Management Development ForumVol. 1 - No. 2 (98)
Modeling Leadership Competencies at the US Postal Service
Deborah L. Whetzel, Laura A. Steighner, and Michael R. Patsfall
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Deborah L. Whetzel, Laura A. Steighner, and Michael R. Patsfall

The mailing industry is facing greater challenges in terms of competitors and external factors than ever before. In response to these challenges, the U.S. Postal Service undertook a study to examine the competencies required for Postal Service executives for successful performance, using an inductive approach. By having participants discuss the behaviors associated with the competencies, developmental experiences can be created that are intended to change behavior. The model developed to describe the competencies needed for successful performance for Postal Service executives will be used for a variety of purposes, including as a communications document to describe job expectations to upcoming executives. To the extent that the model exemplifies a participative, people- and business-oriented organization, the model is likely to result in some degree of organizational change.


The mailing industry is facing greater challenges in terms of competitors and external factors than ever before. FedEx and the United Parcel Service are considered competitors, and advances in technology, including e-mail and facsimiles, are affecting the market share held by the U.S. Postal Service. In addition, there are regulatory constraints that prevent the organization from offering products and services with prices that compare favorably with those of the competition. To face these challenges, the Postal Service needs strong leadership to guide its more than 800,000 employees into the future.

In the next three to five years, the Postal Service is expected to experience a shortage of executive-level leadership. As “baby boomers” have grown up and are preparing to retire, the organization is concerned that there are few leaders ready to step into their positions. To identify developmental needs of current managers so that they can succeed current leaders, the Postal Service developed an executive competency model. This paper will describe the organizational structure at the Postal Service, provide a brief review of the competency modeling literature, and describe the method used to identify and define the competencies required for successful performance at the executive level.

Organizational Structure of the Postal Service

The Postal Service is led by the Postmaster General. Twenty-three headquarters vice presidents and ten area vice presidents report to the Postmaster General, and are considered senior officers. The territory of the Postal Service is divided into ten geographical areas that are further divided into 85 districts. Each district is led by a district manager and a lead plant manager. In some districts, the lead plant manager reports to the district manager; in others, both the district manager and the lead plant manager report to an area vice president. There are several other executives who also report to an area vice president, such as manager of quality, manager of finance, and manager of human resources. District managers primarily focus on customer service and delivery issues, whereas lead plant managers are responsible for processing and distributing the mail at various plants in their districts. Executive postmasters are responsible for post offices in large cities and typically report to district managers. At headquarters, each vice president has several executives reporting to him or her. This study focused on the executive positions residing at headquarters, area offices, and in the field (i.e., district managers, lead plant managers, and executive-level postmasters).

Brief History of Job Analysis and Competency Modeling

The “competency movement” began with McClelland’s (1973) attempt to identify tests and other instruments that predict performance and minimize adverse impact on minorities and females. The idea was that “competence” rather than intelligence should be measured. The work of McClelland (1976) resulted in the creation of a research process called the Job Competence Assessment Method (JCAM). JCAM is an analytical, empirical method for determining the competencies that, in addition to other job elements, are used to construct a competency model for a job.

While the debate continues about methods for reducing adverse impact while maintaining validity, the identification of competencies has gained some prominence in recent years. In the training field, there has been some debate about the definition of competencies. Klemp (1980) defines a job competency as an underlying characteristic of a person that results in effective and/or superior performance in a job. He further states that a competency may be a motive, trait, skill, or body of knowledge, and that a person may not be aware that he or she possesses it. Zemke (1982) interviewed several experts in the training field to determine “precisely what makes a competency” (p. 28). He concluded that there is no unified agreement about what constitutes a competency. He states:
However, in the field of industrial psychology, the definition has been fairly consistent. The definition that appears to be most common is that competencies are knowledge, skills, abilities and other characteristics (KSAOs) required to perform a job (Bemis, Belenky, and Soder, 1983; Ghorpade, 1988). For the remainder of this paper, we will use the definition of competency consistent with the literature in the field of industrial psychology.

