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Perspective: Time to Rethink Competencies?

DDI’s co-founder and chairman Bill Byham believes that developing competencies isn’t enough to give leaders the skills they need most.
Perspective: Time to Rethink Competencies?

For decades, competencies have formed the basis of leadership development programs and served as the hub around which talent systems are integrated. But is it possible that the widespread acceptance and use of competencies is deflecting attention away from other important leadership skills?

Bill Byham, Ph.D., DDI’s co-founder and chairman, thinks so. Long one of the leading champions of competencies, Byham now believes that a singular focus on competencies can result in leaders not developing some basic, yet important, skills they also need. What leaders need to master, he insists, are essential interaction skills. That is, the skills that leaders need in order to have successful interactions with their team members and peers. And while they are part of almost all competencies, these interaction skills are seldom the focus of selection or development.

“Leaders need to do two things,” Byham says. “They need to build relationships with subordinates, peers, and their manager, and they need to get things done when they meet with those individuals one-to-one or in groups. “To meet personal needs, they have to be able to listen, empathize, and know how to best involve and support their people. They also need to become skilled at using a practical process for facilitating successful interactions and making sure that the best outcomes emerge. These skills for meeting personal and practical needs are the ones they should master before moving on to more advanced or specialized leadership skills in the form of competencies.”

For example, consider a leadership competency such as coaching. To be an effective coach—a leadership role associated with all organizational levels —a leader needs to listen effectively to fully understand the situation, employ empathy to show understanding of the individual’s perspective, and provide the right guidance and support while stopping short of stepping in and taking over. The leader also must know how to structure and conduct conversations for optimal clarity and impact.

“What’s important to remember about these essential interaction skills is that they’re really nothing new,” Byham says.

“Organizations change, the business world changes, but the reality is that people, and human behavior, remain stubbornly constant.”

So, what’s the right approach for organizations to develop the essential interaction skills in their leaders?

“It’s time that organizations understand that developing competencies alone, without also deliberately targeting the essential interaction skills that make up competencies, deprives leaders of important developmental building blocks,” Byham says. “Organizations need to make sure their leaders are developing the essentials first.”

Of course, Byham points out, providing training in essential interaction skills is not the same as developing them. That requires practicing these skills over and over again in a setting where constructive feedback is available. It also requires an environment where leaders will be supported in, and held accountable for, the ongoing use of the essential interaction skills as part of their jobs.

“The interaction essentials are important, but helping develop them does no good whatsoever if leaders don’t change their behavior. That hasn’t changed and never will.”



  • Learn more about how DDI’s Interaction Management® builds the interaction essentials while developing competencies.
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