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Would Messi qualify for your team?

If you have worked for large organizations, you will have come across the competency model. You will have discovered that humans are ranked according to a pre-set group of competencies, or qualities that you are meant to demonstrate in order to excel in your job. 

What are these competencies? Things like customer focus, teamwork, goal orientation, business acumen, technical skills, strategic thinking and the like. Your leaders, in their wisdom, will have chosen a set that matters in your organization, and that can measure your overall prowess. You will now be rated by others on these, and the ideal employee is expected to score highly across all competencies. The best people are supposed to be well-rounded, you see.

If you score highly across the board you become a candidate for promotion. If you have gaps, your learning needs will be recorded and training programmes recommended.

It all seems to be very robust and scientific.

But let me digress. Have you ever seen Lionel Messi play? He is a sight to behold when in full flight with the football. A true master of ball control and intelligent movement – to some, the greatest footballer ever.

Here’s the thing about Messi though: he’s one of the most one-footed players ever. Almost everything he does is with his left foot – in fact, his ratio of strong-foot to weak-foot usage is around 10 to 1. His opponents know this – and they still can’t stop him.

A question for you: if you were assembling a football team, would you want Lionel Messi on it? If you were using a competency model, you would require all your players to use both feet and their heads, to have speed as well as guile, to be great at quick decision-making, to be of minimum height, to be unselfish when passing, to follow the manager’s instructions to the fullest, etc. And Messi would not qualify on several competencies.

This example is explained beautifully in the one of most contrarian management tomes of recent times, Nine Lies About Work, by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall. 

Let me add another example. The footballer Ronaldinho was a sheer delight to watch when at his peak some years back. An unearthly master of ball control and utter artistry. Who would not have wanted him to grace their pitch? He would provide moments of complete ecstasy to the fans. And yet he would have failed the competency model. He was moody, ill-disciplined and idiosyncratic. There was no point in expecting him to follow any pre-set game-plan. You had to just let Ronaldinho…be.

The best coaches don’t follow competency models. They build their style of play around the unique artistry of their best players. So what happens to corporate leaders, ask Buckingham and Goodall?

Studies show that requiring people to demonstrate competence across all categories is a fool’s errand. The best performers tend to excel in a narrow set of competencies – they are really, really good at some things – and pretty average at others. And that’s OK. In the authors’ words:

“In the real world, each of us, imperfect as we are, strives to make the most of the unique mix of traits and skills with which we’ve been blessed. Those of us who do this best – who find what we love about what we do, and cultivate this love with intelligence and discipline – are the ones who contribute most. The best people are not well-rounded, finding fulfilment in their uniform ability. Quite the opposite, in fact – the best people are spiky…”

The best people are spiky. I stand to applaud.

If I were working in a large organization now, I would hope to do reasonably well in at least two or three of the competencies in the average model – although that too would depend on the idiosyncrasies of those doing the rating. But I know for a fact that I would fail miserably in many a competency – there are things that simply aren’t my strengths, end of story. And so I would not get promoted.

As an employer, I have never looked for well-rounded people. Like Buckingham and Goodall, I know that the best people are spiky – they over-deliver on certain attributes, and are at best average in others. Their competency profile is not a straight line – it is jagged. I look to combine and complement the spikes, and my job as leader is to help the spiky ones work together fruitfully.

Guess what happens when you keep promoting people for being well-rounded? You eventually end up with a leadership team that’s…bang average.

Question: would you be forcing Messi to work more on his right foot?

(Sunday Nation, 28 February 2021)

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Picture credit: Fikri Rasyid on Unsplash (adjusted)