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Louis Gerstner, chairman of IBM from 1993 until 2002, recalls in his autobiography, the company’s use of a competence model for leadership and change. He acknowledged that they had too many of these competences, but that, by and large, they contributed to three things: created a common language, provided a sense of consistency and formed the basis for performance management. As you can see, he did not say that it created good leaders.

And I think there is a profound learning here. Most competence-based frameworks for, say change, leadership or talent management are more useful as a language for the tribe than as tools to facilitate change, shape leaders or ‘manage’ talent.

At that time in IBM, which Gerstner was referring too, the leadership competence system in the company had eleven of these, which eventually they ‘summarised’ into three. Most of the competence systems I know today run into several dozens, a broad supermarket of ‘pieces’ that one has to ‘have’ in order to be categorised into a particular box, which usually is related to a particular salary or compensation.

There is a whole industry of consultancies selling these boxes and categorisations, which usually look conspicuously similar to those of the multinational next door. They all successfully pass the universal test: they are impossible to disagree with. Teamwork, collaboration, ‘drives change’, empowerment, proactivity, ‘provides clear instructions’, results focused, openness and customer-centrism, are ‘fundamental to your leadership structure’. (I have just saved you a few thousand dollars or any other currency for consulting fees).

So there you are. The trick now is the dosage. Lower ranks have less of them; as you go up the ladder, you have more of them. By which mechanism one goes from ‘manages change’ to ‘leads change’ and then ‘anticipates change’, is never clear to anybody. The linguistic injection of steroids seems to be enough to expect the differences between levels. And if you land in a higher rank box by accident or imposed reorganization, you seem to inherit the competencies of the new box. The corporate Father Christmas has just given you abilities you did not even know you had.

One of my tired, recurrent jokes in this area is that these systems seem to have been created by a quantum physicist, but this usually gives Quantum Physics a bad name.

But, the language, oh, the language. That is marvellous. Conversations about people and talent management rituals by HR could not take place without the language and its dialects. And that is a serious asset, as Gerstner acknowledged.

Don’t expect the perfect leader to be the sum of a perfect high dose combination of competences. But expect perfect conversations about career progression and bonuses.

Despite appearances, this is not a rant against competence systems. It is a rant against outdated and past-looking competence systems. I can assure you that if you have one of those systems in place, and are performing well, the chances are your company is fully prepared for the past.

The trick, that many of those ‘human capital consultancies’ do not seem to provide is how to look at strategic, future looking capabilities. That is much harder because one has to project oneself into the unknown and acknowledge that a copy and paste of the competences that seem to have served so far, equally yourself and your neighbours by the way,  are going to be in the best case a pass, a baseline, and at worst, completely unsuitable for you.

However, since language is providing you with a powerful glue, it’s going to be difficult to abandon those quantum physics boxes.

But, frankly, I can’t see any other option. It will take a brave leadership team to look at those boxes and say: seriously?

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