Competencies are the collective knowledge, abilities, and expertise of an organization’s workforce. When used as a framework to focus individual, team, and company skills on what matters most, a well-honed competency program will make an organization stand out. By supporting smart decisions around recruiting, developing, engaging, and retaining employees, a competency program can create a competitive edge. 

As a competency-first approach has moved from novel idea to mission-critical business strategy, organizations have – with varying degrees of success – put competency programs into place. We’ve seen implementations that work really well. And some that really don’t. Why do competency projects fail? And what can you do about it?

Failure to Start at the Top

Shifting to a competency-driven approach for employee and company performance must have the strategic backing of senior executives. Competencies are all about aligning the skills, knowledge, and behaviors of every employee – so the organization becomes a well-oiled machine designed to achieve company goals. 

Without senior-level buy-in, a competency project will languish. It will either atrophy and fade away or leadership will actively step in to halt the project, believing it to be a distraction with no value.

PRO TIP: If you’re thinking of starting a competency project, meet with your senior leaders so they can understand the purpose, path, and value of a competency program. Have them clearly articulate the company goals and success plan. Only move forward when you have the explicit backing of senior leaders and their commitment to support the full process.

Poorly Defined Competencies

“86 percent of HR managers believe that competency management is critical to their success … [but] only 15% believe that their competencies are well-defined at an enterprise level.”– Industry Analyst Josh Bersin (Bersin by Deloitte)

One of the great things about competencies is that they can be observed, evaluated, and measured. Well-defined competencies take the guesswork and bias out of performance-related decisions. Using competencies to assess talent informs recruiting and hiring decisions, guides learning and development plans, and shapes future leaders as individuals grow and as the climate in which they operate continues to evolve.

As Mr. Bersin points out, though, too many organizations skimp on the effort to define competencies at the enterprise level. When the standard for competent performance varies from one department to the next for the same competency, the system breaks down. Unless you have a shared set of competencies across the board, you can’t really know how well your workforce is performing – and where there are skills gaps that need to be closed.

PRO TIP: Select and adopt a competency model that fits with your organization. Start with the skill sets you need every employee to have. Then, add functional and job competencies that are specific to the technical skills and departmental requirements. 

Lack of Involvement by Key Stakeholders

Leaving middle managers and team leaders out of the competency implementation process creates two major problems. First, it’s difficult to define the competencies required for certain functions and jobs without their input. Second, if the competency project doesn’t reflect the jobs that people do every day, managers won’t care. Efforts to measure performance will simply become a pointless task to complete; one that doesn’t recognize, reward, or encourage the development of core skills displayed by top performers. Stakeholders will either explicitly disparage the project or quietly ignore the effort, in hopes that it will just go away. 

PRO TIP: Engage middle managers and other stakeholders early on. Explain why the company is adopting a competency-based approach now. Outline what to expect and secure their agreement to participate. Interview key stakeholders to help define the core competencies in their functional areas. Developing a common language and company-wide understanding will increase the odds of success.

Going for the Big Win First

Anyone who has experienced a competency-driven performance culture knows how powerful it can be. They know the energy and momentum that comes from a group of people working together to accomplish the same goals. Going for the big, showcase win to start can be tempting. After all, if introducing competencies into a large department can make a difference, let’s go make it happen! Right? 

In truth, there’s much to be gained from starting small. Most successful competency projects start with a small pilot project and a defined goal. 

PRO TIP: Select a small team to start with competencies. Use that experience to help build the skills and experience of not just that team, but also the people who are leading the competency project. Working out the kinks on a small stage will help accelerate the learning. And, with a pilot project, there’s more likely to be a quick win that the organization can celebrate together.  

Overlooking the Power of Communication

“Learning to celebrate success is a key component of learning how to win in the market.” – Douglas Conant, former President and CEO, Campbell Soup Company

Any enterprise project has many moving parts. People, tools, deadlines, shifting priorities, and market distractions all threaten to get in the way. It can feel like enough to just push the competency project forward and report to the senior executive team on quarterly progress. However, stopping at status reports is a missed opportunity. People will form their own opinions about what’s happening if too few people in the organization are privy to what’s going on a few weeks or months into the project. They’ll believe that no news is bad news and that the project is behind, failed, or abandoned. It could take on a self-fulfilling prophecy of demise.

PRO TIP: From the start, plan what and how you’ll communicate about the project. Look for milestones and successes that people can celebrate. Interview people who believe in the project and those who have benefited; then share their stories at company meetings, company newsletters, or even team meetings. People want to know that their effort is making a difference and is being recognized. They’ll feel excited and proud to be part of something that’s working.

There are a wide variety of competency projects that work. By planning, gaining stakeholder support, and communicating success, you’ll be on the right track to gain all the many benefits of a competency program.

Ready to implement a competency project that won’t fail? Read our Mastering Competencies: How to Create the Best Framework white paper. Or contact us for a conversation to get started. 

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