The history of using job analysis to identify KSAOs, or competencies, dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. Munsterberg (1913), one of the founders of industrial psychology, studied the characteristics of motormen working in the Electric Railway Service and the abilities needed by telephone operators working on switchboards. Following World War II, a great deal of job analysis research was conductedboth in the military and civilian sectors. Job analysis was also conducted by the Department of Labor to analyze civilian jobs as large numbers of military personnel entered the civilian labor force. The military developed links between military occupational specialties and private sector jobs using civilian job titles. The publication of the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures (EEOC, CSC, DOL, and DOJ, 1978) required the use of job analysis and identification of KSAOs/competencies to validate instruments used to make personnel decisions.

In the 1970s and 1980s, a distinction was made between inductive and deductive approaches to job analysis. The inductive approach begins with the collection of information about jobs from subject matter experts, which can take several forms, such as a task analysis in which job tasks are identified and clustered into task categories, or the critical incidents approach in which subject matter experts describe situations representing different levels of job performance. The job analyst then organizes the information and creates categories of job behavior and attributes (or competencies) required to perform the behaviors. This approach is typically used to create tailor-made competency models that support the development of company-specific selection systems and training programs.

In contrast to the inductive approach, the deductive approach begins with a classification scheme or taxonomy requiring subject matter experts to indicate their job relevance. Examples of this approach are attribute-based worker characteristics in Functional Job Analysis (FJA), (Fine and Wiley, 1971); or the Position Analysis Questionnaire (PAQ) (McCormick, Mecham, and Jeanneret, 1972). The FJA approach was used to identify competencies required for approximately 12,000 jobs in the U.S. economy included in the U.S. Department of Labor’s Dictionary of Occupational Titles. The PAQ asks respondents to rate the extent to which a variety of worker and job attributes are relevant to the job being analyzed. One set of worker attributes or competencies is mental processes (i.e., reasoning, decision-making, planning and information processing requirements to perform jobs). The Occupational Information Network, intended to replace the Dictionary of Occupational Titles with a national database on occupations (O*NET) (Peterson, Mumford, Borman, Jeanneret, and Fleishman, 1996), contains virtually all major kinds of job descriptors, or competencies. Categories of descriptors include worker requirements (e.g., basic skills, cross-functional skills, and knowledge) and worker characteristics (e.g., abilities, interests, and work styles). As discussed above, these terms often are used to define competencies. This approach is typically used to develop databases of job attributes that can be used, for example, to create equitable compensation systems.

Recently, competency models have become popular in the public sector. Studies have been conducted, for example, by the Federal Aviation Administration and the Office of Personnel Management. This paper presents the Postal Service’s effort to identify the competencies required for executive-level performance.

The executive competency model will provide the foundation for identifying the developmental needs of current managers to prepare them to succeed our current leaders. The inductive approach was used to identify the competencies required for executive positions for a number of reasons. Primarily, this approach was used because an a priori model would not have provided specific input to training and developmental experiences. By having participants discuss the behaviors associated with the competencies, developmental experiences can be created that are intended to change behavior from “needs improvement” to “outstanding.”

Method and Results


Subjects participated in two phases of this project: (1) interviews/focus groups to identify executive competencies, and (2) workshops to develop behaviorally-based rating scales. Participants in the interview/focus group phase were 166 executives (area executives N = 30; district managers N = 33; plant managers N = 40; postmasters N = 13; headquarters executives N = 26) and senior officers (area vice presidents N = 10; headquarters vice presidents N = 14) in the U.S. Postal Service; 84% were male, and 16% were female. Interviewees were selected from across the country to ensure geographic representation, including headquarters and field offices. Rating scale workshop participants were 21 executives (area executives N = 4; district managers N = 4; plant managers N = 4; postmasters N = 4; headquarters executives N = 5), representing a subset of those interviewed in the previous phase of this project.

