|Vol. 1 - No. 2 (98)
In Search of Management Competence
Honey Donovan and Nicci Whitehouse
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IN SEARCH OF MANAGEMENT COMPETENCE: THE WESTERN AUSTRALIAN EXPERIENCE
Honey Donovan and Nicci Whitehouse
The challenge of developing competency standards for senior executives and chief executive officers that are flexible enough to be used across the wide range of operating environments within the public sector was taken up by the Public Sector Management Office in the Ministry of the Premier and Cabinet in Western Australia. A set of executive competency frameworks was developed, with tools to facilitate their application to recruitment and selection.
The changing face of the workplace is a global issue. Responding to these changes and challenges while maintaining a strong competitive edge requires new styles of leadership and different skills. Leaders must now demonstrate the ability to seek new opportunities, to facilitate and motivate an effective workforce, and to achieve a strong customer focus. This skill set includes the ability to motivate, build teams, resolve conflicts, and to guide the workforce through the process of change. The need for this change of leadership style is reinforced by an overall increase in responsibility and the ever-widening spans of control. Decisions require speed, quality of decision making, flexibility, and responsiveness to create an environment to ensure that work is done faster and better, particularly through the process of downsizing or reengineering.
A Competency Approach to Leadership
The term competency is no longer new to most human resource practitioners. Competency is defined by the former Australian National Training Board as “the necessary knowledge and skills to perform a particular work role to the standard required within industry.” Many industries have been engaged in recent years in developing competency standards to underpin their human resource development systems.
The Public Sector Management Division in Western Australia, in conjunction with the Western Australian Public Administration Industry Training Council, has been active in seeking to define the competency requirements for employees. This led to the publication in 1995 of the Generic Competency Standards for the Western Australian Public Sector (documenting competencies for levels 1 through 8 within the sector) and most recently, in June of 1996, to the release of Competency Frameworks for senior executives and chief executive officers.
This paper focuses largely on the latter, while referring to the context in which both sets of standards were developed.
The Context: The Competency Model and the Sector
The competency based model developed in the Western Australian public sector was shaped by a range of human resource strategies that have affected employment in Australia since the late 1980s (Gaines, 1995). The model preceded the national training reform agenda and had its antecedence in a multi-skilling and job redesign project in Western Australia in the late 1980s. The model also arose out of the 1989 structural efficiency principle in which it was proposed that productivity improvement by white collar administrative, professional, and technical employees in the public service would be achieved via a broad skills management strategy.
The early competency-based management (CBM) project encompassed a broader definition than “skill.” It also included knowledge, contextual application, and performance criteria. This definition has persisted in the development of the executive competency frameworks, although some of the less “friendly” language and descriptor complexities were abandoned.
The Western Australian public sector itself is a highly devolved, diffuse, and complex environment. The Public Sector Management Act of 1994 recognized that all chief executive officers have full discretion in the management of human resources. The sector has some 123 separate employers ranging from large employers of over 20,000 in health and education agencies, to medium and small agencies. Understanding this complex environment is relevant to understanding the need for a highly flexible model of competencies in the West Australian public sector.
The Product: What’s Different?
The Executive Competency Framework describes the generic knowledge, skills, and attributes required by members of the Western Australian public sector senior executive service for high-level performance. The Chief Executive Officer Competency Framework offers a similar analysis for its constituents and, while very like its executive counterpart, differs subtly but significantly in scope and context.
In keeping with similar products throughout the world, the frameworks were intended to be flexible enough to enable the development of competence across the wide range of operating environments within the public sector.
The use of competency standards to underpin developmental activities (on and off the job) is well documented (for example, Elkin, 1990; Karpin, 1995). What is different about the Western Australian product is that the frameworks were published with tools to facilitate their immediate application to employee recruitment and selection and to performance management. These tools will be described later in the paper.
The methodology employed to develop the competencies was composed of a number of phases.
Phase I: Clarification of Outcomes and Research
In phase I, the project consultant interviewed members of the project steering committee to clarify the desired project outcomes. This committee had executive level members from central and line organizations chosen for particular expertise or interest in the project subject. As a result of this clarification, the consultant had a clear mandate to develop competency frameworks that:
(a) reflected the generic management competencies that senior executives and chief executive officers in the Western Australian public sector will require to perform their roles successfully into the next millennium;
(b) were sufficiently detailed to underpin structured competency-based training programs, i.e., defined each competency clearly and provided some guideposts for assessment;
(c) were “user friendly,” and achieved broad acceptance among the constituency;
(d) drew on existing literature on management competencies.
