How to develop a sound competency model for better benefits and outcomes

In my career at Willis Towers Watson I’ve had the pleasure of working with hundreds of clients, from some of the largest on earth, to those with fewer than 2,500 employees. From private to public sector, retail to energy services. And one thing has been consistent time and again: they each were secret hoarders at one time or another. Hoarding what, you may ask? Competencies, or defined behaviors that provide structure for the evaluation and development of individual employees.

Why would an organization stockpile competencies? The same script plays out time and again:

  • There are multiple competency models within the organization – with no governance in place.
  • The organization-wide model includes more competencies than a manager can reasonably assess or on which an employee can realistically focus. But it’s all important.
  • There are also organizational values in place, with behavioral descriptions that look suspiciously like competencies. These are important too.
  • There’s a separate leadership model in place that applies to everyone who is considered a leader – often including individual contributors.
  • There is a different set of expectations for high potential identification and leadership development.
  • Assessments instruments like psychometrics use a whole different set of off-the-shelf competencies instead of being aligned with or bespoke to the organization’s model.
  • The sales or R&D function has created their own model – and they just rolled it out, so the organization can’t do anything about it.
  • And, there’s talk on the horizon of developing a skills inventory to support workforce planning and allow for the movement of talent.

Sound familiar? Is your head spinning yet? Just imagine how managers and employees feel.

What’s a Better Competency Model?

So what are some of the things that organizations do to alleviate the pain? Here are some of the best practices we see emerging in competency model design:

Competencies are defined behaviors that provide structure for the evaluation and development of individual employees.
  • Figure out everything that exists today – go through each room and every closet where content may be stashed, and create a comprehensive inventory of competency models
  • Start anew by defining the organization’s overall competency architecture — specify the types of competencies that are included (e.g., core, functional, leadership) and establish governance on the number for each type (note: you may have to evolve to this over time, as competency models are updated or re-defined)
  • Remember that less is more – gone are the days of the large libraries of organizational competencies; instead, CEOs want a simple model with 5 or so competencies that can fit on one page and are written in a way that mirrors the organization’s culture
  • Make a resolution to stop describing and measuring the same things multiple times – if customer focus is important, emphasize it – but it doesn’t need to be described and assessed through values, core competencies, leadership competencies and functional competencies in a duplicative way
  • Define competency levels aligned with career framework and describe competencies in this manner to allow for transparency of career progression – describe what it looks like to move from an individual contributor to a manager to a director and then senior leader
  • Involve the right stakeholders in the process and think in terms of the “nature of work” versus the organization’s structure (e.g., software engineers in different parts of the business should not necessarily have different competencies just because they report through different leadership chains)
  • Integrate competencies and technical skills throughout the organization’s talent programs

Effective User Experience

Beyond design, creating an effective user experience is equally critical. Part of creating an effective user experience includes integrating competencies within various technology platforms. The chart above provides perspective on what to consider.

Streamlining the content of your competency models (addressing any hoarding) and embedding them effectively in technology to support the full talent lifecycle may require an investment of time, resources and I daresay patience, but it creates clear benefits and outcomes for your organization, managers and employees.

This post was originally published February 3, 2016.


Renee SmithGuest blogger Renée Smith is a Director of Talent Management in San Francisco with over 15 years of consulting experience.  In addition to serving clients on the U.S. West Coast, she serves as the global leader for Willis Towers Watson’s service offerings in the career management and competency space.

Categories: Leadership and Talent

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