If you have ever worked in a corporation you are familiar with the notion of competencies — a prescribed set of desired behaviors a leader* is expected to exhibit in order to achieve results. As Buckingham and Clifton write in Now, Discover Your Strengths, organizations “then spend a great deal of time and money teaching each manager to acquire these competencies.” (229)
* For the purposes of this article, I will focus on leadership competencies; however, competencies can be developed for almost any role in an organization.
Typically competencies can range from a half dozen behaviors upwards to two dozen or more, and usually vary by job grade, level or title. Below are some examples taken from several different organizations:
- Strategic: Analyzing the future impact of decisions by taking a long-range and big-picture approach to problem-solving.
- Results Orientation: Focusing on business results, accountability, continuous improvement and innovative thinking.
- Communicating with Impact: Expressing thoughts, feelings and ideas in a clear, succinct, and compelling manner in both individual and group situations; adjusting language to capture the attention of the audience.
- Developing Others: Planning and supporting the development of individuals’ knowledge, skills, and abilities to help them meet current and future job requirements.
Semi-annually or least annually, competencies are used as part of the organization’s performance management process to measure the leader’s effectiveness. Even if the leader had a fabulous year — contributing to customer satisfaction, teamwork and ultimately results — the performance discussion he has with his next level of management can leave him feeling cold. Why? Because corporate America has an obsession with gaps or weaknesses. In some organizations, leaders are left to believe that to be successful they must be become equally skilled in all of the stated competencies.
In contrast, Ancona, Malone, Orlikowski, and Senge outline a set of four leadership capabilities:
- Sensemaking (understanding the context in which a company and its people operate),
- Relating (building relationships within and across organizations),
- Visioning (creating a compelling picture of the future), and
- Inventing (developing new ways to achieve the vision).”
They go on to assert, “Rarely, if ever, will someone be equally skilled in all four domains. Thus, incomplete leaders differ from incompetent leaders in that they understand what they’re good at and what they’re not and have good judgment about how they can work with others to build on their strengths and offset their limitations.” Halleluiah!
So, where do strengths fit into the competencies model? Strengths as defined by Gallup are consistent near perfect performance in an activity. Strengths are made up of a combination of our natural talents, knowledge and skills. Unfortunately, many organizations take their employees’ strengths for granted and focus on minimizing their weaknesses. However, some organizations are beginning to rethink the whole notion of competencies.
MAPP Alumni Tom Rath, in his May 12, 2005 Gallup Management Journal article, Good Competencies, Bad Competencies, moves away from the “either/or” world of competencies versus strengths, and instead bridges the two worlds by saying, “Organizations with great competency programs not only allow each person to find his or her own route to reaching a desired competency – they encourage employees to start with their natural talents. This makes the journey more enjoyable for the individual and opens the door for exponential progress. Simply put, the most effective way to make a competency program work is to set measurable outcomes, then let people’s talents lead the way.”
Tom, I couldn’t agree more! When I tried to summarize my own thoughts on this subject for this article I came up with “The Three Ls”. Although these ideas are not grounded in science like most of Positive Psychology, they do come from 15 years of working on the “inside” of four corporations and 10 years now of working on the “outside” consulting to dozens of corporations. My hope is their practicality will stimulate discussions within your own organizations or with your clients.
The Three Ls
- Less is More – When it comes to identifying competencies less is clearly more. I have been witness to dozens of competencies to describe just one role! How can we expect people to remember what’s really important? I favor what I call the “1 hand rule” – if you can’t fit what’s important to driving performance on one hand, then you have focused on process rather than outcomes.
- Let Strengths Guide Development Discussions – When it comes to performance and development planning discussions, most development plans are still built around “areas of opportunity” (a.k.a. – weaknesses) and most training dollars continue to be spent on plugging gaps in competencies. Now of course, if there are clearly “de-railers” in one’s career, then these should be addressed via coaching, mentoring, and/or training. But imagine if a manager asked an employee how they might use their strengths to further their development? Jill O’Brien, a Systems Manager at The Unum Group, shared the following example with me on how she has done just that:
“One of my employees has a top strength of communication. One of his performance goals for 2007 is: ‘Continue to leverage communications strength to influence architecture decisions and enhance visibility across IT.’ We’ve had lots of discussions on how this, coupled with his collaborative nature, could be very powerful. In an effort to make this a reality, I recently loaned him indefinitely to another team in an architect role where he will develop expertise on specific applications/services (to build much needed bench strength) and provide guidance to developers across IT on how these services connect with their applications.”
- Leverage Best Practices – Sometimes in our zeal to introduce new concepts we tend to throw out all that has come before. Consequently, we are often met with resistance – people like the “old”, familiar ways and have built whole “systems” around them. Instead, try to bridge the two worlds of competencies and strengths taking the best thinking from both to help shape the future. What if we thought about competencies as what is expected to be successful, and thought about strengths as how we go about meeting those expectations by bringing our authentic self to the workplace?
Last week a Special Interest Group (SIG) on Business, comprised of MAPP Alumni and current MAPP students, shared their perspectives and experiences with competencies and strengths. After an hour we had only scratched the surface.
I invite you to continue the dialogue, via this news site, on how we can bridge the two worlds — competencies and strengths. I’m also personally curious about any cultural differences that may exist. For example, is the East as obsessed with gaps as the West? Please share your views and see how together we can help shape the future.
Ancona, D., Malone, T. W., Orlikowski, W. J., & Senge, P. M. (2007). In praise of the incomplete leader. Harvard Business Review.
Buckingham, M. & Clifton, D.O. (2001). Now, Discover Your Strengths. New York: The Free Press.
Rath, T. (2005). Good competencies, bad competencies. Gallup Business Journal.