How to identify and reign in competency gaps

As you’ll know, many of the topics I’ve been writing about lately share a broad theme – optimising your workforce’s productivity. That might be through good talent management or creating a fertile working environment. But when it comes to figuring our your overarching workforce strategy, it all relates to competencies, competency gaps, and reining them in.

A short 101 review – a competency gap is simply the difference between the current competency level of your workforce and the competency level needed to achieve a certain outcome. The process of discovering the nature and extent of that gap – and then taking the necessary measures to overcome it – is one of the most important deliverables of HRM in any organisation.

In the past I’ve written about how to conduct a skills audit and identify skill gaps. But, the notion of a competency is a bit broader than just a skill.

I’ll explain. The difference is that a skill can be considered a specific proficiency in some area of expertise. Take, for example, software development. A key skill in this area would be the ability to write code in a particular language, like Python or Ruby. However, the ability to analyse a software development problem and create an elegant and efficient solution using that language is a competency. (We have an article on the exact definition of a competency for those of you interested in a more in-depth discussion).

Essentially, competencies focus on the ability to produce certain outcomes through the application of various skills, and the synthesis of knowledge, understanding and other psychological traits.

If you think about your workforce in terms of competencies, you’ll reap some great advantages. For instance, you’ll get a much more meaningful picture of your present capabilities. It also makes it easier for you to better define what will be needed to achieve a specific outcome in future.

Conducting a competency audit is one way to uncover the present status of your workforce. When you’ve defined the competencies you need, the deficit is called the ‘competency gap’. A business’s role then is to shrink that gap through policies, encouraging great management and leadership, hiring and learning and development (L&D).

Incidentally, it’s often an inadequate understanding of an organisation’s competency gap that is the reason many L&D programs don’t deliver the expected results. It becomes clear to me that when you consider the relatively high cost of development activities (and limited resources), having a clear picture of the actual competencies needed to fill that gap can make or break your change effort.

The latest on measuring competencies

The purpose of a competency assessment is to determine:

  1. how effectively employees perform the duties of their job
  2. what employees are capable of accomplishing, and
  3. how those capabilities align with the needs of the organisation.

First things first. You need to know which competencies are important, both to each individual role and to the organisation overall. This is best achieved through a survey of your workforce that asks:

  • what tasks must be carried out in order to achieve success in your role? and
  • what would someone need to know, be or do in order to achieve that result?

After you’ve compiled these results, you’ll produce a set of agreed-upon competencies for each role in the organisation. The next step is to determine if each worker’s capabilities stack up to the requirements.

You could do this by simply producing a questionnaire that asks each employee to rate their own abilities. Obviously, that’s not ideal though, in that people in general are prone to exaggerating their abilities, so a better approach can be to conduct a 360-degree assessment.

This involves not only asking the employee to rate their own abilities, but those of their co-workers, managers and subordinates as the case may be. By tapping into these perspectives, you create a much more realistic picture of each employee’s true ability.

Addressing competency gaps

Addressing the gaps your assessment uncovers is the next step in the process. When an employee is found to be lacking in a specific area, a good idea is to allow them to share the responsibility of overcoming that shortfall. That is, getting them to help define and manage the process themselves.

This might entail the employee assigning their own goals and formulating a personal development plan that they commit to follow. Such a plan might include attending a formalised training course or in-house mentoring by employees who are already competent in that area.

You might also consider attaching rewards, recognition or extra compensation to the achievement of those goals – think about what would motivate that particular individual and use that as the carrot!

Managing the competency assessment

Managing a company-wide competencies assessment is a complex task, I won’t argue with you there. There are tools at your disposal though, that can make things much easier. Technology used well can streamline processes, analyse your  data, save valuable time and give you an accurate picture of the competencies across your workforce.

With these insights in your toolkit, you’re well equipped to plan L&D strategies, and any strategic hiring, to get you where you need to be to ensure the competitive success of your organisation.

What has been your experience with closing the competency gap in your organisation? Have you got a great example or tips you’d like to share? I’d love to hear from you.

