The Value of Building Competencies Over Skills

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Dec 6, 2021

I’ve spent my career dedicated to learning and employee growth at a variety of organizations, from a global Fortune 200 IT company to now spearheading learning for Kershaw County, my local government.

My dedication to learning and education began at the university level, but my understanding of the value of training and workplace learning came to be during my time in the military. I understood that while education for education’s sake is a valid pursuit to become a continuous life-long learner, organizations must take a disciplined approach to training that is well-grounded in proven methodologies and focuses on solving or improving problems related to human performance.

From Global Enterprise to Local County Government 

When I transitioned from my role leading learning and development for 79,000 global employees to Kershaw County four years ago, my initial goal was to put a program in place for succession planning, given the quantity of legacy employees employed by the county. In doing so, we had to prioritize mapping existing talent and then discern where the organization was in terms of skill-building and development for our 340 teammates.

It’s worth pointing out that Kershaw County has extremely high retention rates, which is something that we value and take pride in. However, it also indicates a degree of stagnation, at no fault of our teammates.

When I began my role, I knew we had to build a culture of learning from the ground up to balance out this stagnation and improve flexibility internally. Using sound change management methodologies, we identified early learning program adopters and late learning program adopters through stakeholder mapping on a spider diagram to show our commitment to learning and development.

A huge portion of this effort was demonstrating to employees that we understood, respected, and valued their long-term contributions as well as their individual competencies — which at times were being applied to projects and roles outside of what they were hired to do.

Emphasizing Competencies Over Skills 

A big aspect of our initial talent mapping was identifying teammates’ competencies. We focused on understanding the teams’ competencies rather than traditional skills because the former can be applicable across disciplines and roles, whereas skills have a shorter shelf life. Recruiting consultancy Hays provides the following explanation between competencies and skills:

Our decision to emphasize competencies over skills was oriented towards two primary goals:

  1. Breaking down silos as they relate to roles
  2. Providing lateral and upward mobility across an agile learning organization

Much of this decision was made after reading The Career Architect Development Planner by Michael M. Lombardo and Robert W. Eichinger. This resource provides over 100 research-based and experience-tested development plans and coaching tips. It ended up being a huge asset to an organization like mine, where roles and needs shift frequently and the skills and competencies required to play various roles within the organization are extremely diverse.

To make this actionable, we map competency attainment along two axes (such as performance versus potential) and then determine a need-based ranking that can be used to inform individualized development recommendations.

Furthermore, to build an organization that is able to respond rapidly to the inevitability of change, we stress competencies related to agility. And to build intellectual, political, and organizational agility, employees need competencies that we’ve defined as dealing with paradox, learning on the fly, dealing with ambiguity, personal learning, and self-development.

This approach has proved more long-term value than teaching highly experienced employees training in new tools or skills with a short shelf life. When we arm our team with the opportunity to develop these agility-related competencies, we’ve found that enabling growth within these competencies encourages skill-building.

Transitioning to a Culture of Learning

One major challenge was that we work with a number of non-traditional learners, individuals who have worked in their role for 15 to 20 years and have deep expertise. We had to take a holistic approach to development, especially for these individuals, helping them create time in their workday to squeeze in their learning and development. We had to remove all barriers (especially for those workers out in the field or in non-corporate roles) to maximize potential for competency development.

So we built a learning station in our office, and even created some employees’ first-ever email addresses so that they were able to access online tools. Additionally, we provided incentives (like Keurig machines, smart backpacks, luncheons with execs, and dinner coupons) for monthly learning program usage leaders — and a snack cake for all employees to celebrate launch day. 

We also made it a priority to connect with other companies with the same goals that were already seeing results. We found these companies through our online learning provider, who connected us with organizations of similar sizes, in similar industries, and with similar challenges and successes. I was able to speak with leaders who were approaching workplace learning in both similar and highly variable ways from the way I was, to compare notes and problem-solve.  

We’ve already seen a number of changes as a result of our investment, including employees who have thanked us for our investment in their competency building. And, for example, through workplace safety courses for roles with a traditionally higher risk of job-related accidents, like our public works or fire divisions, we’ve improved employee safety and minimized the risk of recurring costs associated with insurance claims.

Above all else, this focus on competencies and learning as a whole has already made a difference in the lives of our employees. One employee, after losing her spouse during the pandemic, has reflected on courses she took on topics such as life mastery, health, and wellness. Another individual used courses to earn a certification in nutrition. Meanwhile, employees working our 911 phones have replaced down time between calls with training on both role-based competencies and those in pursuit of personal aspirational goals.

Such instances not only bolster high ratings for job satisfaction but also provide testimonials in support of our external employee value proposition — and have massively and tangibly supported the culture of learning we’re proud to have built at Kershaw County.

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