Pragmatic steps to assess employee capabilities


By Dr Marianne Broadbent*

Many leading public and commercial sector organisations are rethinking how they assess capabilities for future executives and managers in an environment of considerable ambiguity. The specific needs in particular roles might go in quite a different direction due to factors such as a change of government policy, market pressures or maybe the scope of the role was too big in the first place.

Some of us, myself included, have had the opportunity of being appointed to roles that did not exist before. This is usually a great opportunity, if you are the type of person who is good at figuring out what really needs to be done, and then convincing your boss and your peers, and perhaps your clients also, that this is what you should do.

Quite a few of the roles for which EWK works with clients on Executive Searches are new or completely reshaped roles. And in working with groups on Executive and Team Development, the focus is about what the organisation needs from its leaders in the future. Part of the challenge then is working out what are the real capabilities needed to successfully fulfil specific executive and management roles.

Developing an organisation or system wide Leadership or Executive Capability Framework is fraught with challenges in that it has to be generic enough to be applicable to many different circumstances. These frameworks then become the Selection Criteria for appointment to positions.

For example, many readers will be familiar with the APSC Framework and Criteria as well as the new APSC Values, or perhaps the new NSW Public Service Executive Capability Framework. The latter has four Capability Groups (with 30 Capabilities), and then the fifth Capability Group of ‘Professional, Technical and Occupational Expertise’. This adds a nice level of pragmatism to what can be very generic approaches.

At EWK we have always taken a simple but rigorous approach which can be applied to any role in any organisation. As part of developing a capability set for an executive search role we regularly map the approach to whatever Framework a client already has in place.

When working with a group on executive and team development, a key part of the process is having participants themselves work through what capabilities really matter to future executives in their organisation.

This can often cause considerable debate – and is meant to do so. It surfaces ‘what really matters around here’ in an open and transparent way, so that the group itself recommends, and thus owns, those capabilities.

Making Capability Frameworks Relevant and Accessible

The three big ‘buckets’ of capabilities we include are Track Record and Learning Orientation, Management Capabilities, and Leadership Capabilities.

Track Record and Learning Orientation is about what an individual has achieved to date, and the process through which they learnt from what they have done to date. This will include their level of functional capability, and their broader knowledge and understanding of the domain of the organisation and role.

Once an individual has about 15 years in the workforce, the key guide to what they can achieve is likely to be found in what they have done to date. A multiplier though will be their level of curiosity and the extent to which they are a continuous learner.

Management Capabilities are about how they get things done, particularly how they make decisions and how they deliver value to their organisations and their customers or clients. Key capabilities in the decision making area are how people deal with ambiguity and uncertainty, their level of strategic acumen, their ability to prioritise and often their political nous.

In working with a government agency undergoing considerable challenges and a major reform process, a key capability the group added as part of Framework development was ‘Organisational and Situational Awareness’. This is about the extent individuals were able to shape and frame recommendations and decisions based on a firm understanding of the Agency’s broader organisational context and situation.

In a recent commercial organisation, the participants added ‘Global Business Perspective’ to the Capabilities as all executives and managers have to be totally attuned to international commercial realities as well as a truly international workforce.

Leadership Capabilities are about how you lead others, and how you lead yourself. In leading others, to what extent is an individual able to build and develop and effective team, implement accountability, and be persuasive and influential?

How people lead themselves is really the key to their potential as an executive leader. To what extent to they readily accept accountability, can they vary their communication to suit the individual or group they are with, are they mature and self-aware and do they really understand their impact on others? Increasingly, in both commercial and public sector organisations, we are finding that resilience is a much sought after trait, along with evidence that an individual demonstrates courage in the workplace, and operates in an open and transparent manner.

EWK worked with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and the APSC over a number years on Secretary Succession Planning. The Secretary of the Department who initially commissioned the work was Terry Moran, and one of our first tasks was to develop a Capability Framework specifically for Departmental Secretaries. We sought input from the APSC, past Secretaries and senior bureaucrats to complete this. It is worth restating some Capabilities that the Secretary articulated publicly later in this process.

Terry Moran identified groups of attributes for senior public sector executives. These included good initial qualifications and a record of personal learning and development. Next was ‘track record’ or what are they delivered that was difficult to do that required strong stakeholder engagement – and who would attest to that (what level or quality of referees?).

Personal qualities included ‘presence’ which incorporate areas such as confidence and assertiveness, integrity and energy. The ability to lead others was important, through managing relationships and collegiality.

Being comfortable with ambiguity and complexity, while also being flexible and agile and demonstrating good judgement were included in a group of executive management skills. Finally there was the ability to provide policy advice, service delivery, prioritising and accountability as part of a broader ‘ability to deliver’ grouping.

Of course it is hard – if not impossible – to find all of these qualities at a very high level resident in one individual. That’s why, when faced with say a range of 20-25 capabilities, we work with groups to have them select the ‘top six’. This in itself is a great exercise. Our experience is that the most groups agree on the first three, then there is a rather broad spread. The discussion then centres facilitating a robust discussion about ‘what really does matter around here’ in relation to future executive needs.

It is worth asking the question – in your organisation what level of agreement and shared understanding is there about the key capabilities executives and managers need?

*Dr Marianne Broadbent is senior partner, with the leadership consultancy, EWK International,

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