A review of existing competency frameworks for senior executives was then undertaken. Among the literature examined were frameworks from four other states of Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom (See Appendix 3). This literature presented competency standards employed for use both in the private and public sector.
The project consultant also considered material put out by the Center for Creative Leadership in the U.S.
Phase II: Draft Framework and Focus Groups
A draft competency framework was developed that drew on common themes from the literature. Two focus groups were then convened to consider the draft framework, and proceedings were audiotaped. Focus group I consisted of senior executives (below chief executive officer level) who were approached on the basis of providing a mix of gender, ethnicity, public service level, and size of employing agency.
Focus group II participants were chosen as an “expert group” to view the framework from their particular area of expertise (these were not all executive level individuals). Interests such as equity, industrial/employee relations, and training accreditation were represented in this focus group.
The comments of the focus groups were used to modify the initial draft, which was then returned to focus group members for comment. When the latter feedback was taken into account, a penultimate draft of the competency framework was produced.
Phase III: Chief Executive Officer Framework
The draft framework at this stage addressed the competencies required by senior executives and did not reflect the competency needs of chief executive officers.
To arrive at this differentiation, six chief executive officers were interviewed in depth using the draft framework from phase II as a starting point. Chief executive officers were targeted to allow for representation of both genders and from small and large agencies. These interviews were audiotaped and analyzed to provide data to assist in modifying the existing framework to develop one that specifically defined the competency needs of chief executive officers.
Phase IV: Validation of Executive Frameworks
A questionnaire was devised to send out to all public sector senior executives and chief executive officers to gather feedback on the draft frameworks. Response rates were 54% for senior executives and 40% for chief executive officers.
Very little modification was made to the frameworks as a result of the feedback, as there was a high level of acceptance. No additional competencies were suggested by respondents.
The completed frameworks were promoted in the sector from June 1996.
Nature of the Competency Frameworks
Within each of the executive frameworks are nine competency strands or units. (The strands are summarized at Appendix 1.) In describing each competency strand the author sought to use not only clarifying definitions but also the power of story. The information provided within each strand is as follows:
· Strand name and definition
· Quotations from executives that relate to their understanding of the competency
· A word picture of an executive exhibiting competent behavior in relation to the competency
· Elements of the strand with definitions
· Indicators of effective and less effective performance
A competent senior executive will be able to integrate aspects of all of the strands concurrently.
Supporting the framework documents were two additional documents designed to assist agencies to translate the competencies for use in recruitment and selection, and performance management/development.
Competency Project Outcomes: An Analysis
Using the Competency Framework: Recruitment and Selection
In 1996 the Premier of Western Australia issued a directive that altered the criteria that were to be used to select both senior executives and chief executive officers. The criteria that were in use had been first described in 1986, and were both sparse and outdated. The new criteria were to be based on the nine competency strands and customized within job descriptions to provide the context within which the competency would be used. A sample set of the new “competency based” selection criteria for a chief executive officer position are provided at Appendix 2.
To assist agencies in making this transition, an information booklet explaining implementation was published concurrently with the frameworks to explain how this might be done.
Using the Competency Framework: Performance Feedback
Managing executive performance successfully remains a difficult issue in the public sector. The competency frameworks provide some clarity and focus with respect to what needs to be assessed and further developed when managing the performance of executives. A 360-degree feedback proforma was published concurrently with the frameworks to encourage executives to seek performance information in relation to their competence for themselves.
Using the Competency Framework: Training and Development
While the genesis of the competency model in the Western Australian public sector context was related to broader human resource management strategies, the traditional “home” of the competency approach is in the area of training and development. This has not been ignored in Western Australia, although it is fair to say that the penetration of the competencies would not have been nearly as great if their use had been confined to this area alone.
A sector-wide competency needs audit (again based on the frameworks) was undertaken to provide direction for strategic sector development activities. In addition, existing off-the-job development programs were analyzed against the executive competencies and curriculum altered where necessary to produce the learning outcomes required. Use of the competency framework to underpin formal training programs also strengthened the focus on including appropriate assessment techniques, including the provision for the recognition of prior learning (RPL). This is a particularly important “spin off” of competency based training in that it makes mandatory evaluation of learning, the “Level 2” of Kirkpatrick’s time honored model (Kirkpatrick, 1959).
