This week on the Distance Leader Podcast show 0110, we’re talking about different definitions of performance and leadership competencies. Here are some of our guiding questions:

  • How are competencies used for employees in a meaningful way?
  • How are competencies used for leadership roles?
  • How do competencies differ for distance leaders than face-to-face leaders?

Competencies as a framework

  • Often organizations develop competencies as a way to measure… something. It’s not quite clear, but the goal is to recognize behaviors and habits that lead to business success. Remember, in Episode 0109, we discussed what competencies were and what they were not.
  • “Grading” employees in an organization is part of the process. Unless you are self-employed, most organizations feel that there has to be a way to identify strong performing employees versus those who are struggling in their roles.

The Goldilocks zone for competencies
Competencies should live in the “Goldilocks” zone: Not too broad, not too narrow. They should be just right. However, not every role in the organization fits easily in the same competencies for everyone. Competencies should describe the goal behaviors and skills of employees. If they are too broad, they are something like “position vision statements,” and if they are too narrow, the competencies become a job description.

Competencies for leaders and distance leaders
Leadership competencies have been studied for years, and leadership can almost always be described as roles that are fluid. Let’s face it: “solving business problems” is hard to define. How do you build a competency around “adapting to change”?

  • Some researchers have taken an even more general approach: Green and McCann (2011) placed more specific concepts around leadership competencies, including honesty, respect, integrity, and trust, as well as practicing those expectations that the leader wished to find in subordinates.
  • Somewhat different approach, but still a valid one depending on the organization. This was a behavioral leadership goal followed by “commitments,” which are the skills related to the behavior. 
  • There’s a whole field around leadership competency training, since flexibility and adaptability to multiple work environments is a common characteristic of business.
  • Another approach is to develop a continuum of behaviors that support a business competency. 

Competencies and professional development

One researcher team  found that there was a gap in the literature in the comparison of how professional development in competencies actually improve leadership competencies(Dragoni, Tesluk, Russell, & Oh, 2009). After all, shouldn’t leadership training actually make a difference in both skills and behaviors? What they found in their follow-up research was interesting: People participated in professional development to learn new skills, but also to avoid negative judgements about their work quality.

  • Whether clearly stated or not, learning goals to build competency were perceived as more valuable when new managerial roles or opportunities could involve the new skills available in training.
  • Why train someone on a new skill that doesn’t apply to their role, or a role they are moving into? 
  • Are you helping your employees make good professional development choices, and then giving them opportunities to use those new skills?

Bottom line

  • When looking at competencies, try to see the “Goldilocks” zone where the competencies are not too narrow and not too broad.
  • Collaborate with your employees and your team on what the company-issued competencies should be, the approach of developing a behavioral target followed by skill-level commitments may be an effective tool.
  • Think about competencies and skills when evaluating professional development.


Dragoni, L., Tesluk, P. E., Russell, J. E. A., & Oh, I.-S. (2009). Understanding managerial development: integrating developmental assignments, learning orientation, and access to developmental opportunities in predicting managerial competencies. Academy of Management Journal, 52(4), 731-743. 

Green, D. D., & McCann, J. (2011). Benchmarking a leadership model for the green economy. Benchmarking: An International Journal, 18(3), 445-465. doi:10.1108/14635771111137804

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

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0110-Leadership & Employee Competencies