Using Core Competencies to Identify and Develop Your High Potential Leaders

Organizations of all sizes are starting to recognize the importance of identifying and developing high potential leaders who are critical to the achievement of strategic objectives. Also, most organizations use some type of leadership competency model for this purpose. However, most of these competency models are only loosely related to the organization’s strategic objectives, resulting in sub-optimal succession planning and leadership development programs.leadership

This article outlines a process for developing and utilizing a core leadership competency model that aligns with your strategic objectives. It’s based on a three-level, interlocking framework that involves the identification of:

  • Your organization’s strategic objectives,
  • Organizational core competencies derived directly from the strategic objectives, and
  • Leadership competencies derived from the organizational core competencies.

Developing the Model

Let’s apply this framework to a fictitious medical software company to illustrate the process. Imagine that this company has the following three strategic objectives:

  1. Grow by selective strategic acquisitions,
  2. Provide best-in-class customer service by deploying dedicated cross-functional teams to specific groups of customers, and
  3. Develop innovative products on an accelerated time frame using a “rapid application development” methodology.

Some examples of organizational core competencies that align with these strategic objectives are:

  • Acquisition due diligence
  • Acquisition integration
  • “Voice of the Customer” processes
  • Continuous improvement and root cause analysis processes (e.g., Six Sigma, Kaizen, etc.)
  • Managing remote/virtual teams
  • Matrix management (i.e., situations where people have two bosses: a functional manager and a project manager)

In the third level of the framework, we identify the most important leadership competencies that align with the organizational core competencies. Some examples for this fictitious company are:

  • Change management
  • Innovative thinking
  • Strategic thinking
  • Analytical thinking
  • Negotiation and conflict resolution
  • Prioritization
  • Organizational savvy
  • Active listening
  • Adaptability
  • Business acumen
  • Coaching and developing others

Once you have your list of leadership competencies (the ideal number is about seven) and a brief definition of each one, it’s important to tailor them to how your organization really works by getting behavioral examples of each competency from your senior leaders and a sample of your middle managers and first-line supervisors.

For example, asking leaders to give examples of effective and ineffective “organizational savvy” will enhance the value and accuracy of this competency for identifying and developing your high potential leaders. In fact, each competency in your model should contain examples of both positive and negative behaviors. The latter are sometimes referred to as “derailers.”

Using the Model to Identify Leaders and Provide Group-Based Development

Now you’re ready to begin using the tailored competency model for talent identification and leadership development purposes. One common way to do this is to have your senior leadership team participate in a calibration discussion where they evaluate rising leaders against the leadership competencies and related behaviors. This approach invariably leads to a lively discussion that hones the talent identification skills of the senior team and “raises the bar” on their standards for who is a “high potential.”

The best approach for developing your leaders on the competencies in your model is to provide experiences that involve active engagement in areas that are outside the person’s comfort zone. Participation on a cross-functional project team is one of the best leadership development vehicles.

However, this participation needs to be supplemented with supporting mechanisms such as assessment of participants on the behaviors in your competency model (e.g., via 360-degree feedback), a clearly defined individual development plan that serves as the road map for each participant’s growth and progress, and self-reflection that leads to improvement and behavioral change.

Regarding self-reflection, a proven method is to have participants maintain a journal on situations relevant to the objectives in their individual development plan (IDP) and to discuss these journal entries with a trusted advisor such as a coach, mentor, or even a peer whose opinions and judgment they respect.

Using the Model to Develop Individual Leaders

If there are not enough special projects for all of your high potential leaders, these approaches work well with individual leaders, too. For example, you can assign individual leaders to a personal project on a topic relevant to your organization’s strategic objectives (e.g., research focusing on competitors, customers, or external trends that could impact your business), followed by a 30-minute presentation to a group of senior executives.

An individual project of this type can have a positive impact on several leadership competencies, such as strategic thinking, business acumen, and effective communication. In these individual cases, the same supporting mechanisms (i.e., feedback, IDP, journaling, etc.) work well. Developing and using a core leadership competency model that aligns with your strategic objectives is essential for success.

By integrating your organization’s strategic objectives, organizational core competencies, and leadership competencies, you can hire and develop top performers that move your organization forward. This process is all about developing a model that starts with your strategic objectives.

Determine your organization’s core competencies that align with your strategy to better understand and focus your organization. Finally, identify the leadership competencies that align with your company’s core competencies. This alignment will help you select and develop leaders that put you on the fast track to growth.

Stephen Hrop, Ph.D. in Industrial and Organizational Psychology, is Vice President, Organizational Development Services at Caliper, a leading talent management consulting firm. With more than 20 years of experience in corporate and consulting settings, including extensive work with C-level executives and their teams, Stephen is recognized as a thought leader in the areas of executive coaching, talent management, as well as leadership and organizational development and has presented at many conferences and professional association meetings on these and other topics.

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