How do you get those attributes into leader's heads?Developing a list of leadership competencies

I remember reading an article by Jeff Immelt on leadership development a couple of years ago. Immelt described how, when he was under the tutelage of Jack Welch, the legendary CEO, he was part of a team that was tasked with developing the GE corporate leadership competencies. Immelt described how his team spent months developing a list of GE specific leadership competencies after which he reached two conclusions.

Conclusion One: The first is that almost every corporate leadership competencies list is pretty similar. Things like “leadership agility,” “effectively collaborates,” “emotional maturity” come up on every list.

Conclusion Two: The second conclusion was that most senior executives at GE, including Jack Welch, while lauding the competency lists and the usual “check the box” 360 that followed pretty much ignored them thereafter. It just didn’t have the stickiness to matter to anyone.

The study of leadership competencies has no impact

Immelt then followed this up with Noel Tichy, the acclaimed professor from the University of Michigan who told him that he didn’t believe in the leadership competency approach. Tichy said, and I quote, “Despite decades of research, 100’s of books written, and 1000’s of training programs presented, to the cost of untold millions of dollars, there is not a shred of evidence that studying leadership competencies has any impact whatsoever on leadership development.

Yet despite the above, 90% of HR managers in Fortune 500 companies stick to the competency based leadership development model without ever questioning whether it works. You know the routine: 1) spend a year developing the competencies, 2) do a check-the-box-360, and 3) march people off to leadership training programs taught by PhD’s to get these competencies into people’s heads (and with a little coaching or action learning thrown in for good measure).

The curious thing is that most know that it does not work. As one HRD VP of big Pharma confided in me, “We keep using this competency based leadership approach even though deep in our hearts we know that it’s not going to have any impact on leadership behavior.” When I asked the HR leader why he used this approach if he was so convinced rather than trying something different, his response was, “This is what the boss wants, and I still have two kids in college.”
It’s really time to be honest with ourselves and admit that Leadership Development Programs based on these competency lists are one of the dumbest ideas ever invented.

Jobs, Gates, Buffet didn’t develop as leaders studying leadership competencies, rather they had a dream they passionately cared about.

Over the past decade or so I have developed the Masterful Coaching approach to accelerated leadership development, which experience tells me is much more in keeping with both the entrepreneurial icons of the CEOs we all know and admire, as well as how leaders develop naturally in big, medium, and small companies. I have found that coaching dramatically accelerates the whole process. I am talking about coaching the CEO’s and HRD managers who develop these programs, as well as the actual leaders who participate.

Leaders develop as a result of vision, TPOV’s, stories, and emotional energy

Companies that have the best track record of leadership development, like GE, PepsiCo, and Google, are those where senior executives have been directly involved in the leadership development process, rather than delegating it to HR. One of my favorite leadership development heroes was former Pepsi CEO, Roger Enrico, who canned Pepsi’s traditional high potential leadership development program and started one of his own. It involved something he named Roger Enrico’s Special Classroom (a year-long program) where he coached 25 Hipos for a year at his ranch in New Mexico.

Enrico would inspire people during the quarterly weekend retreats with his vision, teachable points of view, and emotional stories around the campfire. He also coached each person on a specific leadership breakthrough that was connected to a specific business breakthrough, like increasing Pepsi’s share of the Frito Lay snack business. The program not only produced the next generation of leaders, but amazing bottom-line results.

Leaders develop in the process of producing extraordinary and tangible results

The reason most people don’t develop as leaders is because the bar of excellence in many companies is so low that people are left in their comfort zone, rather than in a learning zone. By contrast, at Google all people at a certain level are asked to spend 25% of their time each quarter working on an Impossible Goal they feel passionate about. Google CEO Larry page says this has proven to be a highly effective way of developing leaders. This is the exact approach we use at Masterful Coaching, except we have some ways of dramatically accelerating the process.

Find an outside coach or mentor

When I started executive and Hipo coaching, there were only a handful of us out there and all were like members of the Knight Templar, very masterful at what we did. Today, everyone and his dog is a coach or mentor, so you have to be discriminating. The Masterful Coaching approach puts results in the front of the boat and leadership development competencies in the back. The idea is to get people connected to an Impossible Future they feel passionate about which then creates a pull for leadership development.

Unfortunately, most coaches hired by big companies from within or without tend to become an extension of the prevailing paradigm of leadership development. They put the competencies in the front of the boat, and try to find some connection to results in the back. Easier said than done.


I was talking to a bank manager at Royal Bank Canada last week who told me that the bank, like many companies now, offers internal coaches. “The problem,” he told me, “is that the internal coaches, rather than teach us to act like lions, often teach us to act like sheep.” He then confided, “I wish I could work with a coach from the outside.”

I would love to hear your thoughts. How is the leadership development done at your company?


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