Procedure and Results

To identify the competencies required for performance at the executive level, a protocol was developed for individual interviews and focus groups with incumbent executives. The interviews started with general questions about the business context, then became more specific with questions about roles and responsibilities, the competencies required to perform their jobs, and finally sample behaviors indicative of successful performance. For interviews with senior officers, the focus of the protocol was on the boss’s perspective of his or her direct report’s (i.e., the executive’s) position, using the same structured protocol.

Prior to conducting the interviews, interviewers gathered for a two-day orientation on the project and interview protocol. Interviewers were psychologists from Corporate Training and Development within the Postal Service and consultants from Coopers and Lybrand. In total, 89 individual interviews and 18 focus groups (N = 77) were conducted with incumbent executives and senior officers. In most cases, interviews were conducted in person; however, some were conducted by phone. Face-to-face interviews and focus groups were conducted by a two-person team of interviewers, one Postal Service psychologist and one consultant, to ensure the quality of the data reported.

The data were analyzed for each of the five executive positions. Project team members reviewed the data, separating individual statements of KSAOs identified during the interviews, then sorting them according to conceptual similarity, thereby forming a competency category.

To develop behaviorally-based rating scales for each competency, five workshops were conducted, one for each executive position included in this study. For each competency, participants were asked to think of executives they know who have performed at each of three levels of proficiency (outstanding, meets expectations, and needs improvement) and then to describe behaviors they have seen these executives exhibit. Participants were instructed to first describe behaviors associated with meets expectations in order to set a standard or baseline for each competency, and then to describe behaviors indicative of outstanding and needs improvement.

The behaviors were then analyzed to minimize the extent of redundancy or overlap across competencies. From this process, some competencies were combined, reducing the original number of competencies from 51 to 31. This process provided validation of the model in that incumbents had to be able to define each competency in behavioral terms. If they could not generate behaviors or if they generated the same behaviors for more than one competency, there was evidence to suggest a revision to the model. For example, because the behaviors identified for goal setting represented a subset of those identified for program/project management, goal setting was eliminated as a separate competency. Competency definitions and rating scales were then finalized for each competency. The set of competencies are shown in Figure 1. A sample rating scale may be found in Figure 2.

In addition to reducing the number of competencies in the model, the workshops also revealed that if a competency was required for two different jobs, the behaviors exhibited by incumbents were the same for that competency. For example, participants in all five workshops discussed the need for leadership and team building and identified similar behaviors at all three proficiency levels. This suggests that at the executive level, the behaviors required for leadership and team building are nearly the same regardless of whether the incumbent is an area executive or a district manager.


This study has several substantive and methodological implications. Regarding the content of the model, a total of 31 competencies were identified as required for success as an executive in the Postal Service. The results indicated some differences between the competencies required for the several executive positions included in this study. However, since there was a great deal of individual variation about the use of various competencies, making broad statements about the requirements of specific jobs was neither feasible nor useful. It was also interesting to note that the behaviors describing outstanding, meets expectations and needs improvement were the same regardless of the job. One explanation for this finding is that all of these jobs are executive level positions.

One initiative extending from this project is to identify the competencies required for success as a mid-level manager at the Postal Service. One hypothesis is that there will be some distinctions between the competencies required at the mid-manager level and those required at the executive level. For example, directing and developing others and operations direction and control may be required at both levels, while others (e.g., business vision and strategic positioning) will only be relevant for executives. For those competencies required for both levels, it will be necessary to determine the extent to which the behaviors defining the competencies are the same or different.

