Are You Asking Too Much From Your Competency Model?

Larry Sternberg and Kim Turnage, Authors, Managing To Make A Difference: How To Engage, Retain & Develop Talent For Maximum Performance

Are You Asking Too Much From Your Competency Model?

For very good reasons, numerous organizations have implemented a competency model as an important component of their executive development program. That sort of investment in people improves retention and engagement, and it increases a person’s capacity to add value.

There are a couple of misconceptions, however, that can undermine the effectiveness of a competency approach to executive development.

  • First, organizations frequently fail to distinguish competencies that can be easily learned from those that are related to character traits, which are almost impossible to install.

Consider the traits of honesty, work ethic, drive, resilience and determination. It is almost impossible to install those types of traits through competency development activities (education, mentoring, etc.). But few would disagree that these are important traits for a high potential future executive.

In fact, James C. Collins, author of best-sellers Built to Last and Good to Great, determined that in executive performance, character traits play a much more important role than learned knowledge and skills. But if you cannot install character traits, what can you do? Select people who have the desired character traits in the first place.

  • The second misconception is the related notion that anybody can learn to do anything at a high level of excellence if they have the right attitude, receive the right instruction and work hard enough on the skill in question.

If this notion were true, every sales professional could become a superstar simply by learning the proper techniques. So why doesn’t that approach work? Because aptitude matters.

Each person has natural gifts (aptitudes, talents) that give him or her the potential for excellence in certain endeavors. An organization will maximize ROI on its competency model if development activities are focused on each person’s natural gifts. Training amplifies talent; it doesn’t create it. If a person has a natural talent for sales, putting him through sales training will deliver a terrific ROI, not only for the organization, but also for the person. In the absence of a foundation of natural talent the ROI will be minimal at best. This insight applies to every competency including, for example, strategic thinking, people skills, creativity and leadership.

It might be the case that in a given organization a minimally acceptable level of competence in certain skills is required of each person in an executive role. Great. Provide all executives with training in those areas. But accept the fact that in the absence of natural talent for a particular skill, the level of competence achieved will be adequate rather than excellent.

In areas where an executive’s aptitude is soft and competence will be adequate at best, what can be done?

  • Recognize that every person achieves success by using the gifts she’s been given. Focus your coaching efforts on helping that executive make the best use of the strengths she does have.
  • Next, accept the fact that nobody has everything. Everybody has aces and spades. Make sure you surround that executive with people whose strengths complement hers. That’s how you produce synergy.

In summary, competency models will return the most impressive ROI when you:

  1. Make certain that only people with the desired character traits and natural talents are admitted to your executive development program in the first place.
  2. Recognize that aptitude matters. Absent a strong natural talent for a particular competency a person’s performance in that area will be adequate at best.
  3. Focus your coaching efforts on helping each executive achieve success by using her strengths.
  4. Surround each executive with people whose strengths compliment hers.

About the Author

Larry Sternberg and Kim Turnage are authors of the new book MANAGING TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE:  How To Engage, Retain & Develop Talent For Maximum Performance. Sternberg is a senior executive at management consulting firm Talent Plus and Turnage is a senior leadership consultant at Talent Plus. 

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