Four Ways To Allow Brilliance To Shine In Your Business

A few months ago I came across an article written by Bruce Kasanoff. For those of you who didn’t happen upon it, or have never heard of Bruce, he’s pretty focused on the idea that individuals – not companies – are responsible for nurturing talent in others.

I’ve seen too many examples of successful organisational L&D to fully support this approach, but there was one phrase in his article that really struck me:

‘The person who is capable of designing a better tool is not necessarily the person with the mechanical or technical skills to build it.

It’s pretty obvious to point this out, and it’s something most of us would agree with, but it got me thinking: does everyone in the company need to be good at everything? Should we invest time and money bringing individuals up to a ‘meets expectation’ level in competencies that other staff already excel in? Does a brilliant sports scientist really need to be fabulous at running meetings? Should this person be able to manage potential under-achievers, get budgets right to within a dollar, have excellent interpersonal skills and know how to recruit expertly?

Or should we accept that no individual can master everything, and instead focus training on areas in which they already excel? Fostering remarkable skills that then become invaluable to the individual, the team they work with and, by extension, the organisation? To me, that sounds like a much better use of everyone’s time, and talent.

Hierarchical environments

An army of minions

Whether you run an SME or a Fortune 500 company, time is not an infinite resource. Focusing training on areas where staff have the potential for brilliance is an efficient (and effective) strategy. Rather than creating an army of minions who all have the same basic skill set, organisations that promote individual brilliance increase the value of the skills available to them. They ensure employees don’t waste time on areas they’ll only ever be mediocre at, facilitating greater engagement and reaping all the competitive advantages that a productive, engaged and skilful workforce provides.

Take the design team at Dropbox. It includes the founder of ‘Mailbox’, Gentry Underwood, who sold his app to Dropbox in 2013 for $100 million. Had he found himself in the traditional corporate environment, expected to invest time and energy gaining proficiency in a wide array of skills, would Gentry have been able to achieve so much so quickly?

What about Steve Jobs? Would Apple be the same today if he’d spent his time increasing his proficiency in skill areas where colleagues already excelled? Of course not. These innovators are innovators because they recognise their strengths, aren’t afraid to acknowledge their weaknesses and are happy to rely on the strengths of others.

No one excels at everything, but everyone excels at something.

So how do you nurture individual star talent?

1. Identify the movers and shakers

It sounds obvious, but knowing your employees is key. Identify the areas in which individuals excel and don’t insist that they invest time building up competence in lesser skills at the expense of brilliance.

Performance metrics can be a useful tool for gauging where individual strengths lie, but they are only an indication. Take time to talk to employees, understand their likes and dislikes, how they perceive their strengths and, most importantly, the areas peers think they excel in. You need to identify these strengths at every level of the organisation if you’re going to make the most of them.

2. Focus on success

Employees need to understand that their growth is important to your organisation. Managers who are committed to the individual progression of those under them create an open, collaborative environment in which junior staff feel free to challenge the status quo and progress.

There are a number of ways to effectively foster individual brilliance among your workforce. Career coaching enables employees to define a clear path, encourages them to identify their strengths and gives them the tools they need to fully utilise those skills. A 2012 report by the CMI ranked external coaching as the fifth most beneficial management and leadership development (MLD) practice assessed (see page 8, they looked at 26). This approach was actually cited as 32% more effective at promoting individual performance than appraisals and skills audits.

3. Ignore titles

Star performers often upset the balance of a hierarchical environment, and they should be encouraged to do so. Individuals need freedom to display their strengths, regardless of their job title, to excel. While maintaining hierarchy is important, it’s up to managers to provide staff with the freedom to think laterally and display brilliance.

By delegating tasks based on accomplishments rather than seniority, you improve the skills you’re trying to foster (in an earlier article, I touched on the fact that as much as 70% of development comes from on-the-job experience). Most importantly, assigning tasks to the people who are best at them — not best qualified or most experienced — results in a far better result.

Career Coaching

4. Promote teamwork

Developing individual strengths does have potential drawbacks. Focusing on areas of brilliance in individual employees means that you create an environment where success is reliant on the skills of multiple individuals.

This can be a good thing, it increases engagement, facilitates greater organisational ownership and helps employees to shine. However, to be ultimately successful, this approach requires a cohesive team. Each individual must have clearly defined responsibilities and the understanding that they are one part of a bigger picture.