In reviewing the literature on managerial performance, Boyatzis (1982) identified 21 competencies. These include developing others; concern with impact; spontaneity, stamina and adaptability; and use of oral presentations. These have clear overlap with the Postal Service model, as shown in Figure 1 (e.g., directing and developing others, operations planning, initiative, flexibility, and oral communication). Spencer and Spencer (1993) provide a “Competency Dictionary” in which competencies are clustered under competency families, including achievement and action; helping and human service; impact and influence; and managerial, cognitive, and personal effectiveness. Under the managerial cluster, they describe specific competencies, such as developing others (including teaching and training, coaching others, assuring subordinates’ growth and development), directiveness (including taking charge, firmness in enforcing quality standards), teamwork and cooperation (including conflict resolution and motivating others), and team leadership (including vision and building a sense of group purpose). A comparison between the competencies described here and those listed in Figure 1 shows a high degree of similarity between the two models. One possible conclusion is that the requirements for effective performance as a Postal Service executive is comparable to those for executives in other organizations and industries. The value of the present study, however, is the identification of position- and organization-specific competencies (e.g., operations planning, integrated policy/program application), as well as the generation of behaviorally-based rating scales for each competency.

On the methodological side, the use of an inductive approach and the process of defining competencies in behavioral terms enabled the creation of a model that is economical, business-focused, and geared toward application. The inductive approach provided for the identification of common themes across positions and the potential to identify position-specific competencies. For example, it is probably true that a headquarters executive is more likely to engage in behaviors that require strategic positioning, and plant managers are likely to focus on activities that require operations direction and control. Since there is a high degree of individual variation in the use of the competencies, no guidelines have been provided about differences between jobs. Had a deductive approach been used with an existing taxonomy, subtle differences may have been masked, as subject matter experts may have been inclined to respond in a socially desirable manner (i.e., they may have erroneously identified a number of competencies as job-relevant).

The process of identifying behaviors associated with each competency served to refine the model by eliminating competencies that contained overlapping behaviors. The result was a more economical model. If the study had been terminated after the initial interview sessions, the model would have contained several redundant competencies within job categories. This would have created application problems in that assessing executive performance using this model would have resulted in a greater degree of halo (i.e., individuals would be rated positively or negatively for the same behaviors for more than one competency).

Applications of the Model

Several potential applications exist for the executive competency model, including succession planning, training, compensation, performance appraisal, and selection. When behaviors are included to define competencies, the model becomes a method of setting standards. In other words, by defining behaviors that “meet expectations” for a given competency, one can clearly communicate performance expectations to employees. Simply providing a list of competencies without associated behaviors may read more like “motherhood and apple pie” positive attributes that sound good but do not describe competent performance. As a result, the model becomes an organization change document as well as a model to be used for a variety of purposes.

Currently, the Postal Service is using the model as input for training content and as the foundation for an assessment of potential successors into executive positions. Specifically, the model is being used to lay the foundation for developing training experiences to prepare mid-level managers to succeed in the organization. For example, discussion exercises are being designed around competencies such as business vision (i.e., “Where is the company going?” and “How will we deal with our competitors?”). One part of the evaluation of this course will concern the extent to which participants’ individual action plans focus on the competencies, rather than on subjective sets of traits they think may be important for future development.

An initiative to develop an assessment process founded on the executive competency model is currently underway. The assessment process is likely to include assessment center exercises, 360-degree feedback instruments, or both, and will focus on the extent to which candidates possess each competency. The resulting assessment will be used as a tool by senior officers for selection into executive-level positions. For example, if operations direction and control is needed to perform a given job, an in-basket test requiring a candidate to respond to memos and e-mails regarding the daily operation of a plant may be a useful tool to determine if someone possesses that competency. Similarly, if oral communication skills are important for a particular job, having candidates give presentations would be a useful selection tool.

The competency model can also be useful for succession planning and for performance management. Potential successors and incumbents can be evaluated using the competency model as the framework to identify strengths and areas for improvement. The behaviorally-based rating scales can be particularly valuable for providing detailed feedback. For example, if someone is performing at the needs improvement level, one can easily identify the behaviors that should be discontinued and those listed under outstanding as behaviors that should be performed. Under operations direction and control, a behavior that needs improvement is “Attends to too many indicators, rather than a ‘vital few’.” If this were a problem for an employee, one might point this out and then point to an outstanding behavior, such as “Consistently defines and extracts key indicators from data analysis.” Knowing what comprises needs improvement and outstanding can be very useful for monitoring future behavior.

