In Search of Silliness: The Perfect Competency List

Almost every week someone posts a request for competencies here on the ER Forum. It usually goes something like this: “I am a recruiter for XYZ organization and I am looking for a competency list for the PQR job. Does anyone have one I could use?” Sound reasonable? Well, before you jump to conclusions, you might want to think about these questions:

  • Is your organization identical to everyone else’s organization?
  • Do you sell, make, or distribute identical products and services?
  • Do you call on identical customers in identical markets?
  • Do all your employees perform identical tasks and activities?
  • Is your organization’s business plan the same as everyone else’s?

I would never have known this a few years ago, but after working with hundreds of the world’s best-known organizations, I can truthfully say size is no guarantee of skill, knowledge, or competency. For example, I once worked with a world leader in marketing. Their HR department had no less than four totally unworkable competency lists: one for executives, one for HR people, one for trainers, and one for everyone else. Authors worked with their own consultants and had their own ideas (and definitions) of competencies. It was a mess. The lesson? The competency list you get from another corporation will probably be no better than the list you develop on your own, and yours just might be better than theirs. Competency Definitions I won’t make up my own definition; Merriam-Webster’s is good enough for me. M-W says the word “competent” came into the English language in the 16th century. It is derived from the Latin root word “competere” meaning “capable/applicable/relevant/sufficient/adequate/competent.” When put to work in the organization, “competent” means being able to “do” a specific job. Now, the big question: What specific competencies does each job in your organization require? Don’t know? Well, neither will anyone outside the organization. Hopefully, I am making it clear that “outside” lists, if they are any good at all, are usually pitifully inadequate for organizationally specific jobs. The only good competencies are the competencies your organization needs to accomplish its business plan. If you don’t know what these are, your company is probably in total confusion about what it wants to accomplish (if it is any consolation, your competitors are probably confused, too). In many cases, with the exception of work hours, “business organization” is a total oxymoron. Job-Specific Competencies Competencies are developed job by job. They might have some overlap in name (e.g., ability to learn and apply new information), but they can be significantly different in meaning (e.g., ability to learn and apply new statistical principles, ability to learn and apply new marketing strategies, or ability to learn and apply new policies and procedures). Because developing a comprehensive list of job-specific competencies would require knowing every job task in every organization ó and being willing to change the competency list with every change in the job ó it is easier to work from a core set of applicant skills. Measuring Competencies This is a subtle point, but an important one. If two people come to the same conclusion about whether an applicant has a job competency, either the measurement system or the competency is worthless. For example, I can measure a person’s “ability to learn” using a pencil and paper test. High scores indicate more “ability to learn” and low scores indicate less. But how do I measure a person’s “leadership” or “business acumen”? Each of these so-called competencies is a moving target. Take, for example, “leadership”. Even if you can get two people to agree on one definition, leadership changes with time, with the leader, and with the subordinate. Not only is leadership a complicated combination of activities that include giving clear directions (i.e., communication and analysis), following up (i.e., planning), coaching (i.e., coaching), and evaluation (i.e., judgment), but leadership also depends on a host of internal and external factors. A “good” competency is one that is observable, measurable, realistic, time-bound and job-related. Using “fuzzy” competencies like leadership and business acumen may initially sound attractive, but I will guarantee that employees will eventually get frustrated and angry, and wind up criticizing HR for installing yet another ill-founded program-of-the-month. Never seen it fail. Executives Know Best? Sure. And politicians care more about you than they care about themselves. The incompetence rate for managers is estimated to be somewhere between 75% and 90% ó and this is the audience who signs-off on HR initiatives. (I wouldn’t expect the majority of managers to become thought-leaders anytime soon). Managers often actively resist the most solid efforts to build effective HR systems. I once tried to convince an exceedingly dull VP of HR why she should test new employees for learning ability. Although her company lost about a million dollars each year on training “drop-outs,” she refused to make a decision. Good thing this company had enough money to waste a cool million every year, because their VP was incompetent. How About a List of Interview Questions? Sheesh! No. No. No. If an organization does not have a solid idea about the competencies it needs, then what good are a list of questions? Here is, in fact, the secret to good hiring (pass it on):

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  1. Know the competencies you need by doing a job analysis (interview job holders, managers, and visionaries).
  2. Be sure the competencies are measurable and know how to measure them.
  3. Build interview questions around the competencies.
  4. Only use behavioral or situational interview techniques to minimize applicant fibbing and thoroughly cover the job. (“What would you do if…?” questions are NOT simulations.)
  5. Use simulations, case studies, and exercises to supplement interview data when the job is critical (managers, professionals, and so forth).

