be thought of as the final word in creating a leadership development program, but rather as a guide or brainstorming tool. Each organization has its own processes and culture. Canned tools often fail as they do not provide ownership to the participants and fail to account for the different cultures, climates, and nuances found in every organization. For effective change to take place you must involve the individuals in the development and implementation of a new process. This guide uses a five-stage approach for building a competency model:

Stage One — Assemble Focus Team and create a list of competencies

The first stage in building a Leadership Competency Model is to assemble a Focus Team composed of a cross-functional mix of first-line leaders, middle leaders, and senior leaders. Larger organizations might want to build different models for the upper and lower echelons of leadership. These individuals should be Expert Performers. That is, they should be the best-in-class in their fields. Using interviews, surveys, observations (including information on how individuals act, think, and feel while doing their jobs) and other activities, create a list of the major competencies and the requirements needed by leaders to carry them out in an exemplary fashion.

Ensure that any observations or interviews are performed with Expert Performers. Competencies are based on what an expert does to get his or her job done, NOT what you or someone else might think needs to be done.

To get them started, you might have them think about some good leaders that they have worked with. You can also reverse this by having them list some important competencies missing from bad leaders (bosses) they worked with.Remind them to cover the entire spectrum of job-relevant abilities, including reasoning and social skills.

After they have gone through a complete brainstorming session and have created a list of competencies, you can then show them the Pyramid of Leadership or another list of competencies for comparison.

Stage Two — Build behavioral indicators for each competency

In Stage-Two, the members of the team identify the major behavioral indicators for each competency that must be performed to produce the desired outputs. Going through each competency, list the major behavioral indicators (Knowledge, Skills, and Attitudes [KSA]) needed for superior performance (normally between two to four). These behavioral indicators need to be:

Stage Three — Categorize the data

In Stage-Three, you categorize the data. The Pyramid of Leadership shows an example of a leadership competency list divided into three categories, Core, Leadership, and Professional; with the behavioral indicators listed for each competency. The core competencies are required for all individuals within the organization, the leadership competencies are specialty items for managers and supervisors, while the professional competencies are specific for each position.

Be careful when building professional competencies for leaders. Unlike fish, which die when they are out of the water, leaders who are out of their territory often bring new insights and freshness to the organizations they are leading. Insure that the chosen behavioral indicators are really the required knowledge, skills, or attitudes needed for the job.

For example, the late Seattle School Superintendent, John Stanford, was one of the best things that happened to the district; yet he was a former Army General and City Manager without experience or education in educational institutions. It would have been a great loss for the district if the professional competency list for his job had been so stringent, that he never got the job.

Although some organizations may list their competencies in three stages as shown in Pyramid of Leadership, others might find it to their advantage to categorize their competency listings in a different manner. For example, other methods might include:

The method you use to organize the competencies should be one that breaks it into small, manageable chunks of information that can easily be identified and used throughout the organization. Again, what makes sense in one organization, might fail in another organization.

Stage Four — Order each category

Stage-Four orders each category. Have the team number each competency in its order of importance for each category. One method for doing this is to list each competency on a Post-It note. Then, going through each category at a time, arrange competencies from the most important competency to the least important. Finally, determine if any of the competencies at the bottom of a category can be discarded.

The main reason for performing this exercise is that the team probably listed too many competencies to be easily evaluated. Later, this will help them determine a manageable number for a cut-off point. At his point, it is fine if too many competencies are listed. The determining factor for the correct number will come during the field testing of the performance appraisal — can the performance appraisal easily be managed and completed in the specified time period?

We should not only use all the brains we have, but all that we can borrow. - Woodrow Wilson

Stage Five — Validate your competency model

Stage-Five validates the instrument (the compiled list of competencies divided into categories and numbered by order of importance). There are a number of ways of performing this:

  1. Duplication: Replicate the original research results. This is done by obtaining another sample of superior performers, conducting interviews, and deriving a competency model. This new model is then compared to the original one. You might also create a competency model based on average performers in order to cross-reference it with the superior performers.
  2. Jury: Independent "jurors" who hold expert knowledge, present their best professional opinion on the model. These jurors should include both internal and external experts. This group presents their opinion of the model as part of a professional report.
  3. Survey: Send a survey to a selected number of individuals throughout the company. Ask them to number each competency by its order of importance. Also leave a few blank areas so they can add their own. Do not list the competencies by the order that the Competency Team ranked them as too many respondents might readily agree with the team, rather than taking the time to think it through for themselves.
  4. Departmental Focus Group: Each department or a cross representative of departments perform the rankings as a group. The advantage is that it gets more people involved, while at the same time, giving you less information to compile. That is, each member of the department gets to participate and each department turns in one survey of their compiled results. The disadvantages are the effort to facilitate each department and the time involved in bringing each department together as a group.
  5. Structured Interviews/Observation: Perform one-on-one interviews and observations with a random number of leaders throughout the organization to determine which competencies they perform and to get their opinions of which ones are the most important for the execution of their job.
  6. Benchmarking: Compare your results with another best-of-class organization that is similar to yours.
  7. Balanced Scorecard: Expert Performers identify the competencies needed to achieve the desired organizational goals across the complete spectrum of the organization. For example, the scorecard might measure organizational performance across a number of perspectives, such as financial, customers, internal business processes, and learning and growth. This method works best for the upper ranks of leaders. Its goal is to base performance on several indicators that measure the ability for long-term growth, rather than strictly measuring short-term financial success.
  8. Customer Service Standards: The only competencies measured are those that help meet required customer service standards. It is used in organizations where performance-oriented budgets are appropriated for service standards, not line items.
  9. Interviews: Investigate the attributes of the superior and average performers with critical behavior interviews. In these interviews, individuals describe work situations in which they were both effective and ineffective. The interviewer does not know if the person being interviewed is an average or superior performer. The analysis produces two sets of competencies: (1) minimum competencies that apply to both average and superior performers, and (2) major competencies that apply only to superior performers. Note that the second list of competencies will become a requirement for the average performers.
  10. Have job incumbents rate the competencies in terms of their importance for superior job performance. Their responses are then used to develop an inventory that contains the "best estimate" characteristics of superior performers.

Once the results of the validation process have been collected and compiled, the team uses the information to revise the instrument. You might have to go through this process several times until the Focus Team is satisfied with the end results. Sometimes it is helpful to use a different methodology for each iteration of the validation process. Your completed competency model should have some similar components as the Leadership Competency Model:

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