In sum, the model developed to describe the competencies needed for successful performance for Postal Service executives will be used for a variety of purposes. Perhaps the most important purpose is as a communications document to describe job expectations to upcoming executives. To the extent that the model exemplifies a participative, people- and business-oriented organization, the model is likely to result in some degree of organizational change.

Figure 1 Executive Competency Model at the U.S. Postal Service

Business Vision
Sees beyond today to create and communicate an inspired vision or sense of core purpose for the organization that goes beyond past history or current difficulties.
Strategic Thinking
Assesses a situation broadly, defines realistic goals, and conceives effective strategies and action plans.
Judgment/Decision Making
Develops logical alternative options based on reliable information/data and takes action with a level of risk appropriate to the situation.
Problem Solving
Detects, describes, and develops implications for problems and opportunities relevant to USPS short- and long-term interests.
Operations Planning
Develops action plans that realize operational objectives within the constraints of available resources.
Strategic Positioning
Positions the USPS in a favorable light before a broad range of stakeholders (e.g., Congress, oversight groups, Board of Governors, and unions) having substantive influence over the current and future business and operations.
Communicating Policy/Program Information
Receives from headquarters, interprets and communicates to senior management staff the broad policies, guidelines, and operating principles that guide USPS business and operations activities; serves as two-way communications intermediary for resolving problems in interpretation and deployment.
Oral Communication
Expresses information and ideas in one-on-one and group presentations and interactions.
Written Communication
Organizes and expresses thoughts and information in writing in a manner that meets the needs and requirements of the intended audience.
Understands and verifies the needs of others; seeks input and feedback from colleagues and customers; asks questions to understand more about a situation and learn about different perspectives.
Public Relations
Interacts with a broad range of individuals and groups that are relevant to USPS interests (e.g., governmental bodies, customers, press, community leaders, and the general public).
Customer Relations
Deals effectively with the broad range of customers; presents product/service offerings so as to drive customer perspectives and preferences.
Local Community Relations
Participates in local community activities; promotes image of USPS as good corporate citizen.
Leadership and Team Building
Influences and directs the activities of individuals and groups such that a higher level of performance is achieved; encourages and motivates others to become involved in projects and work activities; directs team projects and encourages members to perform.
Interpersonal Sensitivity
Recognizes and acts on the feelings, needs and motives of others; reads others well.
Makes active attempts to influence events to achieve goals and objectives; takes responsibility for getting things done; rearranges own time to fulfill commitments to customers or colleagues.
Quickly and effectively adjusts to new work requirements, ideas, job demands, or social situations.
Conflict Management
Steps up to conflicts, seeing them as opportunities for improvement; negotiates agreements and settles disputes equitably.
Managing Diversity
Manages all kinds of people equitably; deals effectively with all races, nationalities, cultures, job levels, ages, and both genders; supports equal and fair treatment and opportunity for all.
Resource/Financial Planning
Establishes sound plans for the effective use of USPS resources (e.g., compliment and capital); supports those plans with financial projections, budgetary implications, and budget negotiations.
Makes a Business Case
Conveys an understanding of major external issues, internal capabilities, and sources of competitive advantage in defining desired objectives or outcomes; defines strategies, plans, and anticipated business impact to complete the business case; reaches for business closure.
Directing and Developing Others
Provides clear direction and direct feedback; provides a relationship and a job setting which encourage growth and personal development in others; provides the information and resources people need to do their jobs.
Change Agent
Conveys sound reasons for change and provides a “vision” of a desired future state; reassures and works effectively with people to assist them in making the transition from the present state to the desired future state.
Program/Project Management
Defines objectives, develops plans, and implements plans in order to achieve needed business results; leverages internal and external resources in order to achieve priority goals and objectives.
Cross-Functional Integration
Identifies concerns of various functions and incorporates those concerns in policies and programs as part of conducting daily business.
Reviews data to anticipate customer needs; communicates USPS products and services to customers; positions USPS as the provider of choice for high quality at low cost.
Workforce Management
Establishes a positive workplace environment to meet business needs; identifies wants and needs of USPS employees; establishes performance expectations; monitors performance, maintains standards of conduct, ensures compliance with rules and procedures, and takes appropriate action.
Monitoring Adherence to Government Regulations
Assesses USPS compliance with government regulations (e.g., legislative and environmental) and determines the impacts of compliance on Postal Service operations and customer service.
Operations Direction and Control
Provides direction to and control over day-to-day operational activities; identifies the processes and the people necessary to get things done; organizes people and activities; develops efficient work flow.
Technology Planning/Implementation
Develops plans for the implementation of new technology that account for technical feasibility, financial/budgetary impact, customer and process impact, and human resources considerations; implements technology-based systems and processes, adjusting for problems and measuring results.
Demonstrates dependability and trustworthiness; courageously upholds ethical and professional standards, even in the face of opposition; reconciles differences between personal values and organizational values; accepts responsibility for one’s own actions.

