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7 Min Read

How to Develop Competencies for Your Organization and Teams

Jennie Yang
Jennie Yang

Earlier in my career with 15Five, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to job craft my role, which then became “Director of Talent Transformation.” This encompassed manager enablement, organizational development, talent development, and performance management. 

As the owner of our organization’s performance processes at that time, competencies became an area of focus for me. At 15Five, we’re big on drinking our own champagne, and I realized there was an opportunity to build out our competencies at both the organizational level and team/role levels. 

This process can look a little different for every company, but I wanted to share a little bit about what has worked well for us and some lessons learned. 

So, what are competencies (and why should we care)?

From a talent and culture perspective, competencies are a measurable set of skills, attributes, characteristics, and knowledge that help an employee perform their job successfully. They essentially set the standard of performance within any role or team. 

Well-designed competencies can help you connect the right person with the right role, give employees and teams a roadmap for personal and professional development, and improve the quality of coaching conversations between managers and employees. 

Here’s a list of some competency examples:

  • Business Acumen: Adopting a business perspective when assessing situations and making decisions with the ability to understand how decisions will impact internal business metrics or a customer achieving their objectives.
  • Maturity: The ability to handle various types of business and professional situations in a virtuous, dignified, and responsible manner, taking responsibility for the outcomes, whether good or bad.
  • Problem-solving: Having an appetite and thirst for problem solving. Understanding, untangling, and ultimately helping to solve complex problems. Becoming comfortable “quarterbacking” and driving understanding towards a solution.
  • Decisiveness: Resolving issues within the team and making meaningful decisions quickly. Driving others to make decisions quickly too. Valuing “progress over perfection” and ensuring the team is unblocked, making constant progress.
  • Handling Ambiguity: Expertly handling ambiguity by being flexible and by creating clarity for those around you. Being comfortable not knowing and figuring out how to act with incomplete information.
  • Growth-minded: Embracing coaching and being able to apply feedback immediately to improve performance and evolve personally and professionally.
  • Strategic Thinking: Understand that tactical and day-to-day work will get you only that far. And while being natural at tactics, have the ability and strength to delegate the “busy” work to the cross-functional peers so that strategic work can be prioritized. Turning ideas into action and showing results.

Competencies versus skills 

We get asked pretty often to explain the difference between competencies and skills. Think of it this way: A set of competencies is ultimately the umbrella over all the skills (and characteristics and knowledge) a person needs to do their job well. One competency could be made up of a number of different skills. 

Developing organization-level competencies

We began this competencies development project at the company level, and decided to create company-wide competencies through the lens of our core values, which are:

  1. Be and become your best self 
  2. Cultivate relational mastery 
  3. Do the extraordinary 
  4. Create customer transformation

To help our team members truly understand how to embody these values, we created competencies that clearly map back to them. 

The key component in the development of our competencies was human-centered design. This means, we did research to better understand our team and what they believe make up the characteristics and behaviors of a high performer. 

We used 15Five to ask the team these questions (again, drinking our own champagne), then aggregated those answers into different themes to parse out what those desired qualities look like. Then with those responses in hand, we already had behavioral statements from the team that we could refer to when crafting those competencies. 

How many organizational competencies should we have?

It can be easy to go crazy and develop a long wishlist of competencies at the organization level, but I think it’s important to distill it down to just your top ones. A good rule of thumb is 10 org-level competencies at maximum. 

I believe it’s essential to have company leadership and founders involved in development, to ensure the org-level competencies embody the company’s vision and values. I partnered pretty much exclusively with our executive team, but in hindsight, would recommend also bringing some other team members into the process, in order to get a more broad perspective. 

Developing team & role-level competencies

At the individual role level, there’s a baseline set of competencies that a person should have to be successful. In cases where there’s only one person for each role type, you can look at competencies at the team level, and determine the ideal competencies people on that team would collectively demonstrate. 

(For example, if you have only one “social media manager,” that person could roll up to the marketing team competencies. If you have say, 15 sales development reps, you could more easily create competencies for that specific role.) 

After developing our competencies at the company level, I worked on developing a playbook that department leaders could use to develop their own role and/or team competencies. 

The playbook is a step-by-step guide and template for creating competencies and mapping out the skills that roll up to them. For example, we included some columns where the leader would fill out what “extraordinary” would look like for a particular skill, as well as what “good” looks like and what “ineffective” looks like. This helps them better understand and combine some ideal characteristics and skillsets into a competency.

How many team/role competencies should we have?

Like at the organization level, it’s important to limit the list to your very top competencies. A good rule of thumb here would be a maximum of 5 individual role or team-wide competencies.

Rolling out competencies to managers and employees

When you have your competencies developed — whether at the org level, team/role level, or both — you definitely want to spread the word and start embedding them into your culture. The rollout can vary and you’ll want to do what you think will work best for your unique team.

At 15Five, we leveraged our company-wide team meeting to roll out our new organizational competencies. This allowed the entire team to learn about these competencies, how they were developed, and why they’re a top leadership priority. 

For our team and role-level competencies, the introduction was done more organically throughout the process of developing and reviewing them. Then, they were fully rolled out in individual team meetings. The more employees are involved early on in the process, the more invested they’ll be. 

How can we use competencies in the hiring process?

Once competencies were developed at the role or team level, we developed questions for each of them that we could then use to vet for those specific competencies during the hiring process.

According to SHRM, competency-based selection is “probably the most common interview style for Fortune 500 companies today.” Organizations across all types of industries have been adopting this competency-based method over more traditional approaches to hiring.

It’s important to note that a list of competencies is not the same thing as a job description. As TalentAlign notes, a job description lists the outcomes, responsibilities, and tasks required in a role, whereas a set of competencies lists the abilities needed to conduct those tasks or functions.

How do competencies fit into a performance review?

We believe performance review conversations should be forward-looking and focused on a team member’s growth and development, and competencies fit nicely into this approach.

At 15Five, we leverage competencies in what we call Best-Self Reviews. In these reviews, we look at an employee’s role (or team) competencies and create self-development objectives based on those in which they have room to grow, based on their self assessment. 

This best-self management approach helps leaders focus on empowering employees and developing a strong, trusting manager-employee relationship.

Want to go deeper?

Watch Jennie’s Deep Dive webinar on competency development.

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