Why Competency Alone Doesn’t Cut It

by Jason Questor
Founding Partner and EVP Learning Systems

Much is made of professional competency, from the general business acumen required for success to the specific task-related skills needed to fulfill an organizational function. Millions of dollars are spent annually measuring the competency levels of executives, managers and professional staff, in the hope that this will translate into short and long term achievement and success for the business. High competency scores are greeted with relief, while less than optimal scores result in gnashing of teeth and remedial training.

Missing the point entirely.

Performance has little to do with competency in isolation. Performance is all about behaviour. Just because I know how to do something does not mean that I translate that knowledge into action. I can send a young (or not so young) manager to a year’s worth of leadership training and end up with someone who cannot (or will not) lead. And it is too easy to blame the person for this failure. What needs to happen is to step back and look at the variables.

Adults learn only what they do. This is one of the axioms known to all training professionals and borne out by experience. Professional development courses worthy of the label focus not simply on concept awareness or knowledge acquisition, but predominantly on learning activation. This means learners are provided with maximum opportunity to practice what they are learning during the program of studies.

But this still will not be enough. If you are prevented from carrying that learned behaviour forward once back on the job by politics, inertia, or downright hostility to change, you will inevitably become cynical about any and all future training efforts.

Here’s the thing. Regardless of whatever high and mighty theory is espoused about people being the most valuable resource, if the culture of your organization does not promote follow through on behaviours that create transformational advantage, all the competency in the world will be wasted. Those who are trained up will then either “put the binder on the bookshelf” and focus on fitting in and advancing with the real rules of the road in the organization, or they will simply leave for greener pastures. And they will tweet about it.

So culture trumps competency. Every time. That’s the real challenge with competency development, because advantageous behaviours become success strategies only when they are given the opportunity for expression and then reinforced, shaped, honed and perfected. And providing that opportunity can be scary. Choosing between “staying the course” and “owning performance” requires courageous conversation, persistence and the realization that the first time you get on the bike you might ride into the rose bushes a few times until you get it right.

None of this is new. Thomas Edison said “the three great essentials to achieve anything worthwhile are, first, hard work; second, stick-to-itiveness; third, common sense.”

Bottom line: Performance is not about what you know. It is about what you do. And what you are reinforced for doing. The equation that states Performance equals Ability times Motivation is really true. If a business professional is motivated by an organizational culture that reinforces achievement, innovation, engagement and collaboration, they will practice this preaching with consistently outstanding results. If, on the other hand, what it takes to succeed boils down to political savvy, all your investment in competency development is just fooling yourself.

from Alpha Guerilla: The Leadership Lessons
(c) Jason Questor. Used by permission. 

At ACHIEVEBLUE, we help organizations achieve their ideal culture.  We use a proven measurement system utilized by thousands of organizations world-wide for over 25 years.  Our A.C.T.I.V.E. Renewal Process ™ (including Ideal, Current and Leadership/Management Impact Assessments) is designed and facilitated by professionals who help you develop measurable reinforcement and corrective action plans targeted at short- and long-term improvement.  To learn more, click here.

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