<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=280235315724709&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1">

Leadership Development

Are You Limiting Your Leaders to Vanilla?

Vanilla Leadership Words

Leadership Competencies You Can Sink Your Teeth Into

Communication, leadership, teamwork . . . a few of my favorite leadership terms, but what do these words really mean?

Is it possible that inside your performance review documents and development plans lurk generic leadership words that once-upon-a-time were jotted in there with the best intentions of measuring success? When we dig into what those words really mean—and how leaders are held accountable to them—what we often find is a lack of clarity.

These words are like vanilla ice cream: easy to like, easy to digest, and uninspiring. The upside of using these terms as success measures is that at least there is something in place to center performance conversations. But using nonspecific words that don’t connect to outcomes is an outdated and ineffective approach to developing leaders. Generic terms are unhelpful for leaders in this increasingly changing work environment and don’t provide any roadmap for how to succeed.

It’s time you give leaders some clear guidance by providing what we call competencies. Why? Two reasons:

  1. Competencies are observable and measurable behaviors that guide people’s success in their roles.
  2. Competencies provide behavioral guidance that current leaders can use daily, and aspiring leaders can use to guide growth.

A fun and inclusive way to do competency work

One of my favorite (and most fun) competency projects was when I had the opportunity to collaborate with the vice president of talent development at a regional healthcare provider to create a competency model for the top levels of leadership.

The goal was to pull wisdom from the current leaders’ minds and transfer it to paper by giving them tools and guidance to articulate the behaviors, skills, and attributes their top leadership needed to keep up with the rapid pace of change in healthcare. It was important that the leaders and the talent development team were all using the same definition of success to effectively recruit, develop, and promote leaders.

This organization had recently updated its company values and had been communicating those values in the organization via marketing pieces, all-hands meetings, and at leadership retreats during the 12 months leading up to the competency project.This was important because we wanted to make sure that the leaders we worked with were clear that the competencies we were asking them to identify were connected to the organization’s values.

Now, For the Fun Part!

We invited members of each business unit and leadership level to gather in small groups of 20 or less and participate in a four-hour workshop. We started the workshops by explaining the why behind the meeting, which was a key to success as we learned that many busy leaders follow their calendars and may not get a chance to read the context of their meeting requests.

Following the why conversation we asked the participants to answer several open-ended questions about the current and future challenges for their leadership level in the organization. Questions like—

  • How does this level drive or support the strategy of the organization?
  • What are the expectations and deliverables of your level? 

This exercise was a unique stretch for this set of professionals, as they often thought about their jobs in role- or area-specific terms, and we were asking them to think about their roles by level. The questions and conversation created a mental frame for the participants and a level of comfort in the room.

Competency Card Sort

Next, we moved into the central exercise of the meeting, which was a competency card sort. For those not familiar with the card-sorting methodology, it’s a fun, hands-on, and challenging exercise. In the card-sorting exercise, participants were given a deck of 38 glossy 5”x7” cards with competencies printed on them, for example: Business Acumen, Ensures Accountability, Action Oriented, and Manages Ambiguity.

The cards had general definitions of the competencies as well as examples of skilled and unskilled behavioral indicators to help clarify the concept for the participants. Every participant in the workshop had their own deck of cards and was asked to put each of the 36 competencies in one of three piles: Essential, Nice to Have, Less Important. We limited the number of cards that could be put in each pile—a method called “forced choice” that tends to frustrate participants (in the best way).

After the participants created the three piles, we asked them to remove their middle “Nice to Have” pile. Next, we provided participants with 12 green sticky dots and 12 orange sticky dots. Green dots represented the 12 Essential competencies for their role, and orange dots represented the 12 competencies they identified as less important. We asked them to write the associated competency number on each dot and had them place their dots on a wall poster with corresponding competencies to look for patterns within the group.

Even the smaller groups of six or less showed clustering around certain competencies. The stickers provided a nice group visual for participants and wonderful data for our analysts who ended up aggregating the numbers across all groups and every level.  

This series of workshops took approximately two months, and gave participants the opportunity to define what success looks like for their leadership level.

Not Your Grandpa’s Competency Model

The competency workshops were active and high-energy sessions. They were followed by data analysis, benchmarking, industry research, and graphic design. The final product was a competency model that represented a set of “core” competencies for all leaders and a small number of individual competencies for leaders at each level.

Including your leaders in developing competencies is just one example of how you can allow them to set their own course for success. 

From day to day, leaders are asked questions that they cannot answer. How to be a successful leader in your company should not be one of those questions. How are you collaborating with leaders around their own development and success?

With the wide array of ways to develop leaders, you don't need to limit yours to vanilla. To explore the many varieties of leadership development tools that you could use in your organization, we invite you to connect with us today

Photo by Akihito Fuji/CC BY 2.0

New call-to-action

Lauren Parkhill

Lauren Parkhill leads the marketing team in creating creative content that helps organizations develop their leaders and teams.