Taking Stock: How Successful the Competency Approach?
Since their official release, considerable feedback on the frameworks has been received from both local and international sources. A number of other Australian jurisdictions have been enthusiastic about using the frameworks as a basis to develop their own executive competencies. Internationally, interest has been shown from as far afield as Canada. Within Western Australia, local government entities (the third tier of government within the Australian system) have been quick to see the relevance of the frameworks to their jurisdiction.
Much of the feedback from Western Australian state government agencies has related to the requirement to use the competencies when defining selection criteria for senior executive positions. Difficulties have been experienced by human resource managers in customizing the competency strands to reflect the context in which they are used within the agency. There is a sense too that “agency specific” contexts should be represented in the criteria in their own right (e.g., particular knowledge or experience) rather than “buried” as evidence in relation to a particular generic competency.
From the applicant’s point of view, the sheer volume of information provided by the frameworks (strands and their definitions; elements and their definitions; effective and less effective performance indicators) makes addressing the competencies as selection criteria appear highly complex. The applicants believe they must address each element of each strand (43 in all) in their written application or risk disqualification from an interview. This, of course, is not the intention and an education program is underway to assist potential applicants to better proscribe their applications.
Perhaps more seriously, the language of some of the competencies is seen by some as convoluted and misleading. Again, this is a criticism generally made in relation to the use of competencies as selection criteria. To address this issue a review of the competencies, including a further validation exercise, will take place in 1998. The “user friendly” nature of the competency frameworks will be a priority consideration in the review.
Significantly, little feedback has been received regarding the degree to which the frameworks adequately describe what it means to be a competent public sector executive as we go into the new millennium. It is possible this is because we “got it right” in the first instance or it may be that it is not important enough for executives to make their concerns known. While the review will seek to answer this, the projected use of the chief executive officer competency framework to underpin a “development center” for potential chief executives in 1998 will also further test the framework’s relevance.
The development and implementation of the executive competency frameworks has been both educative and exciting. It has been educative because despite the ease with which we arrived at consensus over what constitutes a competent leader, the use of those same competencies to select for appointment to positions has occasioned considerable debate among executives. The excitement has arisen from the degree to which the frameworks have stimulated discussion on leadership and the manner in which it can be nurtured in a workforce. In addition, the frameworks have cast the focus onto the “new” competencies of self-development and customer focus, while placing ethics and innovation firmly on the agenda. Perhaps the debate over selection based on leadership competencies reflects the broader debate of competency versus capability that has emerged in the literature, i.e., the importance of the less tangible capacity to “put it all together” on the job (Southern Cross University, 1995). However that is a discussion for another time and another paper.
APPENDIX 1 Competency Framework Strands
Leadership in the Work Environment
|Assuming an important role in promoting the development of an inspiring, relevant vision for the agency and influencing others to share ownership of agency goals, in order to provide clear strategic direction and to create an effective work environment
Facilitating Workforce Effectiveness
|Facilitating branch/division/unit workforce effectiveness through empowering, motivating, and developing people within a work environment that provides security and promotes mutual trust and respect.
Resourcing the Work Environment
|Ensuring that branch/division/unit resources, including human resource, financial, physical, technological, and information requirements, are available and effectively deployed to address strategic needs and maintain sustained product/service delivery.
Seeking and Accepting Opportunities
|Forward thinking, seeking and accepting opportunities for improved service and productivity, and mobilizing support and resources to optimize these opportunities through effective change strategies.
Promoting Effective Public Policy
|Initiating policy development and review within the context of the public policy environment, developing and maintaining networks to assist in the policy process, and providing advice to the Minister and ministerial staff.
|Strand 6: :
Building and Maintaining Relationships
|Establishing and maintaining positive working relationships with diverse groups of people within the public and private sectors, and wider community, through employing effective communication strategies.
Engaging in Self-Development
|Enhancing one’s own development and personal effectiveness through selecting appropriate training and development activities, by seeking feedback from others, and through engaging in critical reflection.
|A set of work-related characteristics and abilities which facilitate effective individual performance and high-quality work practices within the public sector.
Achieving Customer Focus
|Promoting a customer service ethos within the branch/division/agency by identifying the needs of a diverse customer base, and through ensuring that product/service delivery outcomes are consistent with customer needs and defined quality expectations.