Taking Competencies Out for a Spin

The fast pace of business today is causing some to question their approach to competencies. Is the traditional model still relevant in an era of shrinking career tenure and ever-evolving skills?

Talent development has been much like learning to ride a bike and the chief learning officers’ job has been much like the parent teaching it. New employees get clear directions and support but at a certain point they’re expected to develop the necessary skills without someone pushing behind them.

Competency models are like the hand on the back for many employees. Based on the experience of current employees and managers, employers identify required skills and behaviors and use that to create a detailed map that shows employees what’s required and how to pedal forward.

In theory, this makes perfect sense but according to some it’s not the right approach for today’s workforce. More often than not competency mapping is too vague, some argue. Companies often borrow models that have worked for other companies and apply it regardless of fit.

Add to that the fact that skills needed for many jobs are changing at a rapid pace, making a traditional competency model obsolete faster than many companies can update it. And many learning and development programs focus on competency models to the exclusion of the bigger picture. Workers want to develop the skills to be better at their job but ultimately they’re looking for relevance to their own personal career goals.

Combine all these factors and it’s a fair to ask: Is the traditional competency model still relevant in an era of shrinking career tenure and ever-evolving skills?

Making Competencies Work For Your Company

When creating competency models, companies’ often look elsewhere to determine the right topics and find out what’s working for others. This leads some to develop competency models ill suited to their needs. Competencies are often not specific enough to a particular company’s needs, said Steve Hrop, vice president of organizational development services at Caliper Corp., a provider of employee assessments and talent management services.

“When it’s really tied to the needs of the organization and where it is in growing and implementing its strategy, then business leaders do see the value in these models and recognize how important they can be around talent management,” he said.

Hrop said the best way to implement a competency model is to identify the organization’s objectives, create core competencies from those objectives and leadership competencies from the core competencies.

For example, if an organization’s objective is to provide best-in-class customer service, Hrop said the organization should create core competencies that align with that objective and leadership competencies such as negotiation, conflict resolution and active listening.

When companies don’t follow these steps, Hrop says there can be serious consequences. Business leaders and others throughout the organization fail to see the value.

“They dismiss it because they don’t see the direct connection,” Hrop said. “They think it’s HR speak and sometimes it comes across that way.”

Lynn Williams, head of global leadership and management development at pharmaceutical company Sanofi, said creating her company’s core competencies and understanding their values were part of the same initiative. Competencies are how those values are translated into actions and behaviors.

Sanofi conducted assessments with the leadership development steering committee to determine what was needed to drive the business, what the company should look like in the future and the key initiatives to get there.

“There was nothing to say, ‘Here are the values and here’s your training program on the values,’ ” Williams said. “It was really much more focused on how do you have a dialogue on our purpose, our ambition and values.”

Rather than focus on training specific skills, Sanofi instead developed DEEP Conversations, a program aimed at driving the company’s core values of courage, respect, integrity and teamwork through behaviors that are DEEP, which stands for direct, empathetic, earnest and productive.

“If you’re having a DEEP conversation and you’re direct you’re going to be candid, you’ll be decisive, you take a courageous position, you use straight talk and that aligns with our value of courage,” Williams said.

“Under empathetic, you will be emotionally intelligent, you’ll be persuasive, you’ll be able to engage others, you’ll be expressive, you’ll bring your ideas into that, and that focuses on our value of respect,” she added.

“E for earnest really focuses on creating trust, on being very deliberate and thoughtful with our conversations in empowering others, and that ties into our value of integrity. And then last of all is productive, which is being optimistic, being sensitive, listening, providing feedback, being open to feedback, being team oriented and that ties into our value of teamwork.”

Sanofi is in the midst of rolling out an interactive learning experience to 120,000 employees across the globe, creating toolkits and using recordings of leaders around the world telling stories about communication, behavior and its connection to values. In 2018, the company will launch a portal with an interactive game that centers around a tree, Williams said.

Employees are given “seed money” that represents Sanofi’s core values. When an employee or leader sees someone exhibiting some of these core values and behaviors, they can give them a virtual seed to help their tree grow.

Tying values to specific behaviors that are a part of the company’s strategy ensures Sanofi’s competencies are meaningful and relevant to employees and leaders.

