An Example of the problem: Being Right Can Be Irrelevant
While most universities are good at teaching the important
rational, scientific processes for solving problems, most
schools, especially the highly technical ones, spend far too
little time on teaching their students to communicate and
sell their ideas. The students are not taught to build understanding
and consensus among people with different personalities, work
specialties and agendas (e.g., sales, finance, and engineering)
whose cooperation is required if their ideas are to be implemented.
Several years ago I saw a classic example of how important
communications and interpersonal skills are for anyone who
wants to accomplish something - or negotiate a career - in
organizations. I was reading a report about an unusually bright
individual who had attended a large corporation's talent-assessment
program. During the program participants worked in group problem
solving exercises while a staff of psychologists and operational
managers observed them. Afterwards participants received written
feedback on their performance.
The feedback on this individual said he was so intelligent
that he frequently had reasonable answers before the rest
of the group had even defined the problem. Then the report
made a statement I'll never forget. It said that his "being
right was irrelevant".
How could his "being right" be "irrelevant"?
It was irrelevant because he could never communicate his being
right to the rest of the group, and all the problem solutions
required their cooperation. At the end of each exercise he
watched the others move off in the wrong direction because
they never listened to him. He seemed oblivious to some of
the important non-technical success behaviors and competencies
we've observed in people who are effective at getting themselves
heard and having impact.
Critical need for core non-technical performance and leadership
After interviewing over 5000 people with multiple career
specialties in over 60 Fortune 500 and other companies we
identified a series of core non-technical performance and
leadership competencies that distinguished successful performers
at all levels. Our self-diagnostic tools listing specific
success behaviors based on this research are currently being
used in numerous national and international companies (GE,
IBM, Lockheed Martin, Sun Microsystems, Apple, Citibank Hewlett-Packard
etc). Various types of communications skills appear repeatedly
in the behaviors people use to exercise these competencies.
To illustrate the importance of these competencies, we'll
start with a very common myth that hinders many in their efforts
to become effective.
Myth: There is a right answer to every problem--and I should
Much to the surprise of many, particularly younger recent
college graduates, the right answer to most any work or career
question (or problem) is also - like life - not a destination
but a journey. The highly technical president of a major corporation
made this point very forcibly one day when I heard him address
a gathering of deans from top engineering schools. His opening
comment brought the group instantly to attention.
When they asked why they were not, he said their graduates
usually had excellent technical skills but they were naive
in that they defined success as finding the right answer to
technical problems. He told the deans that getting the students
to break that mindset was very difficult and they could never
succeed if they continued to think that way.
Then he described some important success behaviors that were
very consistent with what we found in our research. He said
that, in the real world technical leaders have to decide which
one of many problems to work on. Once they have decided, they
usually have to build consensus among a group of colleagues
who often don't agree with them and want to pursue other problems.
Once the leaders have consensus they have to negotiate resources,
often competing with other groups seeking the same resources
to pursue other problems.
His message was that in addition to their technical skills
people have to learn a variety of non-technical behaviors
(e.g. consensus building, effective communications, admitting
and learning from their mistakes) if they want to be heard
and have impact in the real world.
A research-based head start
As we said earlier, we have already conducted over 5,000
competency-focused interviews across many career fields. In
this section we will briefly outline some of the core competencies
our interviews have identified as important in just about
any career specialty. We will also show you a sample of a
diagnostic tool you can use to assess yourself against these
From the research we have specified 12 core competencies that
are critical for successful performance in nearly all career
specialties. When we introduce these to our workshop participants
it gives them a solid base to build on. They use this data
base as a starting point, and then build from there by conducting
Investigative Interviews to identify what additional specialized
technical competencies are important in their individually
chosen career fields.
This process of observing and interviewing managers and non-managers
in both large and small organizations has taught us a great
deal about what successful people do. It has also taught us
about how they do it. Our interviews and focus groups have
identified numerous things that successful and unsuccessful
performers have in common - many behaviors both groups display
regularly. But our analysis has focused on identifying a narrower,
more practical set of distinguishing competencies and behaviors
- things successful career strategists do that less successful
people typically do not do.
If you know what these critical few are, you can focus your
efforts on developing them - and eliminate much wasted time
and energy spent on scattered and random personal development
pursuits that have far less impact. Our research shows the
12 core competencies can be very powerful assets in the pursuit
of any career strategy
Three Competency Groups
There are three groups of competencies you need to explore
in career planning. Our research can provide you with significant
information on two of these three groups before you even begin
your Investigative Interviews. The three groups are:
Functional/Technical Competencies. These are function-specific
technical competencies required on a given career path (e.g.,
finance, engineering or computer systems). Training is usually
readily available in these competencies. They are typically
taught in local universities and technical schools. Our undergraduate
major or trade school gives us a basic foundation of competence
in the specialty we choose. Because knowledge is moving ahead
very rapidly in many of these specialties (e.g., physics,
psychology or automotive mechanics) we usually have to keep
ourselves up-to-date through ongoing reading, graduate studies,
or periodic participation in specialized courses offered by
local schools or professional societies. Often our work organizations
offer a variety of in-house training to keep employees up
to date in the specialized technical competencies required
for their work.
