Leadership Pitfalls When Using Competency Modeling

What are You Best At?

Using competency modeling to develop and assess people has been in practice for leaders for a long time. There are many uses for competency modeling designed to help organizations run better, stronger, and faster.

Organizational Super Model?

For developmental purposes, we can provide feedback to individuals on their competency levels in areas deemed to be important, and then use this information for targeted development to help the organization grow.

Competency modeling is also used in assessing people to make hiring and workforce adjustment decisions.

The theory is that people with high competency levels get better business results. But does this theory hold true?

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

So, what can possibly go wrong?

The short answer is, a lot.

Below are three situations where competency modeling can be ineffective or even counter-productive to the desired results. I invite you to add your own stories to keep this conversation alive.

3 Ways Competency Modeling Can Hurt

1) Selecting competencies which are weakly linked to business results:

Get a group of executives together and have them list what they feel are the top 15 competencies necessary for success and you will quickly generate a combined list of over 100 competencies with not a whole lot of overlap.

In a study done by the Corporate Leadership Council, competency models from several dozen companies were analyzed for commonality.

The result was a list of  about 90 competencies with significant overlap.

Realistically, you will need to narrow this list to around 15 competencies or the logistics and time spent in evaluating people can be overwhelming.

  • Selecting the ones which will have the strongest correlation to achieving your business strategy and aligning with your company’s values is no easy task.
  • Pick the wrong ones and you don’t get the results.
  • Pick too many and your processes become burdensome and time-consuming.

2) Using the results of the competency model and then focusing on unproductive areas:

When an individual receives scores on a competency assessment, the natural tendency is to focus on those areas which have the lowest ratings and then create a development plan around these weak spots.

The problem with this is that people don’t achieve great results because they fixed their weaknesses.

They make great results happen by further developing their unique strengths into towering capabilities. Think about people who you admire as great achievers and you will quickly realize that they are far from perfect.

Instead, their ability to get great results has more to do with leveraging their few towering strengths.

Yes, we do need to address those weak areas to the extent that we keep out of jail. The problem is most people focus exclusively on these weaker areas which has the collective effect of creating a workforce consisting of a bunch of clones.

3) Using competency modeling when other approaches are more appropriate:

The classic example of this is in succession management processes.

According to a number of studies including one done by the Center for Creative Leadership as well as a study I conducted, the number one way to develop people in the pipeline of leadership is to ensure they have a variety of experiences which broaden their exposure and perspective.

Companies often use competency modeling as the centerpiece of succession planning when it actually makes more sense to focus on the inventory of experiences individuals have had and which new experiences make sense for their next career moves.

A good starting point for creating an inventory of important experiences can be found in High Flyers by Morgan McCall, Jr.

Examples include experiences such as:

  • Turn-around situations
  • Line and staff positions
  • Start up ventures
  • High risk/high visibility projects
  • High growth environments
  • Downsizing
  • Diverse cross-functional leadership

Yes, competency modeling is still important, but is often better used as a developmental tool in parallel with succession planning.

What are your experiences with the use and misuse of competency modeling? Do you agree with the three examples above? If so, why? If not, why not? I would love to hear your thoughts!


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Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders

Mike Grabarek
Mike Grabarek is managing director of Cooperative Results
He helps professionals to collectively achieve greater results
Email | LinkedIn | Web | Blog | Skype: cooperativeresults

Image Sources:  zenithdesignstudios.com

5 responses to “Leadership Pitfalls When Using Competency Modeling

  1. Great post, Mike. I couldn’t agree more! I might also suggest one other flaw of the typical competency model and approach. Competencies get old quickly in today’s fast-paced, complex and ever-changing environment. Too often once competenices are set they get set in stone–and organizations mistakenly believe they’ll stand the test of time.


    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments Rosaria. Do you have an example from your experience where this occurred?


  2. Mike – I totally agree with you. I’ve had to put a stop to wasted hours in competency card sorts. Rolled up the data from all the areas and showed how the same main competencies were showing up by level and how these matched to existing research. Why are we reinventing the wheel when we can take the validated by level ones and just add the unique competencies tied to the company’s vision?


    • Thanks Cariann. It took me several years to figure out what you just put very nicely in one paragraph. Sometimes there is no substitute for scar tissue.


  3. I apologize for my absence in responding to your comments.

    Less than two weeks ago I started in a new position as director of organizational development at Lane Construction Corporation (one of the USA’s largest privately owned road, bridge, and airport builders). While I am thoroughly excited and energized in this new position, I am working long hours at this point.

    Please bear with me. I promise to respond more quickly going forward.


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