leadership crossword

Why Your Leadership Competencies May be Failing to Deliver

Leadership competencies are a perennial topic of interest. HR practitioners wonder about the competencies being emphasized in their development programs as well as the skills on which other organizations focus. And even if we don't openly discuss it, we may wonder if our organization is taking aim at the right competencies or missing the target altogether.

A new report from i4cp - Developing High-Performing Leaders: Emphasizing the Competencies That Pay Off - explores the idea that the most commonly emphasized leadership competencies may not be the most effective choices for arming leaders with the expertise needed to drive organizational performance. Can it be that the competencies many companies agree are important really aren't?

It isn't that they aren't important; but what i4cp found is that the most commonly emphasized competencies aren't necessarily the ones that correlate to market performance. That means that if market performance is your business objective and the gauge by which you determine success, you'd better take a fresh look at the competencies your leadership development program emphasizes. It may be time for a change.

In its 2011 Leadership Competencies Survey - an updated iteration of a study originally conducted in 2009 - i4cp asked business leaders about two major categories of competencies: business competencies and communication and relationship competencies. Here's what we found:

Among the business competencies the survey's respondents told us leaders need, the top five, in descending order were:

  • Knowledge of the business
  • Business ethics
  • Knowledge of the industry
  • Knowledge of the customer
  • Ability to understand the bottom line

Most would agree those seem like ideal attributes for leadership success, and they probably are. But the business competencies that correlate to market performance are:

  • Strategy development
  • A global mindset
  • Decision-making sciences
  • Organizational development
  • Strategy execution

What do you notice about the second group of competencies? What strikes me is the significantly greater degree of focus. It may speak to the power of leadership competencies that center on the nuts and bolts of making specific decisions about what an organization needs and how it can grow, defining business strategies that can facilitate that development, and applying the skills to execute those strategies effectively. Doesn't that seem a lot more definitive than a general "knowledge of the business … industry … customer" and a Finance 101 grasp of balance sheets and income statements?

Survey respondents named these their most-emphasized relationship and communication competencies:

  • Role modeling organizational values
  • Building relationships within the organization
  • Creating an environment of trust and respect
  • Collaboration
  • Social responsibility

Again, those are valuable capabilities for any business leader. And again, a significant disconnect - except on collaboration - when compared with the list of relationship and communication competencies correlated to market performance:

  • Verbal communication skills
  • Collaboration
  • Building relationships outside the organization
  • Building organizational capacity

This group of competencies doesn't seem quite as laser-focused as their business counterparts, but it isn't their nature to be. These relationship and communication capabilities, however, can play fundamental supporting roles in shaping overall performance.

Wielding verbal skills and successfully collaborating are valuable in almost any context, but perhaps especially in marshaling and capitalizing on both internal and external resources. Easy to see how those competencies could help leaders build external relationships (with vendors, suppliers, contractors, joint venture partners, and the like) and grow organizational capacity in their efforts to help drive market performance.

Among the many insights this latest i4cp leadership research has revealed is that following the crowd, at least when choosing competencies for leadership development programming, may not offer the most powerful results. Like people, organizations that dare to be different stand out. When that differentiation involves taking a fresh approach to leadership competencies, it may translate into hitting the target like never before and gaining a competitive advantage and better performance in the marketplace in the long run.

Senior Research Analyst Carol Morrison has authored white papers, playbooks, reports, analyses and other publications on a variety of topics related to human capital, leadership and talent management. Feature articles by Carol can be found in Talent Management Magazine, Chief Learning Officer, HR Executive and in other leading print and online media.

Carol Morrison
Carol Morrison is a Senior Research Analyst and Associate Editor with the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp), specializing in workforce well-being research.