Is the Leadership Competency Framework irrelevant in the age of Agile?

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The NHS Interim People Plan, published in June 2020, outlines an ambitious and urgent set of priorities for public health across the UK. At its heart is ‘improving the leadership culture’ with a big emphasis on developing a new leadership competency framework, supported by a new balanced scorecard.

It feels like we’ve been here before. Competency frameworks have been around for years, but are they becoming redundant as organisations and customer requirements evolve and shift? The way Healthcare services are being delivered is more complex, with leaders needing to influence external colleagues and partners much more. New working practices like group GP appointments are the new normal. There are critics that rightly challenge the relevance of competency frameworks and their value. Having used a variety of competency frameworks as a manager, seen many client frameworks as a consultant, and designed a few over the past 15 years or so, here’s what I’ve learnt.

Form follows Function

Before organisations look to review or implement a leadership framework, they should always start by defining why they need a framework in the first place. What is the problem it seeks to solve? What are the outcomes it should deliver to staff, leaders and the organisation? Leadership frameworks often seek to describe what good leadership looks like; enable new leaders to build their competence quickly; support leaders to drive their own development and learning; underpin learning needs analysis or leadership development planning; reduce reliance on external talent by strengthening internal capability; reduce staff turnover or increase employee engagement.

“Define the manager outcomes or employee experiences you want to create”

These aims are common challenges for many organisations across Health & Care. A well-designed leadership framework can be a helpful tool to achieving them. So, get really clear on what you want a leadership framework to do. Think like a product manager not a technical expert. Use tools like this one from Strategyzer to define the manager outcomes or the Employee Experience (EX) you want to create. Work back from there.

Less is More

There are some common shortcomings with a leadership competency framework that gives them a poor reputation and limit their effectiveness. You may well have experienced them yourself:

Too complex?

By trying to cover all bases, often with way too many competencies and a multitude of indicators, competency frameworks become hard to navigate and difficult to put into practice.. More is not necessarily better. For example, there is a ‘Universal’ leadership 360 tool that has no less than 29 dimensions across 8 clusters.  No doubt it is comprehensive. Deep perhaps. It is also potentially quite bewildering. In my experience, most leaders really struggle to remember their MBTI type (which has four letters!).

The Australian Aged Care Leadership Capability Framework (2014) includes 36 capabilities across five clusters. There is an added complication of 3 proficiency levels which apply to some, but not all, of the competencies. That is not a recipe to drive cultural and behavioural change. The Healthcare Leadership Model used in the NHS has 9 leadership dimensions, each with four proficiency levels, arranged into a 3 dimensional cube. For a busy manager in a hospital or surgery, the presentation makes it much harder to unpick all nine dimensions, or to grasp them easily.

Too rigid?

Having a one size fits all view of leadership creates the unrealistic expectation that a leader needs to be good at everything. It also reinforces the idea of the ‘hero’ leader, who is infallible and has what it takes to confidently get through any situation. This is a recipe for inauthentic leadership and for disempowered colleagues. It is deeply flawed in an increasingly complex, uncertain workplace. Leaders need to adapt to the context and the needs of others if they are to create an inclusive workplace; one where people are trusted to do great work and to express themselves.

Too many levels?

Having a leadership competency framework with different proficiency levels (I’ve seen some with 8 levels) tries to articulate the differences in expectations of specific levels in the organisation. The intent is to provide a pathway for progress, but what often happens is that it reinforces hierarchy. It also assumes that all competencies remain relevant as you become more senior. I would argue is often not the case.

As a general rule, managers early in their career need to focus on the fundamentals of interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence. The focus is on establishing their own style that matches their strengths. Managers later in their career or further up the hierarchy might need to focus more on more commercial or strategic leadership capabilities. They are likely to have accountability for longer term, strategic outcomes in their job. The learning here is to build a model which allows choice and flexibility, rather than layering on more and more descriptors that overwhelm managers.

“Rather than a detailed map of the Leadership terrain…what Leaders need is a compass to orientate themselves”

The conclusion here is not to do away with your Leadership Framework. In a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world, there is a need for something to guide the way as people journey into Leadership. Rather than trying to produce a detailed map of the Leadership terrain with specific instructions, what Leaders really need is a compass to orientate themselves. Something that enables them to choose their own route.

Leadership Frameworks 2.0

So here is a classic scenario. There is a core group of managers diligently using the in-house competency framework for interviewing and appraisals. The digital team have their own values and behaviours which they use in everything from stand-ups to succession planning. There are various managers who have never heard of or used the in-house framework; a few senior leaders who use an expensive high potential psychometric model for hiring outside the salary band; and there are one or two people using the old competencies which only exist in an old photocopied handbook.

My Leadership Strengths toolkit cards

Implementing A Competency Framework – Embedding Checklist

If you don’t want a big bang launch to turn into a fizzle, here are our tried and tested approaches for sustained impact. If you are finding yourself having to constantly train and explain your competency framework to users, then it could be a sign that either the design is not fit for purpose OR you haven’t got a robust approach for embedding it.

Our blog article details 8 key components for embedding a Competency Framework, with illustrated examples

Click here to read more.

What can be done? To start with, don’t make assumptions. How similar or different are managers needs here? What works and what doesn’t? The beauty of using EX methods or design thinking tools that get a baseline of insights and data, is that they cut through the noise and challenge perceptions. If you are clear on the problem(s) to be solved, you can work out if a Leadership Framework is really going to be part of the solution.

If it is, here are my top tips for developing a leadership framework that gets results:

Connect it.

Connect leadership competencies and behaviours to the purpose and goals of the organisation. If managers can see how the framework relates to the strategy and helps them with how to deliver ‘digital transformation’ ‘improved patient outcomes’ or ‘customer centricity’ in their role, it gives it credibility.

Make it sticky.

Recent research from the Neuro Leadership Institute (NLI) uncovered the key characteristics of leadership models that enable leaders to apply them well. It shows that making a model ‘brain friendly’, which means that it is meaningful and easy to remember, aka sticky are the most important factors for adoption. They found that having an exhaustive or overly detailed framework diminishes effectiveness.

Use Strengths.

Apply a strengths based approach to competencies. This means designing a framework that encourages managers to identify their individual strengths in style and capability. Not ‘cookie cutter’ generic leadership traits. This is what gives a framework the choice and flexibility we described earlier. A strengths based approach also means building in the ability to highlight overplayed strengths, commonly referred to as ‘derailers’. In my coaching work, this simple concept has had a huge impact for clients. Recognising the shortcomings of being overly action orientated, decisive or consensus driven can be a real game changer for leaders.

Embed with tools.

Having a beautifully crafted model with special branded icons and a message from the CEO housed on the intranet is not going to enable much behaviour change. Leadership frameworks have far more success when they are supported by well crafted, road tested tools that make it easy for managers to use. That does not mean mapping it against the eLearning offering and moving on.

It means building it into practical products like cards with coaching questions and interview guides. On the job learning ideas, team exercises or games, self-assessments or 360 feedback products, job analysis tools and simple templates. Get inspired by how Atlassian use ‘plays’ and ‘game plans’ in their excellent Team Playbook. Work with managers at all levels to co-create tools and processes that enable action, rather than trying to enforce consistency.

A new Leadership Framework will not solve all your problems, but a well designed and practical approach can still have a powerful impact on leadership behaviour in the workplace of today.

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About the Author

Andy Jenkins MCIPD is an Independent Consultant and Co-Founder of My Leadership Strengths. He has held senior HR roles in business and has consulted with clients in the public and private sectors. He is based in Leeds, United Kingdom.

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