In conclusion

By removing the focus from competency areas where employees might be struggling, and encouraging improvement of outstanding skills, you should be able to create a well-honed workforce: efficient, productive, engaged in their tasks and confident of their strengths. You should be able to turn every employee into a top performing superstar, someone who contributes meaningfully to the success of your organisation and doesn’t waste time developing skills in areas where they will only ever be average.


Hierarchical environments are particularly difficult for Millennials, 34% of whom say their personal drive intimidates older colleagues. Source: PWC

A poll by the International Coach Federation found that 86% of organisations who used a career coach felt they received a good ROI. Source: ICF

To build exceptional leaders, focus on these seven skills

The skills required for leadership don’t change through your career

Exceptional leaders image

We do a lot of work with Cognology clients in identifying the competencies that leaders require to succeed. It’s fascinating work. And through this process, I also get to hear a lot of assumptions about what people think it takes to succeed as a leader.

One of the most common assumptions is that as leaders progress through their career they need to develop a dramatically different set of leadership skills. After all, they’ll be taking on bigger and more varied projects. And they’ll be responsible for more and more people.

But this just isn’t the case. Whether you’re leading one person, or 100,000, the skills required are remarkably similar. Recent research into key competencies for leadership published by Harvard Business Review shows this. The study surveyed thousands of HR and business professionals on the skills leaders needed at each stage of their career. And the results were surprisingly consistent, regardless of the level of leadership.

The seven skills you’ll need with you at all times.

From the 332,860 people surveyed in the study, seven skills were picked almost twice as often as the remaining nine. So I don’t take up too much of your time (I could talk about these things all day!) I’ll give you some of my thoughts on the top seven skills:

  • Inspires and motivates others: this one’s a no brainer. How could you lead without being inspiring and motivational? If people look up to you and believe in you then they’re more likely to follow you.
  • Displays high integrity and honesty: again, fairly intuitive. If you work hard and apply yourself then the truth is all you need. How can you be a leader without being honest?
  • Solves problems and analyzes issues: how well can you think on your feet and solve problems on the spot? Are you able to analyze issues and stop them from becoming problems?
  • Drives for results: you want your results to be able to speak for themselves. Are you able to bring a project home and get the results required?
  • Communicates powerfully and prolifically: some argue that you can make anything happen if you just communicate the right way. How well can you articulate your ideas so people understand what your big goals are?
  • Collaborates and promotes teamwork: You’re the one bringing everyone together and making sure delivery works smoothly. How well can you can you work with others and get a team to work for you?
  • Builds relationships: your ability to build rapport with others. Can you find a way to connect and engage with other people?

You’ll find that these skills are complimentary to each other. Develop one and you’ll typically improve in other areas too. Think about how well you can solve problems when you drive for results. Your ability to inspire others is dependent on how well you can communicate.

Why you need to introduce all new and potential leaders to these skills.

Do you have an employee on the cusp of becoming an effective leader? Review these key competencies and see where they need improvement.

Break the requirements for the position down to its simple elements. Treat these key competencies as if they were the desired outputs for a project. They may already have these skills, but are they at the level they need to be?

In our own article on the importance of competencies, we use the example of the difference between the ability to craft a pitch for a Public Relations Assistant and a Public Relations Manager.

An assistant must be able to craft a pitch, in that they understand what is required to craft one, but a manager must be able to craft one that is engaging and compelling. The same skill is required, but at a higher level.

Use these skills for ongoing development, feedback, and coaching.

Recognition of these skills is essential for development. It becomes easier to assess the skills that employees need when you can put them into objective terms.

Using these skills you can almost predict which employees will advance, based on the leadership skills they possess at the moment.

This removes the guesswork out of training employees in areas they need improvement. Once you can articulate the areas an employee is lacking in, you can help plan, manage and coach for the development required.

Do you agree with this list of key competencies? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the competencies required for leadership in your organisation. Jump into the comments below and let’s get the conversation going.

Photo Credit: Sara&Joachim&Mebe Used under license CC BY-SA 2.0,_Namibia-2.jpg