Sickening Conclusion Bad hiring is easy. Find a warm body. Ask questions. Get pleasant answers. Hire. Fret about performance differences. Search for better questions. Repeat. Good hiring is hard. I hear it all the time after I do all the work necessary for a job analysis. When I present the client with a list of competencies necessary to do the job (remember, my lists are totally based on what job experts say it takes to do the job), the most frequent response I get from HR is, “Wow! That’s a lot of skills. We don’t have that much time. Besides, how will we ever find those kind of people?” Think about it. I just told HR what it takes to do a job based on data supplied by their own people, and HR responds by complaining that finding people with job competencies will make their job harder! Can you imagine? This would be like an Air Force recruiter hiring street people to fly jets because they are easier to recruit. How many jets do you think the Air Force would lose using this strategy? Only about one out of seven applicants (not resumes) have the right job skills. Recruiting done poorly can cost as much as 50% of annual payroll ó every year. Good recruiting can have more impact on profitability than any other single HR intervention, but it takes work and perseverance. This is a zero-sum game. There is NO shortcut. Either HR works harder or line managers’ work harder. Any recruiter who thinks he or she can do a better job by searching for competency lists or using better interview questions is doomed to an occupation filled with frustration and complete disrespect.

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2 Comments on “In Search of Silliness: The Perfect Competency List

  1. I would just like to support your comment about simulations. The best job interview I ever had (as an applicant, not an employer) was one during which the hiring manager asked me to imagine that I had been hired, and she then asked me to speculate about what I would do on my first day. One thing led to another and she learned more about me – my imagination, my experience, my thought-process, my motivation, my problem-solving skills – with one short question than many other interviewers have learned during hours of talking about what I did in past situations (the old behavioral question: ?give me an example of a time when?.?). Job interviews for MBA grads are all about simulations – only they call them case studies.

    The key to a good “simulation” interview is to (as you say) understand the job in question, and put the candidate into it with simple, basic questions that get to whether and how the candidate would function in the job — not how the candidate functioned in previous jobs (where the “situation” was by definition ? different). The truer test of how a person WOULD behave is simply to ask them — “how would you behave if…” — it’s hard to bluff or embellish yourself out of that type of question.

    Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this type of interview can and should be fun and engaging (at least it was for me). Instead of having to remember (or worse – invent!) all the metrics of past performance, the candidate has an opportunity to think creatively and really put their skills to the test and let them shine through. And, isn’t that what an interview should be all about?

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  2. Hi Irene…Thanks for the feedback. If I understood correctly, what you described was a theoretical response to a theoretical question. Theoretical techniques have about the same accruracy as a behavioral-type interview..about 25%. They are most accurate when you hear “negative” information (e.g., when you hear positive information, it is hard to tell if it is truth or creative fiction). A carefully scripted simulation is slightly different. If you were applying for a sales job, for example, it might go something like this.

    1) A consultant would have learned as much as possible beforehand about the traps, pitfalls and requirements of the job.
    2) A case study would be written up that included a fixed scenario similar to ones faced in the job
    3) The case would be rehearsed with some of the better sales people and a list of possible answers would be recorded
    4) A role player (prospective client) would be trained to follow a separate scenario written from the client’s point of view. This would include certain pre-scripted objections and reactions.
    5) The whole enchilada would parallel typical problems and desirable sales behaviors that would be faced in real time
    6) Finally, when you applied for the job, you would have been asked to read the scenario, prepare for the interaction, manage the sales encounter, been recorded, and been scored using the possible expert answers. This is significantly different from the “clinical” approach you described.

    Simulations are carefully scripted and controlled; present each applicant with an equal playing field; use pre-scripted trained roleplayers; and, use a uniform set of answers to evaluate performance. Think of them as being asked to perform a “little slice of the job”. Hope that helps.

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