Keeping Competency Models Up to Date 

The fast-paced work environment of today makes it so even creating a competency model that is tightly aligned with company core values isn’t enough. The skills needed for a job are constantly changing with new technology, making it difficult to pin down competencies.

At Vanguard, a Philadelphia-area investment management firm, competencies have remained consistent for the last five years. The firm’s leadership development team reviews them yearly but has recently begun a process to more closely evaluate the competencies. The goal is to determine if the competencies need to be tweaked to be more specific or if they are in need of a deeper overhaul, said Tamara Ganc, Vanguard chief learning officer and HR principal.

“My leadership development peers are looking at them pretty seriously right now because everything’s changing,” Ganc said. “The world is fast paced. How do we make sure we’re keeping our crew sharp and they know clearly what’s expected of them — that the competencies can outline and provide clarity on what we expect of them?”

Hrop said constant evaluation is not necessary as long as the company’s competencies are staying true to their core values and the business is relatively stable. “If the business makes a significant shift or if a new leader comes in … and has a significantly different approach in what he or she wants to do in terms of the culture of the organization, clearly you’ve got to align with that,” he said. “Those are the triggers for changing or at least tweaking parts of the model.”

Even with a well designed and regularly evaluated competency map, some argue it’s not enough to keep up with the fluidity of today’s workforce. It’s critical for companies to create a culture of learning, said Todd Tauber, vice president of marketing at Degreed, an educational technology company.

He said there are three things learning and development teams can do to create a learning culture. “First, engage all those stakeholders: the workers, the managers and the executives. Figure out how to get them all bought into a purpose and priorities. Complying or competing? L&D-led or self-directed?” said Tauber.

“Second, empower everyone with the right tools and resources for the culture you want,” he continued. “An LMS is not enough anymore. You also need other technology plus content, people and insights to make smart decisions.”

“And third, embed the culture into the way your organization works. Link it to people’s performance metrics and incentives. Recognize and reward everyone’s efforts to build their skills — however they choose to learn.”

Traditional training or competency models aren’t obsolete,Tauber said, but they must be paired with tools and techniques to empower people to take ownership of their own learning.

“Nobody becomes an expert just through courses,” he said. “We build our skills by stitching together a range of learning experiences over time: courses and books here and there, articles and videos in between, searching and practice on the job, and reflection, feedback and coaching along the way.”

Workers need more exposure to other people, experiences and content from outside as well as inside the organization, he said.

Ganc agreed a competency model alone doesn’t cut it. “There are competencies we believe make a well rounded crew member at Vanguard,” she said. “But we also have to think what are some of the character qualities that our crew aren’t displaying that we might need them to. As we look at the future and we look at how the world is constantly changing we really need crew to be able to be agile and nimble.”

What’s in it for Workers?

As the workforce and the skills needed continue to evolve, a competency model may be unable to provide workers with the necessary tools to market their own skills and develop their careers. Tauber argues its important to think about development from the point of view of employees.

“Get them engaged,” he said. “Show them how their learning feeds their own success as well as the company’s. The CHRO at one of our clients made a video telling everyone how learning feeds curiosity, and curiosity is what drives innovation — which is the company’s big goal.”

Then develop learning objectives aligned to their career interests as well as their job role and invest in tools that help them build the skills they want. “That same client segmented its workforce by function and is investing in a diverse ecosystem of technology, content and services to feed everyone’s individual career interests,” Tauber said.

Ganc said a competency model can offer individual employees insight into how to market their skills. “If you’ve been self assessing yourself, you’ve heard what others have to say about you using the language and the competencies,” she said. “You can also use that as a framework when you’re talking about your own strengths.”

Whether it’s through a competency model or not, the ultimate role of learning is to develop people and give them the means to grow.

“That is the new work of L&D — creating the conditions for learning,” said Tauber. “I really think this is a huge opportunity for CLOs and their teams, not a threat. It’s a supplement to — not a replacement for L&D. Everyone still needs training to do their jobs. But we also need to grow every day, not just once-in-awhile. And that means L&D has to work differently.”

Marygrace Shumann is an editorial intern at Chief Learning Officer magazine. Comment below or email editor@CLOmedia.com.