Competencies are the behaviours that enable organizations to attain their strategic objectives. Along with trust, competence is integral to horizontal goal-setting approaches in public service motivation. To be successful, leaders need to know the corporate culture and continuously improve upon their general management capabilities. But competence is in the eye of the beholder.
In 1969, the Peter Principle popularized the view that, “Employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence.” The Principle has been reframed for today’s organizations, workplaces, and people. ‘Managing upwards’, subordinates find creative ways to promote greater interests while subtly limiting the havoc superiors might otherwise have wrought.
A generation of public managers has been raised in a counter culture vested in claims of competence. A cottage industry of HR specialists and consultants feasts on the spoils, with mixed results. Competency frameworks cascade standardized roles, attributes, behaviours, and measures across the performance landscape. Capping of competence is too often the outcome.
In the Government of Canada, the Management Accountability Framework institutionalizes ten leadership competencies as the expectations of Deputy Ministers. It starts with ‘governance and strategic direction’ and culminates in ‘results and performance’. Decisions and actions are framed by functional requirements, public service values, and the capacity to grow, learn, and innovate.
Four key leadership competencies are featured in public service hiring, appraisal, and development:
• Values and ethics – serving with integrity and respect;
• Strategic thinking – innovating through analysis and ideas;
• Engagement – mobilizing people, organizations, and partners; and
• Management excellence – delivering through action, people, and financial management.
Talent Management – the right people in the right jobs – underpins the competency framework. Fostering, mobilizing, and retaining talent is critical in fulfilling the Blueprint 2020 vision of “a capable, confident and high-performing workforce.” But succession planning and leadership development remain surreal and elusive. And assessment struggles to differentiate competence from celebrity.
Around the world, questions persist about whether public managers have the right stuff for the job – training, experience, aptitude, values. Strategic competencies need to be unbundled and examined closely to move towards a pragmatic, flexible, and dynamic competency framework that helps develop authentic leaders.