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Chris Howe

ChangeMaker International


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You’re hired!


“You’re fired; you’re a lightweight and a very bad manager!”

Sir Alan Sugar ranted to one of the unsuccessful apprentice candidates during the recent BBC Television series The Apprentice, which ended on Sunday. It was compelling television, but lousy and traumatic feedback for the ambitious and aspiring candidate.

So, what do you want Sir Alan? Week by week as they were fired my heart went out to these ‘wannabes’, all competing for the ‘dream job’ without really knowing exactly what would be required to be successful in working for Sir Alan Sugar. The Amstrad leader made it very clear: “I don’t want no schmousers, slouchers etc” but it was unclear to the candidates what he actually needed.

"Would a scientist be able to analyse a chemical without reference to the Periodic Table of Elements? Human behaviour is just as complex - you simply can’t describe people in ten categories."

Perhaps a competency framework might have helped him provide feedback to his candidates before he fired them for their failures. This would address their strengths, their underdeveloped skills and, in some cases, the skills that were over-used during the tasks he set them.

What is a competency?

A competency is a measurable characteristic of a person, related to success at work. It may be a behavioural skill, a technical skill, an attribute (such as intelligence) or an attitude (such as optimism).

Competencies drive performance at work and therefore the more skilled someone is in a relevant group of competencies the more likely will be their success. Knowing what the key skills are and measuring them will create the foundation for more efficient HR systems and processes. There are proven strong links between a well-employed, comprehensive competency system and sustained success in recruitment, development, performance management, succession and deployment. If you can determine your critical competencies and develop your people to be better at them, the organisation will achieve a competitive edge that is hard to duplicate. Over a period of time the organisation will build bench-strength that will be sustainable against the inevitable attrition of talent.

Some time ago Charles Handy penned a tongue-in-cheek ‘leader’s prayer’ that begged:

“Instill into my inner-being; tranquility and peace of mind that no longer will I wake from my restless sleep in the middle of the night crying out 'What has the CEO got that I haven’t got and how did he get it?'”

At one end of the scale, organisations huddle around a flipchart for a brainstorm that eventually forms the chief executive’s ‘wish list’ of the competencies for everybody in the organisation – yet some of the ‘brainstormed’ competencies don’t even make the final list if they are not a mirror image of the chief exec! At the other end, organisations spend hundreds of thousands of pounds in developing competency systems. There must be a more effective way! Research conducted by Mike Lombardo and Robert Eichinger (see notes below) concludes that 85 per cent of the common skills that lead to effective management and leadership are known. They found that there is little difference in the underlying competencies that were measured in studies by all the respected research institutions (including CCL, SHL, DDI, Hay-McBer and Personnel Decisions Inc.). So they argue:

“Pick a research-based model, any model. Use the one with the words that fit your culture best and be done with it!”

Many companies, unaware of the research, opt to keep the list of competencies brief. The rationale for this is the need for focus and the little time managers have available for development discussions. The research, however, is based on human behaviour - and this is complex. Would a scientist be able to analyse a chemical without reference to the Periodic Table of Elements? Human behaviour is just as complex - you simply can’t describe people in ten categories.

Other rationales for the development of a homegrown system include ‘because we’re different’ and the ‘not invented here syndrome’. Judicious use of a research based model with some tailoring and ‘word-smithing’ to suit the needs could save time and money and deliver a sustainable model to use right across the organisation. T

If you have people who are good at most of the ‘Big 8’ competencies then don’t lose them! These are important competencies that few people have and are generally in short supply in most organisations and the market place – ‘The Big 8’  being:

  • Planning
  • Creativity
  • Motivating others
  • Building effective teams
  • Strategic agility
  • Dealing with ambiguity
  • Managing vision and purpose
  • Innovation management

Can all competencies be developed?

The good news is that all competencies can be developed. Some are easy, others are harder. Competencies aren’t created equally. For example, developing the competency of ‘informing’ or ‘customer focus’ is relatively easy compared to developing the complex competencies of ‘understanding others’ and ‘conflict management’.

"If you have people who are good at most of the ‘Big 8’ competencies then don’t lose them! These are important competencies that few people have and are generally in short supply."

Lombardo and Eichinger describe over 10 researched development remedies for each of the 67 competencies. These development suggestions can be applied using the ‘70-20-10’ approach. Their research of the long-term studies concluded that the proportions of lessons learned by successful and effective managers are roughly 70% from tough jobs; 20% from people (mostly the boss); and only 10% from courses and reading.

So did Sir Alan get it wrong?

Well, no - because it made good television! But how about these other questions? Was it the best way to recruit a high potential person for the organisation? Was Sir Alan able to articulate what he wanted from individuals and communicate it to others? Were the candidates clear about what was required and when they failed were they given feedback against a framework to understand their performance and how to do better next time? Did he have a way of establishing the project teams to ensure success? Can he clearly explain the culture of his organisation and how people fit into this? You may not be recruiting an apprentice; but what would be the answer to these questions from within your organisation?

As a result of their extensive research Mike Lombardo and Robert Eichinger developed the Lominger Leadership Architect. The architect includes a Library of 67 competencies that can be categorised in the types described above. It also includes 19 common ‘stallers and stoppers’ and seven recently identified international competencies for those who are leading across cultures and borders.


The Leadership Machine: ‘Architecture to Develop Leaders for Any Future’ By Michael M Lombardo and Robert W. Eichinger.

100 Things You Need To Know: ‘Best People Practices for Managers & HR’ By Robert W. Eichinger, Michael M Lombardo and Dave Ulrich. 

FYI For Your Improvement 4th Edition: ‘A Guide For Development and Coaching’ By Michael M Lombardo and Robert W. Eichinger.

Chris Howe is the CEO of ChangeMaker International


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