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Putting competencies to work

Ron ZemkeSusan ZemkeTraining. Minneapolis: Jan 1999. Vol. 36, Iss. 1;  pg. 70, 6 pgs

Abstract (Article Summary)

For decades, researchers and human resource practitioners have argued about how best to create competency models for managers, salespeople and specialists of all sorts. You might identify pools of high performers and tease out the characteristics that distinguish them from average or low performers in a model building process that can take months. An alternative is to start with an existing catalog of more or less generic competency elements for particular jobs and tailor them to local conditions. A third approach is to use an altogether generic dictionary of competencies provided by a consultant or training vendor for broad categories of jobs. Several examples of how competency-based systems work are presented.

Full Text (2637   words)

Copyright Bill Communications Jan 1999

master carpenter has a great deal of esoteric knowledge about wood and tools and fits and finishes. He also has the specialized skills-cutting, shaping, joining, finishing, polishing-that can turn a pile of wood into a fine cabinet.

Underlying the knowledge and skills is a foundation of attributes and predilections, some inborn and some developed, that make the knowledge useful and that enable the carpenter to acquire the skills in the first place: visual acuity, hand-eye coordination, strength, patience, judgment.

If you can identify the key skills, knowledge and personal attributes that make a master performer successful at a given job, then group these things into appropriate clusters, you have a set of "competencies." Link each of these broad competencies to a set of behaviors that answer the question, "How do we know it when we see it?" and they can serve as a sort of blueprint to help you hire, train, develop, and, perhaps, pay people to do the job in question. Hence, the corporate world's enthusiasm for creating competency models for managers, salespeople and specialists of all sorts.

For decades, researchers and human resource practitioners have argued about how best to approach the task. What's the most effective way to capture and describe the competencies required for a job? Should you begin tabula rasa, as if each job category in your company were unique? If so, you might then identify pools of high performers and tease out the characteristics that distinguish them from average or low performers in a "model building" process that can take months.

An alternative is to start with an existing catalog of more or less generic competency elements for particular jobs and tailor them to local conditions; here you're assuming, for instance, that a successful loan officer for bank "A" would have essentially the same competencies as a successful loan officer for bank "B." A third approach is to use an altogether generic dictionary of competencies provided by a consultant or training vendor for broad categories of jobsmanagers," for instance.

Arguments continue over other questions, as well. How much attention should be paid to attributes (such as "judgment") as opposed to jobspecific skills and knowledge? If you want a competency model to guide your training efforts, as opposed to your hiring system, should the model consider fixed attributes at all?

Indeed, if you have done any reading or research on this subject, it may strike you that far more attention is paid to the issue of developing competency models than to the issue of using them. No matter how cleverly designed, the competency descriptions you create are valuable only to the extent that they actually help drive your organization's performance management system-the means by which the organization tries to put the right people in the right jobs and ensure that they are willing and able to produce the right results in accordance with the organization's strategic and operating plans. The acid test of any competency model is whether and how it fits into that system, improving processes such as assessment and hiring, development planning, training, performance planning, feedback and coaching, rewards and recognition, and succession planning.

How do "competency-based systems" work in practice? Here are some examples.

Recognizing Risk-Takers

At Case Corp., the Racine, WI-based manufacturer of farm and construction equipment, the interest in competencies arose three years ago from a very specific need. The job of salesperson was changing significantly in the company's European sales organization. "In essence, our people were being asked to become business consultants to their customers and not just salespeople," says Karen Garoukian Ferraro, director of worldwide organization development.

Previously, she explains, the European sales reps had worked pretty much alone and with a single goal: to make a sale. The new strategy demanded that they help ensure the success of the farm-machinery dealers who were their customers. The salesperson was now to lead a team of Case specialists, such as finance people and marketers, who could be called upon to help these independent dealers manage their businesses more effectively.

That obviously required a whole new set of skills, Ferraro says. "We needed a way to define and communicate what success would look like in the new position."

