Leadership Competency Models in China


I have seen several multinational companies in China failing to implement well their Leadership Competency Models. Typical problems are that their “global” documents are out of cultural context: some of the behavior descriptions sound foreign here. Usually weakly translated, sometimes not even translated at all into Chinese. People left to wonder about what can possibly "Integrity" and "Respect for the Individual" and other Western concepts mean. In another company, the Leadership Competency Model is confidential, not shared with employees. This is because employees will be assessed with an assessment center on the competencies, and the HR department is afraid that people can outsmart the assessment if they know what is being assessed. Another company spent big money on their China specific leadership competency model, creating long and detailed descriptions. 20 pages of them. All professionally written by PhD-s. All validated, tested, proven and used by the biggest corporations. Backed up by big brands and scientific authority. Unfortunately just a waste of money. It may be a great reading for the consultants and HR, but it seems abstract to the people. It doesn't use their language. The sentences were pulled out from a large competency database, and this process is called customization. It is detailed and comprehensive - the money spent was honored - but it lacks any focus. Honestly, which leader will open the twenty pages document on a daily basis to get some guidelines for their upcoming tasks? So after "implementation", these models quickly get forgotten, and everyone can happily get on with their business, until the next model arrives. 

In order to have better result, you need to bring back common sense. You need to start asking the key questions:

What value do Competency Models supposed to provide at the first place? What is the logic behind? 

Well, in typical leadership roles, it takes a long time to see the result, therefore managers need more goals than just the business results. By common sense, the results depend on the activity of the leader – what are they doing and how. Competency models are providing guidelines about this "how". They are definitions of the important behaviors that lead to high performance. They should tell the leader: "This is how you should lead in our company". And this leads to the question:

Should Leadership Competency Models be company specific?

Good leadership is actually very similar across industries and company sizes. That's why there are bestseller books on leadership. That's why a good book on leadership competencies (like the Lominger or the Extraordinary Leader from Zenger and Folkman) probably beats the 20 pages leadership competency model in our example above produced for 20k USD. 

The only reason for having company specific Leadership Competency Models is to create FOCUS. It needs to reinforce the core competitive advantage of the company, and it has to look into the future. In another word, it has to be strategic, aligning everyone to what is CRUCIAL for the company today and tomorrow. 

In order to create such focus, Leadership Competency Models must be short. They should be written in a language that is easy to understand. And when you have such a model, actually it becomes possible to implement it! 

You get what you measure. Try to measure the behaviors listed in the 20 pages document! (In fact my team had to create a shortened version for them when I was working on designing their assessment center). Only with a short model (6-8 competencies), you can design adequate assessment processes. Then your assessment can be linked with development – which is a success factor and an important employee benefit in the same time. You can start measure it, and you can start keeping people accountable for it. You can finally integrate it with:

  • Recruitment and selection 
  • Performance measurement/appraisal 
  • Rewards and recognition 
  • Training needs analysis/Training and development 
  • Succession planning/Talent management

How to create such Leadership Competency Model?

If the above is clear, the process becomes fairly easy. You need communication in the organization to create the focus you need. Focus on what customers want from your company. Focus on your core competitive advantage today and tomorrow. That should guide senior management discussions what behaviors the company needs most. In technical terms, you need to organize workshops or interviews with line managers to get the main idea, then you need to boil it down and hammer it out. There should be a couple of feedback rounds between you and line-managers to ensure that the model is clear, easy to understand and hits the spot.

Yes, Competency Modeling is quite a "technical work", it requires experience and special talent. Yet, you cannot just rely on global documents, previous systems, big names. The most important ingredient is good ol' managerial common sense! 

Written by: Gabor Nagy