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Blog

...as featured in Harvard Business Review.

Are Your Goals Impossible and Counterproductive?

Susan David

Competency frameworks have become de rigueur in medium and large organizations. Those that don’t have them want them. Those that do spend millions trying to get their leaders to live up to them. But do competency frameworks make sense and are they achieving their purpose? At a time of year when organizations and leaders are naturally setting goals to help them become more effective, these are useful questions to ask.

Competency frameworks are essentially lists of ideal attributes — “team orientation”, “results focus”, “achievement orientation”, “listening skills” — used to signal the behaviors and skills that are most valued by the organization. They detail organizations want their leaders to demonstrate, and when a leader is seen as performing below par, they’re used to direct development plans.

Of course, all companies want strong leaders, and it seems perfectly rational to ask people to live up to a set of standards. But competency frameworks often fall short of their intended purpose and are even counterproductive. I have three particular beefs with many of the frameworks I’ve seen.

  1. They are unwieldy. In the attempt to be comprehensive it is common for organizations to have 15, 20, even 300 competencies for a single job role. Talk about goals gone wild! Asking people to match themselves to what can feel like unmanageable, bureaucratic lists of qualities both demoralizes leaders and conveys a lack of clarity about organizational purpose. (I’m not alone: HBR author Dave Ulrich took menu-driven competency models to task in Building a Leadership Brand).
  2. They demand the impossible. Consider how many competency frameworks are developed: An organization determines which leaders are the most successful in the business based on sales, profits, turnover, or other criteria. Then working backwards it notes the attributes possessed by this group and these become the competency list. But here’s the rub: while on the face of it this seems logical, the process suffers from a major wrong assumption — the belief that characteristics seen at high levels across a group can also occur at high levels at the same time in an individual. Imagine for a moment an organization, after recognizing that some of its successful leaders are introverted and that some are extroverted, demanding an individual be a super-introvert and a super-extrovert simultaneously. Hopefully this wouldn’t happen because it is clear that introversion and extroversion are inversely correlated — as one increases the other decreases. Yet in competency frameworks this error is made time and again. I recently worked with an organization that five years before had spent $3 million revamping its competency framework along with corresponding 360-degree measures and performance review processes, and around the same developing its leaders to live into these standards. But they had started to despair: no sooner had months of coaching helped Helen, senior VP of sales, to become very “achievement driven,” than her scores on being “team oriented” dropped. The same applied to “leadership self-confidence” and “openness to feedback” — one went up; the other down. We analyzed the feedback data and found what we had come to expect: many of the competencies were, in fact, inversely related, making it statistically unlikely for Helen, or anyone else for that matter, to attain the standards that were being set for them. Motivating? Unlikely.
  3. They promote mediocrity rather than excellence. Unfortunately, bad has a stronger pull than good. When given feedback on how they stack up against the competencies, instead of shoring up what is right, most leaders (and their bosses) will choose the lowest scores to develop. No matter how much time and money is spent, it is improbable that a standout low score will become an off-the-charts strength. Instead, low scores are likely to become average. And developing low scores into average creates just that: an average leader.

If your company is going to have a competency framework there are a few better ways to go about it:

  • Create a parsimonious and coherent list of desired characteristics. Ideally, aim for fewer than ten qualities that you want to be sure you have in your leadership pipeline.
  • Check that the characteristics aren’t inversely correlated.
  • Keep the overall organizational purpose in mind — remember that the task is to develop both highly skilled and highly engaged people. To that end, instead of focusing on deficits, help people polish their above-average skills.

Finally, remember that the best organizations are diverse ones, in which everyone can bring their unique skills to bear.