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Right-Sizing Competencies

Authored by: Roger Pearman and Robert Eichinger

Competencies or behavioral practices are ubiquitous. Most sizable organizations have and use them to manage talent and reinforce strategy.

Performance management, training and development, and career management all can be enhanced by a set of competencies.

For at least a century, the main questions have been how many competencies are needed and what specific competencies predict desired behavioral and organizational outcomes?

The Basics:  What are competencies?

Competencies are objectively defined, observable and measurable characteristics of a person that include applying knowledge and demonstrating skills, behaviors and abilities that contribute to performing well at work.

Stated slightly differently, competencies are individual performance behaviors that are observable, measurable and critical to successful individual or group or organizational performance.

The important competency components are:

  1. Observable – Self and others can see “it” being done.
  2. Measurable – Self and others can apply a “how well done” metric (performance evaluation)
  3. Proven or verified importance for doing the work well.

For example, listening skills can be experienced.  Observers can see situations in which listening skills would be needed to do the task.  Observers can see or opine how well listening is being done.  And, listening skills are related or correlated to almost all jobs being done well, and at all levels (and in marriages and partnerships, too).

Competencies can be knowledge – things you already know which are important for doing the job right.  You may be in the global finance world and know the workings of the international monetary currency exchange.

Competencies can be skills or abilities, knowing how to do things important for doing the job well. Perhaps you are expert at creating and utilizing pivot tables within an Excel Spread Sheet.

Competencies can be attributes, a collection of behaviors such as staying calm under pressure.

And competencies can be combinations of all three, such as confidently setting a compelling, successful strategy in the face of global competition.

Competencies and traditionally referred to as KSAs- Knowledge, Skills and Attributes. They are observable, measurable and important.

How Many do I Need?

How many should there be? Enough to predict the majority of doing the job well. How many is that? It depends upon the job, the level, the functional area and the organization.

How many do you think a commercial pilot needs to be competent and effective? An NFL quarterback? The conductor of an orchestra? A president? An Uber driver?

Lots? Less than 10? More than 10? More than 20? More than 50?

All in (net) it takes about 15 – 20 to cover the majority of the most important things you need to be able to do to perform well in a job.

Most respected, science-based commercial and vendor-supplied competency sets list anywhere from 8 to 130 competencies. Wow! That’s a massive spread and represents quite a range of opinion on what matters most. So where does one start to narrow the focus to one’s specific organizational context?

Science says there are three levels of competencies in sizable organizations – for Individual contributors, supervisors and managers, and leaders or executives. While there are some competencies in common, like “engaging the team”, there are clear and material differences between the levels. There are also industry and functional competency differences as well as those that best reflect home country operations.

So, the list of potential and pertinent competencies is many.

The Size of the Competency Set and Its Usefulness. 

Size can be measured by determining whether a person being given feedback or doing self-appraisal knows what to do to get better at the competency.  

Say that one is bad at listening skills. It seem apparent what the person should work on-  what books to read, what classes to attend, what advice to solicit from a mentor, or which exemplar to shadow who is deemed a good listener.

Lately, competency sizing has been (negatively) impacted by the Simple Monster.

Leaders bit by the simple monster want the success profile or list of competencies to be simple so people can remember them. Call it “stickiness”. They want everything you need to know on one page, usually expressed in 3 principles or in five to seven “competencies”. Simple. Easy. Done. Right?

The problem is that the simple solution is, in itself, too big and/or multi-faceted, and may mean varying things to different audiences and at different levels.  

Say that you are bad at communication skills. Do you now know what to do?  Is your challenge listening, speaking, presenting, facilitating, zooming, writing, emailing, networking?  With what audience– your team, the Board, stakeholders, vendors, regulators, prospects, the C-Suite?  Under what circumstances?  It’s not a useful (or simple) competency if you have to ask five more questions to gain focus.

The 3 Technical Violations to Being a Useful Competency
  1. Globular Cluster Competency.  Like “communications skills.  Like “be a great leader”.  Like “an agile and smart operator”. These are not useful if I rate low on these skills and I don’t know what to get better at them, and for what purpose or audience. They are too big to be captured in a simple label.
  2. Compound Competency.  Has too many individual components. Consider “Sources, evaluates, hires and onboards great talent”. There’s nothing wrong with the concept.  It’s Important stuff.  These can be observed and measured.  If you tell me I’m not good at “it”, what should I work on?  One part? Two parts? Three? All four? Compound competencies add complexity and uncertainty.
  3. If-Then Competencies are the human engineering violation competencies. They are made up of things that typically don’t reside in the same person. Consider: “Is smart, creative, innovative and a master of change management”. This competency is strong, conceptually. These can be observed and measured and are important.  But these are relatively unrelated concepts. A highly creative person is generally not good at innovation or change management.  Innovation and change management are processes that take a lot of patience and process management, while managing politics and relationships. Highly creative people are not often good at those skills.  And neither creativity nor innovation are corrected with cognitive power. Cognitive power limits what you might be able to be creative about – quantum physics, or frisbees, or something else. The typical If-Then Competency would result in everyone being rated in the middle – either average at everything or high on one or some, and low on the other(s). Everyone would be in the middle.
The Right-Sized, Usable Competencies Checklist:
  1. Scientifically related to doing a job well
  2. Singularly and objectively defined
  3. Observable
  4. Measurable
  5. Useable without any further questions (although good questions might be useful).

Don’t let the dreaded Simple Monster make your Competency-based Success Profile useless as a tool for talent management, development and performance. 

Remember that when defined competency libraries revolutionized the world of work in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they provided an initial framework to organize how we understand workplace behaviors.  With decades of research and practice since those years the emergence of defined Roles and Practices has enhanced the specificity of what is observable and measurable in a manner that dramatically enriches performance and development.

Right-size, use well, and flourish. And remember that home-grown models, while tempting and intuitively aligned, take months and months to build and are likely to lack the supporting tools and resources to make them come alive. Our many, current client advisory engagements are proof positive of this phenomenon.

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