Figure 2. Example of a behaviorally-based rating scale for Business Vision: Sees beyond today to create and communicate an inspired vision or sense of core purpose for the organization that goes beyond past history or current difficulties

Needs Improvement
Meets Expectations
Inaccurately assesses important customer needs (e.g., functional, business, financial)
Ineffectively positions USPS solutions to meet customer needs
Analyzes marketplace characteristics, but does not communicate business implications of customer issues to other postal employees
Develops/maintains few relationships with internal network
Identifies potential areas to grow the business and increase customer satisfaction
Regularly updates knowledge to ensure timely awareness of market and postal industry issues likely to impact the USPS
Meets with customers to identify major customer needs and the means by which USPS can serve those needs Communicates the implications of key marketplace characteristics that play important roles in affecting business performance, including postal industry processes, performance outcomes, and business results
Articulates where the USPS will be in the future and implications for function/site
Evaluates external factors (e.g., legislative, environmental) influencing the business/function
Develops creative and effective approaches through which the USPS will be considered a prime candidate to meet technological, service, business, financial, and related needs
Articulates ways in which postal industry dynamics will interact with customer strategies and tactics to influence future customer needs
Proactively positions the USPS as a strategic partner helping to meet future customer needs
Uses quantitative and qualitative information sources to anticipate and articulate business opportunities
Articulates vision based on a consistent past track record and the extent to which previous visions were successfully implemented


Bemis, S. E., Belenky, A. H., and Soder, D. A. (1983). Job analysis. Washington, DC: Bureau of National Affairs, Inc.

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Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Civil Service Commission, Department of Labor, and Department of Justice. (1978, August). Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures. Federal Register, 43, 38290-38315.

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Peterson, N. G., Mumford, M. D., Borman, W. C., Jeanneret, P. R., and Fleishman, E. A. (Eds.). (1996). O*NET final technical report (Vol. 1-3). Salt Lake City, UT: Utah Department of Employment Security.

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Deborah L. Whetzel is a psychologist with Employee Development at the U.S. Postal Service. In that capacity, she has worked on several projects including creating the Executive Competency Model. Prior to her employment with the Postal Service, she was a senior research scientist for the American Institutes for Research where she worked on several skills identification projects, including the Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills. She earned her Master’s degree in psychology from George Mason University and her PhD in industrial/organization psychology from George Washington University.

Laura A. Steighner is a psychologist with Employee Development at the U.S. Postal Service. During her tenure, she has been involved in a variety of projects, including conducting training needs assessments, evaluating training effectiveness, and developing training products. She has both a Master’s degree and a PhD in industrial and organizational psychology from the University of South Florida.

Michael R. Patsfall is a psychologist with Employee Development at the U.S. Postal Service. As a Team Leader, he has both managed and participated in the development, implementation, and evaluation of numerous selection, training, and organizational development programs. Before joining the Postal Service in 1988, he was employed with Lockheed Space Operations Company, Kennedy Space Center, where he was involved in the design and implementation of programs in management selection, training, and process quality. He earned his Master’s degree in Psychology from Xavier University and a PhD in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

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