Based on our experience in competency design, we’ve concluded there seems to be quite a few myths about feasibility of competency models for leaders. The purpose of this article is to unravel some of the most common misconceptions we’ve come across when talking to different companies, and perhaps, to offer some guidance to those who contemplate embarking on a leadership project.

 

 “We don’t have the required maturity yet as we are so far only defining our people processes.”

Probably the most profound fallacy in the area is about designing processes and defining a leadership model being mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they should go hand in hand. Ideally, the competencies are linked and act as an interface to all relevant talent processes.

Creating ‘empty’ processes (with most of the important content missing) – and possibly ignoring purposes of future use – risks a high chance of having to re-design when implementing competencies. This is especially important when involving a comprehensive HRIS where radical changes can be cumbersome and costly if implemented afterwards.

 

“We embrace diversity. Will this project force our leaders to become clones to each other?”

This question comes up occasionally, revealing that the person has either no clue what leadership models are about or very limited experience in the area.

First, I find the thinking behind this question a bit problematic from a corporate viewpoint. Being a bit provocative – If we were discussing leadership behaviors crucial for implementing the strategy, the above question would be somewhat equivalent to someone asking the CEO: “We embrace diversity. What’s this strategic focus all about? Why don’t we just let all our business units to do whatever they want?”

Second, let’s assume one of the behaviors discussed is about providing clear direction and setting challenging, yet attainable targets. So, would you not like all of your leaders to provide clear direction and set challenging targets? Should some of them deliver an ambiguous vision and set facile objectives?

A well-functioning leadership model is very concise, focusing only on those behaviors needed to deliver on the strategy. In other words, you will not be defining guidelines for the full spectrum of behavior at work. Furthermore, even if it was possible, this would not change the personality of your leaders – they can still apply their very own behavioral style as long as it isn’t inappropriate or counterproductive to aligning with those few competencies defined as strategy critical.

 

“Our current leadership model is 7 years old and still waterproof.”

Not likely, unless your company is listed in the dictionary as an antonym to ‘agile’. Different strategies call for different behaviors. Defining/renewing the leadership competencies should be a core task in the strategy process.

For example, a company with an extreme blue ocean strategy should probably emphasise ‘encouragement for innovation’ as desired leadership behaviour. On the other hand, a business that has chosen to implement a more defensive strategy should logically require something like ‘tight cost control’ and ‘rationalisation of initiatives’ also from its’ leaders.

It is pivotal to keep in mind that a competency model always communicates expectations and, even beyond that, very much impacts the way leaders behave. Therefore, make sure that the behaviour that you wish for is in line with your current strategy.

 

“Cannot we just base this on our values?”

Yes, you can. But in that case, don’t expect your leadership model to add much value to your strategy implementation. In our experience, most Nordic companies have defined their values as a set of ‘noble principles’, usually including themes like integrity and ethics, sustainability, collaboration, caring for people and customer-centricity.

These are all fine and important topics – which all businesses should adhere to – but quite frequently (at more than 90% of the companies) they are not directly derived from the current strategy and are far too generic to enable full strategic alignment in your people processes.

As a tangible outcome of a fully-implemented value-based model, your leaders would get feedback on (and develop) their behavior against your values and you would be assessing internal and external leadership candidates for their value-fit. However important that is, I doubt if it will beat the added value of being able to do the same but using capability to execute the strategy as core criteria.

 

“But we already run leadership programs with a leading university.”

While off-the-shelf leadership programs usually deliver more or less efficient upskilling on leadership skills, they seldom are linked to specific behaviors. Even more rare is full alignment with the company’s strategy-driven leadership needs.

There’s a lot of research backing up the argument that the best way to make people memorize and learn something is to involve them. In the context of leadership programs, this means that exercises which simulate real-life leadership challenges are the most powerful way to create an impact and change in behavior. And the best simulations are the ones that are designed to highlight those exact behaviours that have the strongest link to the strategy. To maximize the learning effect, create real-life scenarios that people can relate to, and ensure that they call for the right behaviors from the perspective of your strategy.

 

When designed well and implemented thoroughly, leadership competencies can be a truly powerful tool for communicating to all leaders across the organization what is expected from them on a daily basis and how they contribute to strategy execution. This will make their lives easier as they receive guidance on not only the ‘What’ but also the ‘How’.
After all, it is the leadership behavior which matters at the end of a business day; skills and knowledge act as enablers but don’t alone guarantee the actions. The concept of ‘Employee Experience’ comes up often nowadays. Should we also start addressing ‘Manager Experience?’ It has a direct and towering impact on the employee experience – for better or for worse.

 

Jukka Rautiainen, Anssi Saxelin