Case developed a set of competency descriptions that managers in the European division found useful not only for individual development planning for incumbents in the revamped sales position, but also for interviewing new hires.

The European managers were so pleased, in fact, that Case expanded the use of competencies to its executive corps. The goal: to improve selection, development and evaluation in its senior leadership ranks. Case sees the move as a way to integrate and rationalize all of the HR systems pertaining to executives around a common set of standards: the i6 core competencies that came out of this second model-building effort.

Once the leadership model was built, Case hired a vendor of assessment instruments to build a 360degree feedback instrument based specifically on the behaviors described in the model. For instance, one of the 16 leadership competencies is risk-taking, defined as "pursues a course of action without necessarily having all questions answered; takes independent action to meet critical business objectives." That competency is illustrated by behaviors such as "recognizes when it is important to act even when there is a degree of uncertainty," and "recognizes accurately situations in which it is critical to get clarity before making a decision."

Case managers around the world now regularly receive feedback from bosses, peers and subordinates on their leadership performance. And as with the European sales force, the competency model has begun to affect hiring as well. A structured interviewing process for screening internal and external candidates for management and leadership openings has now been adopted worldwide, Ferraro says.

There is no formal evaluation data as yet for the screening program, but Ferraro says the early reviews are enthusiastic. "[Interviewers say] it is a much more rigorous process, since the important attributes needed to succeed in the job are clearly spelled out. It's easier to ask questions during an interview when you have the competencies list right in front of you." And, more importantly, she adds, "It's much easier to match candidates to opportunities."

Curing Turnover

At the Principal Financial Group, a competency model became the lever for creating an entirely new process for executive development. "It was the first step for a portfolio of things we now do," explains Maureen Moffit, assistant director of executive development for the Des Moines, IAbased financial-services companies.

That "portfolio" includes a 360degree assessment process based on the nine critical executive competencies Moffit and her colleagues developed. Every corporate officer at the vice-presidential level and above has been through the assessment process and has created an individual development plan, usually with help from a personal coach.

As for translating those plans into training and development activities, Moffit's group looked over all of the individual plans with an eye toward spotting common needs. For instance, several people wanted to improve their presentation skills, one of the behaviors listed under a competency called "communicates for involvement." Principal hired a consultant to train those people as a group. When the needs were unique to a single person or very specialized-having to do with managing complex financial matters, for instance-personal coaches were brought in to work oneon-one with individual managers.

The executive-development program has been in place for three years. The competency effort now is cascading further down the management ladder and into the ranks of non-managers. "Underwriters need to have teamwork skills, just as senior and middle managers do," says Moffit. "We've been finding that most of the nine competencies apply to highlevel individual contributors, though the exact expression of the competency will look different."

For instance, the competency "influences for results" applies to both vice presidents and underwriters. At the vice-presidential level it is associated with behaviors such as "promotes partnerships across business units." At the underwriter level it is defined as "speaks up when problems are foreseen" and "quickly finds common ground to solve problems." As Moffit puts it, "We've begun to look at our nine competencies as core organizational competencies."

That outlook has ramifications for many elements of the company's performance management system, she says: "We are taking a new look at compensation, hiring practices and appraisal systems at every level. Managers are even telling us that it's easier for them to give employees day-today feedback; they know what behaviors to focus on to illustrate their rating of a person's performance."

In the company's informationtechnology department, competencybuilding has taken on a life of its own. Principal's IT unit, like many, was plagued by high turnover, Moffit explains. When the unit did some research, "they found there weren't clear career paths, people didn't understand how promotions were being made, and they didn't feel they were being developed....Building competencies for the IT department was an obvious starting place."

The result is a new system for hiring and development that applies to everyone in the IT unit, from the vice president to entry-level programmers. "Now an IT manager can sit down with an individual employee and go over promotion guidelines and the competencies needed for other jobs in the area," Moffit says. "They never had that before." Employee-development specialists put together an online guide that lists training and development resources matched to each competency. Those resources range from classes and workshops to reading lists, online courses, and on-the-job activities.

