There was a time when the fascination to build competency frameworks hit India Inc like a tsunami. Every other organization wanted to build it. From my involvement in over a dozen such initiatives, I gathered that knowing what skills, capabilities organizations had and grooming leaders were the most common reasons reported. There were those who went competency way because it was the most cutting edge, progressive thing to do at that time while some others did it because everyone around was doing it. As a part of IT industry at that time, I witnessed scores of them did it to acquire some certification like P-CMM, that helped create certain impressions on existing and potential customers or provided a structure to the managed chaos to an over-grown software engineer called Mr. CEO who looked for a mechanistic approach to leadership. Then, there were some who did it without much conceptual clarity to differentiate between skill and competence. For them .NET and Java were competencies. Thus, on one hand, they expected this intervention to deliver the objective of the organization and people development, there was also some vagueness and frivolity attached to the whole exercise.
I witnessed some interesting phenomena. Many organizations built their competency frameworks bottom-up. Entry-level competencies were identified first and a simple logical progression was applied as we got up the ladder. For instance, if communication was a competency identified, it was defined at various levels and applied to, let’s say, junior staff with level descriptor reading as `organizes thoughts and articulates in a manner that….’ The same competency was then applied to strategic leadership as `communicates unit/ function/ department strategy from time to time’. In some other cases, competencies were unscientifically picked from an `off the shelf’ universal set of some consulting company by applying collective wisdom and best judgment. They were loosely validated using tools like BEI.
When competencies are attached to roles and when India Inc reports as high as 70% variation in what people write as role descriptor or job description and what they actually do, are those competencies realistic, idealistic or hypothetical?
“When job content is largely a variable entity if targets change six times a year, how could competencies hold much validity? We need to be mindful of the fact that competency concept was imported from that part of the world where job content is more or less a static entity which is not the case here.”
Sadly survival and growth-oriented organizations didn’t have the time to do it right, they had to do it fast (`as of yesterday’ as the popular expression goes). They also had compulsions to show themselves as a part of/ replica of `that’.
Owing to the lack of clarity of its purpose, understanding of the real concept and it’s potential, competency assessments today have merely become tools to make operational decisions such as promotions, salary increments, transfers, deputations, etc. It is time we did a cost-benefit analysis of it and made bold decisions. Considering the overall cost in terms of its development, annual administration and the cost arising out of resultant impact such as attrition, replacement, low morale, etc (if any), I believe this intervention is not just unviable but actually quite counter-productive in most cases; a reality no one would dare own up! I find HR departments first create processes that bleed organizations and then create more expensive ones to stop bleeding. Assessments bleed and engagement surveys and everything emanating from them is attempts to stop that bleeding.
In the 28 competency frameworks of small and large organizations including three of India’s top 10 business houses that I got an opportunity to work with, I distinctly remember thinking that it’s not worth the effort if we have communication, listening, team building, decision making, problem-solving, commercial/ business acumen or even strategic thinking as competencies beyond higher middle management (i.e. barring top two or three levels of the organizations depending on the size and structure).
These things should be a `given’ at strategic leadership. Such competencies at that level keep leaders stuck to operations excellence which may not help our cause of leadership development. They are about performance not about transformation. Sadly, since businesses have become mechanistic, most competency frameworks are built to address only current and occasionally future operational challenges and hence those skills. Further, I feel a need to remind the readers that competencies are about differentiating behaviours not the common/standardized behaviours for a grade/ level/ designation.
I have come to believe that leadership competencies should be linked to the organization’s leadership philosophy and its core ideology; its ethos. Because that’s what top leaders ought to be focusing on primarily. Aspects such as being empathic, self-aware, environmental sensing need to make their way into the list along-with strategy, problem-solving etc without worrying whether or not they could be assessed/ measured and without worrying whether or not such behaviours would always lead to tangible commercial success. A deep look into your organization’s philosophy, ideology will provide the necessary conviction in having these as leadership competencies. There are some progressive Indian organizations already doing that. With that in place, we could say that we want all our top leaders to be problem solvers but only those who have empathy and environmental sensing make the cut because those are the real differentiators. Just having a strategy and problem-solving does not differentiate a potentially successful leader from a transformational one.
Centre for Creative Leadership recommends that leadership competencies are derived from business strategy, vision and organization’s leadership philosophy. ‘Derived from’ are the keywords here. Daniel Goleman also indicates that 67% of leadership abilities are emotional abilities. Yet sadly they don’t make it to the list of leadership competencies simply because these things are difficult to measure. And what’s easy to measure is not the stuff leadership is made of.
Operationally, this is another big challenge. Competency frameworks are not adequate tools for leadership development. We have ended up calling managerial skills as leadership competencies and have ended up weakening our infrastructure for meaningful development of leadership abilities.