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5 Tips for Implementing Competency Models

May 28, 2015

I wrote in my last blog about the importance of using competency models in talent management. The next part is actually implementing a competency model. This step can be a daunting endeavor, but if done well, brings tremendous benefits to an organization. As the backbone to a number of talent management programs such as selection and performance management systems, competency models can help gain organization-wide alignment on what defines success for individuals, teams, departments, and the company as a whole.

Effective competency models not only require a lot of work to execute, but also input and buy-in from several key stakeholder groups. While there is no single strategy or approach to developing a competency model than can guarantee its success, there are some general tips or guidelines that if followed, maximize the chances that a competency model implementation will go well. These tips are summarized and discussed in detail below:

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  1. Use a top-down approach

  2. Get input from job content experts

  3. Don’t create too many, or too few competencies

  4. Align the competency model to company culture and strategic objectives

  5. Specify job levels containing their own behavioral definitions

Using a top-down approach

This simply means that buy-in from top leadership should be present from the beginning, and that sponsorship for the initiative starts at the top of the house and is cascaded down the organization. If this is not present, project managers will be swimming upstream as they try to gain acceptance for the new competency model. Also, any future initiative that tries to incorporate the competency model (such as a training or development program) is more likely to be met with resistance if sponsorship from the company’s top leaders is not present.

Getting input from job content experts

Getting the proper input provides content validation and also buy-in from employees in the jobs actually being linked to the competencies. In other words, while leadership support is important, the company’s top leaders can’t just develop the competency model in a vacuum. Engaging representatives from all levels in the organization will not only ensure that the competency model is accurate, but will also enable the competency model to gain traction as it is rolled out throughout the company.

Using too many, or too few competencies

The issue of how many competencies to include in a competency model has been the subject of some debate. While there is no magic number, there is a range – usually around 6 to 10 – that tends to work effectively in most organizations. The reason for avoiding upwards of 12 or so competencies is that it poses a greater challenge for making the competency model resonate with employees. When there is too much content in the model, people will not remember it as easily, and it also makes branding and marketing the competency model more difficult.

On the other hand, when there are too few competencies – say 4 or fewer – it becomes a challenge to make the competency model as detailed or comprehensive as it needs to be to cover all jobs in the company. Also, the competencies will almost certainly sound excessively broad and generic – even vague - when 4 or fewer competencies are used to cover all the criteria for success across the company.

Aligning the competency model to company culture and strategic objectives

This part gives the competency model a purpose and direction specific to each particular organization. If leadership does not link the competency model to its culture or strategy, the competencies lose their value, and employees will be more likely to see them as just another set of capabilities or behaviors being pushed on them with no real meaning behind them.

Specifying job levels with their own behavioral definitions

The final tip enables the same competencies to be relevant from entry level roles all the way to senior executives. Communication, for example, is a competency that is important to most roles in any organization. However, the way an entry level maintenance technician communicates with team members on the shop floor is very different than how the plant manager must communicate with his or her department heads. As a result, the competency of Communication can have one broad definition that applies to all employees, but also contain more specific behavioral examples aligned to each job level. This way, all employees can reference the behavioral examples for their job level to understand how they are expected to demonstrate good Communication in their jobs.

Competency models require a considerable time and resource commitment to implement effectively, but they provide big dividends to companies wanting to improve their talent management programs. While the guidelines listed above are not an exhaustive list of things to consider, they should provide some high level best practices for leaders thinking about developing an effective competency model in their organization.

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John Fernandez, Ph.D. John Fernandez, Ph.D. was a Senior Consultant at PSI and lead the implementation of assessment programs for both selection and development. John has extensive experience working as an internal expert within HR for large companies to deliver large scale, global assessment solutions. John’s areas of expertise include project management, job analysis, assessment design & validation, and presentation of assessment results to sponsors.