The Laddered Approach to Organizational Improvement
by Dave Ross

Every successful organizational improvement initiative begins with a thoughtful analysis of the business landscape. The CEO identifies how the company can provide value to its customers and makes all the other calculations needed to create a strategic vision. The challenge now is to make certain that leaders at every level in the organization are aligned with this vision and have the competencies they need.

Recognizing that this is an ambitious undertaking, the CEO uses a laddered approach to achieving the goal. The effort begins by identifying the families of jobs that make the most significant impact on the company's performance. Then the company creates leadership models for each job family and uses the models as benchmarks for hiring and promotion decisions.

To use leadership modeling effectively, you must create models based on the competencies leaders need in your organization. Each industry has its norms and each organization has both a unique culture and a unique market position. Each family of jobs in the organization, therefore, requires a particular mix of leadership competencies.

The process begins with a meeting of minds of all the stakeholders in the function. The people to consult with include your senior management team, your human resources executives, and internal or external organization development consultants. You want to get (1) the stakeholders' buy-in for the effort and (2) their preliminary thoughts about what competencies are needed for leadership success.

Now you have to determine whether or not those competencies actually contribute to leadership and, if they do, their relative importance. This is done by comparing the competencies of your successful, average and struggling leaders. The comparison can be made with a study using telephone interviews of selected members of each group.

The interviewers use a structured questionnaire that's customized to reflect the stakeholder group's initial conclusions about what competencies are needed. They take the participants through various scenarios, asking about 50 questions, or about 100 questions including follow-ups. The process takes about two hours, making it much less costly than an assessment center evaluation.

The study creates models that provide hard numbers quantifying the level of skill a leader needs for each of the competencies evaluated. Now the organization has identified the gaps between successful and struggling leaders, the competencies that are critical for success and the relative importance of all the competencies that were measured.

Corporate Insights has found that telephone interviewing measures competencies with a high degree of accuracy because the separation between interviewer and leader encourages the leaders to be open. This openness is especially useful for gathering information that evaluates innate behaviors like self-assurance or intensity, which traditionally have been difficult to measure.

Once the model has been created, the organization administers the same questionnaire to candidates being considered for hiring or promotion to leadership positions. As a result, there is consistency in the evaluations of the candidates, the only competencies measured are those that are relevant and each of the competencies is given the appropriate weight in the assessments.

Moreover, since the organization has identified the gaps between the successful and struggling leaders, it can design effective group-wide leadership development programs. The leaders who participated in the study also benefit in a direct way: Their profiles identify their relative strengths and weaknesses, providing a customized development program for each.

Here are some guidelines from Corporate Insights that can help you use modeling to develop leadership in your organization.

  • Make certain that the competencies being measured are relevant for leaders in your company. One-size-fits-all assessment tools cannot provide accurate measurements. Our research shows that most organizations have not made a thorough and accurate evaluation of the competencies needed for even their most important leadership roles.

  • No more than seven or eight competencies need to be evaluated. A study for a hypothetical organization might measure factors like embracing change, relating to others, building productive teams, driving results, planning and process, personal impact, and creating an energizing vision. Studies sometimes deal with so many competencies that the significant ones are lost in a sea of data.

  • Make certain that the profiles for the individuals who participated in the study provide useful development information. The profiles should call attention to combinations of competencies that might result in problems. For example, a leader who is strongly goal driven but has relatively low coaching competencies might neglect coaching in order to meet immediate goals.

  • The most useful studies highlight the significant data in snapshot form rather than present only long narratives and they use business language instead of psychobabble.

  • Make certain that the buy-in that was secured from all stakeholders at the initiative's start is maintained as it runs its course.


Dave Ross is a senior partner of Corporate Insights Inc., Aurora, IL. The company helps organizations align business strategy with people strategy. It does this by helping its clients improve their effectiveness in making hiring decisions, selecting high potential employees for early placement on the development track and identifying group-wide development needs. It also helps senior executive groups evaluate their ability to meet organizational goals and take the steps needed to meet those goals. Its clients include GE, Amgen, Navistar, McDonald's, Northwestern Mutual and Siemens. For additional information visit www.corporateinsightsinc.com .

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Copyright 2005 by Dave Ross. All rights reserved.

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