Creating a Common Language

Initial interest in competency-building arose a year ago, when the St. Paul Cos., a Minnesota-based propertycasualty insurer, decided it needed to develop insiders to fill a sales management job.

The trigger issue was "perpetuation," says Michael Happe, field operations director for sales and marketing: "The reason we got into this in the first place was to develop a 'bench' for our regional sales and marketing director position. We don't have a strong internal sales culture here; we sell our insurance through independent agents. So we needed to have a ready bench within the company for when we had openings for regional directors, the people who manage the relationships with our agents."

But as the competencies were defined and plans were made to identify internal candidates to develop for future openings in the ranks of regional directors, Happe began to see other uses for the work. For instance, they could be used to screen external candidates for the director job. They could be used to train and develop incumbents. And, he says, they could be useful "for talking with people in other areas about the skills of our people" when openings occur outside of sales and marketing and they are looking for good internal candidates. "It clicked in place for me that this isn't a one-shot deal," he says. "There is a lot of potential in competencies for managing better."

The development-planning process for job incumbents is well under way. "We've already developed a selfanalysis questionnaire for the people in the job," Happe says. "Where we see a common development need, we're bringing in formal programs. Where one person has a specific development need, we're saying, Here is a resource, someone you can talk to who is good at that.' Or we just coach them on how they can develop that skill or pick up that knowledge on their own through experience or self-study."

Happe now has plans in the works for a formal competency-based interviewing and selection system for the regional sales-director job. "It was obvious that if these were the skills and traits of successful sales managers, they should be driving how we screen people. We just need[ed] to formalize the system," he says.

Having clear competency specifications for the regional sales-director job has produced some surprise benefits. For one thing, it has become far easier to talk to people outside the sales and marketing unit about jobs and career paths in the area. "We're all using a common language," Happe says. "When I'm trying to explain to someone outside sales and marketing that a competency like self-confidence is very important for heading up a business center, they know what I mean. They can see what `self-confidence' looks like, thanks to the behaviors laid out for that competency."

One of the more unusual applications that Happe and his team are spinning out of the regional-director competency model is a template for customer feedback. Two of the eight competencies developed by Happe and colleagues relate directly to the director's interaction with "customers," these being the independent sales agents. In the past, the company surveyed some of its agents to ask how things were going in general. Happe says this time they gave agents a list of three things their director was working on and asked them to describe how the director was doing in those areas. Those three items come right out of the two competencies that pertain directly to customer relations: "distribution force liaison" (working with independent agents) and "managing the distribution channel" (making sure work flows easily between agents and the company).

Does this all sound as if, by developing a competency-based system, Happe has taken on a lot of extra work? He begs to differ: "When you think of all the things we do in performance management-interviewing, selection, development planning, reward and recognition-it is timeconsuming. This [using a competency base] is simply folding it a different way. When we use the same standard for all these things we have to do anyway, and they all make sense to us, it's really more efficient. And, of course, it's more effective, or we wouldn't do it at all:'

Bearing Fruit

Competency-modeling is, quite simply, an attempt to describe work and jobs in a broader, more comprehensive way. After decades of thought and experimentation, that effort at last is starting to bear practical fruit. As more organizations try to build their performance management strategies around competency models, we'll get a clearer picture of the long-term value of the approach. For now, we can say at least that the whole thing has moved beyond the talking stage-when competency models were painstakingly developed and then filed away in drawers-and has begun to generate some interesting real-world applications. It is an idea whose time to prove itself has finally arrived. si


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[Author Affiliation]

RON ZEMKE is a senior editor of TRAINING and president of Performance Research Associates Inc. of Minneapolis. zemke@aol.com

SUSAN ZEMKE, also of Minneapolis, is a senior consultant with Lexington, MA-based Linkage Inc.