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Building a Competent Competency Program; Four simple rules for a better workforce.

Byline: Tony Rutigliano and Emily Meyer

Synopsis: While many competency programs struggle to stay on track, several organizations have implemented very effective programs -- ones that engage employees and fuel financial growth. Those organizations have proven to be extremely competent at competencies, and most follow four simple rules.

"I wish I'd known then what I know now" is a fun game to play, unless you're a business leader. Then it's just painful.

Thinking about how much more you could have accomplished -- and the mistakes you could have sidestepped -- if only you had the knowledge when you needed it is an unpleasant way to pass the time. Worse yet, everyone in the organization could play the same game.

Many competency programs start with the best of intentions but veer off course as they evolve.

That's why organizations work so hard to create competency programs. They're meant to help employees understand what they need to know and to communicate clear job expectations. They're also intended to provide a framework for performance assessment, management, and improvement.

However, many competency programs struggle to stay on track. They start with the best of intentions but veer off course as they evolve. Organizations begin with a few strong "core competencies" that soon devolve into a list of vaguely defined items that can't be measured.

Employees who are expected to become everything on this wish list suffer as a result. What they need to know gets lost in the shuffle of everything that could be known. This often results in expectations and performance management discussions that are not aligned with desired results.

That said, several organizations have managed to put rock-solid competency programs in place -- programs that engage employees and fuel financial growth. Those organizations are extremely competent at competencies, and we felt it would benefit every organization to learn how they accomplish this.

Gallup has found that effective competency programs do four things -- and do them well:

But there's one more thing: The organizations that build the best competency programs do those four things in the right way.

Define the right competencies

Too many organizations set up competency programs based on what they think is important for a particular role. For these programs to be effective, competencies must be put to the test.

If an organization has a hunch that setting clear expectations should be a core competency for managers, for example, then the organization should determine if meeting this competency actually delivers improved performance. One way to do this is by surveying as many employees as possible and asking if their manager sets clear expectations. Then the organization should compare the survey data with real performance metrics such as customer engagement, retention, or productivity numbers.

If the organization finds a significant correlation between managers who set clear expectations and higher performance on the job, it should consider "setting clear expectations" an effective competency. If no significant relationship exists between the competency and performance metrics, however, then the organization should not use the competency.

Collecting data to develop and support a competency program is more difficult than operating from a hunch, but it's worth the effort. Performance management becomes more relevant and defensible when it's tied to business outcomes.

Focus on what is teachable

Performance management and employee development work best in environments where managers set measurable outcomes and let their employees' talents lead the way. To produce the best results, a competency-based development program should begin by identifying each person's talents (a natural way of thinking, feeling, or behaving). These talents can then be enhanced with knowledge, skills, and practice. Knowledge consists of facts and lessons learned, such as workplace rules and policies. Skills are the basic steps of a job or task, such as learning to use macros in a computer program. And practice -- an investment of time and energy -- is required to complete the process and build talents into strengths.

When a competency program focuses on behaviors rather than outcomes, it forces employees to spend time in some areas where they have little or no natural talent. But effective competency programs set measurable outcomes and expect and encourage employees to reach them using their natural talents, teaching them knowledge and skills and encouraging them to practice along the way.

Weight "will do" more heavily than "can do"

In competency programs that prescribe how employees should behave, it's rare to find an activity listed that someone cannot do. Most reasonable people can find it within themselves to "work collaboratively," "think strategically," or (one of our favorites) "lead with humility." But will the person do it?

That question can be answered reliably only when the individual's talents -- his or her naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior -- have been assessed. The fact that someone can do something is no indication of how often, how well, or how willingly he or she will do it.

Competency programs are often developed because of these erroneous assumptions:

An incompetent competency program costs far more than it is worth in time, effort, and dollars.

Operating from these assumptions, for instance, it would be tempting to make "closing" a core competency for salespeople. Many sales professionals are adept at moving their customers efficiently toward a "yes"; they use such techniques as the "take-away" close or the "assumed" close. As a result, classes and books on these techniques are legion.

There are many other salespeople who try to integrate these methods into their repertoires. Yet no matter how much schooling they get, the techniques don't work for them. Sometimes, this is a talent issue -- they lack the command to insert themselves into a customer's decision-making process, or they hesitate in the face of resistance because they are more measured or deliberative in their approach to others. Some of these "slow learners" are successful nonetheless, because they sell using their creativity, strategy, smarts, or charm.

Is it wrong, then, to teach salespeople how to close? Of course not. Is it wrong to expect that all of them will demonstrate expertise as a result of training or practice? Absolutely.

Ensure consistency

Consider the case of an executive we know. In the previous year, his manager had assessed his "learning agility" as extraordinary. When he moved to a new department, however, his new manager assessed his "learning agility" as rather dismal.

It's unlikely that this executive's ability to quickly learn and assimilate new information disappeared during the move. Essentially, this executive's new manager was asked to assess his new employee on a trait -- something innate -- rather than a state -- a performance outcome that can be measured.

This begs the question: Why did this organization establish a competency requirement that asks managers to assess who a person is rather than what he or she has accomplished? And can the organization reasonably expect to change someone's "learning agility" through such feedback? Attempting to provide feedback about traits that are best measured through scientific assessment is damaging and demoralizing -- and a waste of time and money.

Far too many competency programs attempt to provide this kind of feedback while failing to define and highlight measurable performance outcomes. These programs focus on dictating behaviors thought to produce the desired outcomes rather than focusing on the outcomes themselves. Most managers would agree that their best employees reach comparable outcomes using vastly different approaches. Our experience shows that competency programs should hold individuals accountable for outcomes and results, not for the manner in which they achieve these outcomes.

Filling real needs with measurable results

If you analyze these four rules, you'll notice that they have something in common -- they work with employees, not against them. These rules don't try to break people down and build them anew; they recognize employees' innate abilities and seek to enhance them. More importantly, well-designed competency programs that acknowledge these rules fuel growth for employees and organizations. They define the outcomes an organization needs from its employees, focus on what can be learned and what must be done, and work to ensure consistency across the organization.

An incompetent competency program costs far more than it is worth in time, effort, and dollars. A competent competency program, on the other hand, fills real needs with measurable results and pays dividends past the tenure of the employees it develops. And -- as a rather pleasant bonus feature -- well-designed competency programs make the "I wish I'd known then" game a lot more fun to play, which is a happy outcome for everyone.
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Article Details
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Author:Rutigliano, Tony; Meyer, Emily
Publication:Gallup Management Journal
Article Type:Survey
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 15, 2010
Words:1403
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