The Design Principles Guiding Our Competency Model Development


By Sandy Stonesifer, ProInspire’s Advisor for Leadership Development

As ProInspire’s CEO Monisha Kapila shared in a blog post earlier this year, we are in the process of defining a competency model for social sector professionals. Our team spent the past few months reviewing existing literature and models, speaking with partners and experts who have previously worked with or designed their own competency models, and grappling with some of the questions Monisha laid out in her post.

One of our first learnings was that many different types of competency models exist: functional, role, organizational, etc. With so many approaches available, it was readily apparent that we needed to start by aligning around some shared design principles to help us focus our efforts and give us a prioritization framework for what to include.

A few guiding principles arose out of team discussions about our competency model:

  1. Relevance across different roles, issue areas, and organizations. Feedback from our fellows and alumni indicated a desire to continue developing, but also an uncertainty about what skills are needed for career advancement. Knowing that most social sector professionals will move across organizations throughout their careers, we want our model to be portable across organizations and to capture the most universal competencies. This will mean, of course, that some of the more focused role- or task-based competencies (e.g., financial accounting or project management) will fall off the list. The literature review provided by The Advisory Board Company suggested that the most useful models have no more than 18 competencies grouped into no more than 5 overarching categories. As such, we decided to focus on the behaviors (rather than traits) needed to successfully drive impact in the social sector.


  2. Reflection of our belief that both self- and professional- development are continual pursuits, and that current competence isn’t necessarily tied to years of experience or place in an organizational hierarchy. We subscribe to many of the adult models of development that decouple development from age or tenure. Many of the universal competencies we are considering are rooted in emotional intelligence (self- and social-awareness and management) and the ability to leverage it to successfully navigate interpersonal dynamics. This means that the newest member of the team can be highly developed, while the CEO can still have a steep learning curve ahead of her.. At this point we are framing the model in terms of growth: describing what each competency looks like with ‘emerging’, ‘proficient’, or ‘advanced’ application of the skill. This may change as we continue to refine the model, but for now it gives us a way of talking about development without assuming that any individual will be in the same place at any given time in their career.


  3. Acknowledgement of the bias inherent in most dominant culture leadership models and lifting up of areas to evolve in service of diversity, equity, and inclusion. While we have been organizationally focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion for a while, this may have been our biggest ‘aha moment’ in the early design process. What exactly are we talking about when we say leadership presence or strategic thinking? Who defined these concepts, and who do they serve? Knowing that we want this model to serve as both a tool for current advancement as well as an aspirational model for the future, we need to balance the tension between what competencies we know are currently in  use as markers, and the areas for change in setting benchmarks. We are still figuring out what this will look like, but for now we’ve decided to add a section on ‘considerations’ to each competency area. This gives us a space to talk about both the bias within traditional models as well as the bias we may be bringing into this new model.


Where are we now? We have a draft model, based on these and other design principles, on which we are iterating through continued internal discussions and feedback from key thought partners. One of our biggest questions moving forward is around presentation and format: how do we take what is currently an eight-page table and present it in a way that is digestible and adaptive to the different intended audiences?

We continue to welcome and value your input and feedback throughout this development process, so please reach out to Monisha Kapila ([email protected]) if you have feedback or comments that can help us with refine this work.

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