Approach Competencies…With Competence

Thanks to HCI for inviting me to guest-blog again.  Here are my thoughts on developing competencies in your organization.

Competencies are the glue that holds together the pieces and parts of a talent management system. They can be used as the basis for behavioral interviewing, as guides for development and succession planning, and as a component of a thorough performance evaluation.

Many organizations define competencies at a deeper level by identifying behavioral “anchors” that describe how the competencies are performed by individual contributors, first-line managers, and senior leaders. These descriptors are particularly helpful when an employee aspiring to his or her first management position wants to know what these competencies “look like” when performed by someone at the next level up. Clearly-defined behavioral anchors are invaluable in an integrated talent management system.

Several months ago, I worked with a multi-site organization that had already identified their leadership competencies and wanted help writing the behavioral descriptions for four levels of management. Because of the organization’s size and diverse job types, they wanted to use focus groups to supply the behavioral examples.

The HR team tapped several business units for focus group participants at each of the four levels. One of the project’s sponsors joined in during our second focus group and he seemed pleased with the level of enthusiasm and contribution. After the meeting, he asked to see the previous data and compare it to the input we just collected. When the two sets were aligned, he smiled a little sadly and said, “It’s almost identical, isn’t it?”

I sighed, because he was right. The first set of responses came from entry-level managers. The session we just finished was focused on managers that were two levels higher than the previous group. And yet, the same behaviors emerged.

How could supervisors be doing the same work as their managers’ managers? Clearly they’re not doing identical jobs because their outcomes are appropriately different.

One likely explanation is that we “do” ours jobs, and when it comes to describing what we do, brevity trumps detailed descriptions every time. Another reason for the lack of clearly defined levels of job performance is that some employees may not understand what is expected of them at different levels of both proficiency and responsibility. It’s a bit of the “chicken and egg,” isn’t it?

Here are additional questions to consider:

If you’re ready to tackle competencies and their behavioral anchors, here are three suggestions to start you down the right path:

  • Start small. Call it a pilot, refine your process, and record your lessons learned.
  • Align your efforts to a business initiative. Are you trying to reduce turnover in a certain part of your operations?  Are you struggling to fill your mission-critical jobs? Link your work to an operational or strategic business need and capture appropriate metrics before and after your pilot competency work.
  • Look to internal resources for help before looking externally. No one knows your business better than you do. Pick the brains of your high-performers. Ask them what they do and how they do it. Take tons of verbatim notes. Listen to their language; use it in your documents. Avoid “corporate speak” at all costs.

What other tips do you have to ensure a successful competency project?