Opinion

Competency models — does my organization need them?

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Genevieve Roberts


It’s great when employees reach their sales goals, meet their deadlines or produce top-quality work. But for companies to grow and develop top-notch employees, they need customized guidelines on how employees should to do their work, not just what they’re supposed to do. For example, communication skills might be an important skill for an employee to possess and specifically the behaviors you want them to demonstrate might include:

• expresses self clearly both in writing and speaking
• covers an issue thoroughly concisely
• makes current job-related information readily available to others

Called “competency models,” these can help your organization hire employees that fit with your firm and provide ongoing coaching and training. Following is a Q&A with Alison Miller, a senior consultant Titan Group LLC, a human resources consulting firm in Richmond.

Genevieve: Can you give us a simple definition of what a competency model is?

Alison: Competency models are simply clear descriptions of how you want associates at all levels to perform in your organization.  Not what you want them to do, but how you want them to do it.  Examples include:
• overcomes obstacles to achieve results that set high standards for others
• focuses on attaining goals
• willingly puts in extra time and effort to get the job done
• demonstrates persistence in the face of obstacles

Genevieve: What should a company model look like?

Alison: I recommend starting with a “Core competency model,” which includes identifying only five or six key competencies. These guidelines should provide consistent language to boost the success of your top producers and make it clear that production/sales/financial goals must be met while demonstrating the organization’s competencies.

Genevieve:  So how will a Core Competency model look?

Alison:  A well-designed Core Competency model will:


 Provide consistent language and terms for describing some of the intangible behaviors that can lead to success or in their absence, derail your top producers
 Identify successful behaviors at different organizational levels — associates can see a progression of the needed characteristics
 Make clear that it is unacceptable to simply meet or exceed production/sales/financial goals, without demonstrating the organization’s core competencies

Genevieve:  Tell me again, why does my organization need a competency model?

Alison: Perhaps the main reason is that competency models send the message that there are clearly defined boundaries for successful behavior at your company.  It’s not OK to “take the hill” and not be concerned with how you do it.  Your company stands for certain things, and these characteristics will become part of your core competency model.

Genevieve:  “It sounds like we should have had a competency model at start-up – it’s a little late for that.”

Alison:  Organizations can initiate core competency models at any time. 

Having a core competency model at start-up is ideal, because all of your hiring and on-boarding will assess and reinforce the core competencies.  But anytime is fine for identification of the core competency model. 

Core competency models are often needed (or may need to be fine-tuned) during times of:

 Significant organizational change – you want to emphasize the new behaviors that will be needed for success. 

 Company growth, when a core competency model defines for all the behaviors that have helped create the success.  It takes the mystery out of the process, and lets all associates know the path to success. 

 Turnaround — i.e., we are turning away from our old behaviors, and towards these behaviors identified in the core competency model.


Genevieve: “We’re a small organization with limited HR support – is this really practical for us?”

Alison:  What could be more practical — a concise, easy to use tool that is the “glue” for all of your human resources practices? 

Using this model will help your company in a number of ways. First, it will help HR hire according to standard competencies. It will create ongoing coaching conversations, customized performance evaluations and training.

A core competency model is simply the picture of successful behavior at your organization. 

Genevieve: “OK, once we have a core competency model, what will we do with it?”

Alison: Let’s think about that associate level employee throughout the entire employee lifecycle.

1. Our core competency model is first used to hire this employee.  Ask an interview question based on a skill you need.  For example, to uncover whether the candidate pursues self-development, you might ask “Tell us about a time when you learned a new skill?” 

2. Our employee is now on-board.  The supervisor uses the core competency model to explain to the employee what the expectations are for all employees here.  The core competency model creates a consistent platform for all on-boarding conversations. 

3. The supervisor uses the competency model as a coaching guide – how well is the employee doing relative to the identified behaviors.  When the supervisor coaches the employee, they are both referring back to the core competency model. The feedback is not simply a matter of the supervisor’s perceptions and feelings, but a gauge against the core competency model standard.

4. The supervisor uses the periodic coaching guides and his/her notes to document annual job performance.  In addition to meeting certain work goals, how the employee performs on the core competencies is important.

Genevieve:  “All right – I’m convinced.  How do I get started?”

Alison:  The first step is to determine if you have the skills and time to develop the core competency model internally.  A resource skillful in streamlined competency model development and deployment will be able to jumpstart your efforts, and provide you with useable HR tools within a very short timeframe.

Once you have determined the resources for the task, the steps are as follows:

1. Identify the core competencies.  Work the list until you have as few as possible that really speak to who you are (or want to be) as an organization.
2. Determine the number of levels within your organization.  Is it just two – staff and management?  Is it four – similar to the example we’ve used?
3. Describe the core competencies at each organizational level.
4. Develop simple to use coaching tools, hiring guides, performance evaluations, and learning plans to support the assessment and development of the core competencies.
5. Over communicate the core competency model within the organization.
6. Use the tools with employees at all organizational levels.
7. Use the core competency language in meetings, employee talks, etc.
8. Recognize, reward and promote associates demonstrating the core competencies. 

Genevieve Roberts is managing principal at Titan Group LLC in Richmond. She can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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