Core Non-Technical Competencies. In our experience
this is a frequently overlooked, underestimated and ill-defined
competency group, particularly among individuals who don't
aspire to managerial positions. In current flatter and less
hierarchical work environments anyone who wants to get his/her
ideas heard and implemented will require a set of core competencies
(e.g., communication, influence, planning, organizing and
customer responsiveness) that in past, more hierarchical organizations
have often been associated primarily with managerial positions.
We call these core because they are not technical or function-specific.
Those who want or need others to listen to, fund, act on,
or support their ideas will require these core competencies
no matter what technical/functional career specialty they
pursue - and whether or not they ever aspire to formal managerial
Leadership Competencies. In addition to the core competencies,
the research shows there are some further supplementary competencies
required for success by those who aspire to positions involving
leadership of other people. Like the core competencies these
are generic across all career specialties. These leadership
competencies are important in both formal managerial positions
and in informal non-managerial leadership positions. For instance,
in today's organizations people often serve as team or project
leaders directing the technical work of others who do not
administratively report to them. The people whose work they
lead report administratively to other managers and move in
and out of their groups depending on when various projects
need their expertise. While the core competencies are required
by everyone at all organizational levels, the supplemental
leadership competencies evolve and change depending on the
level of leadership involved. Figure13 shows some examples
under each of these competency groups.
We focused our research on the identification
of what specific competencies will be required for success
in the current and predicted future career environments.
Functional/technical competencies varied, of course, depending
on the specific business or technologies different organizations
were pursuing. They were absolutely essential, but most organizations
we interviewed thought they were at least competing on a level
playing field in these. They could define what was required
and usually had ready access to training resources equal to
those their competitors were using.
The Critical Difference
However, the core and leadership competency requirements
presented a different story. Most felt these were harder to
identify and define than the functional/technical competencies
and that the universities and trade schools were doing very
little to identify, define, or teach them. Because most organizations
were having difficulty identifying and defining these competencies
in any coherent and focused fashion, it was also difficult
to learn much by tracking or benchmarking what other organizations
did. Interestingly, most also felt these were the competencies
most likely to give their organizations a competitive edge
- or keep them alive if organization survival was an issue.
Core and leadership competencies were seen as critical catalysts.
These provided the rare spark that was typically required
to ignite innovation and new technology. These provided the
energizing motivation that could steer innovation through
the many roadblocks and tedious details required for successful
implementation. Because the core and leadership competencies
are often fuzzy and ill defined, those organizations that
can identify and focus on teaching them to their people will
have a performance edge that can tilt otherwise level global
playing fields in their favor.
But what makes the critical difference in the core and leadership
areas? When we brainstorm in focus groups with top leaders
in almost any specialty, we've found most can paper the walls
with chart sheets listing competencies they feel are important
in their fields. It is like choosing doors. The problem is
not that we can't identify enough, but that we can speculate
on too many. How do we focus?
To help answer these questions we conducted in-depth interviews
with identified top performers . We focused on their
specific observable behaviors on the job and looked for patterns
the successful performers had in common. Based on that, we
have identified a manageable number of core and leadership
competencies we believe make the distinguishing difference
in performance across different technical specialties and
The Most Important Few
Because the functional/technical competencies differed significantly
depending on the type of organization and specific career
specialties involved, the findings on those are too diverse
to report here. Your own Investigative Interviews can identify
those for the specific career field that interests you. Here
we will focus instead on 12 core and a small number of supplemental
leadership competencies that have emerged as most important
for success across most career fields and organizations
Twelve Core Competencies
Figure14 shows the twelve core competencies identified in
the research as important for everyone. The competencies are
organized in three sections: personal, team, and operational.
Figure 14. CORE COMPETENCIES
Of all the competencies identified in the interviews,
these 12 are the core 20% that contributed most to the successful
interviewees' effectiveness. When you have limited time, these
12 give you a highly leveraged starting point for identifying
your own personal competency strengths and development needs.
Beyond the Labels
As shown in Figure 14, of course, these competencies are
only labels. What do they mean? Labels alone are useless.
You need to know how successful people act out these competencies
in their behaviors. Here again the key is focus. You could
take full semester courses on each of these individual competencies.
You could learn a hundred different behaviors for each. However,
with limited time it helps to know the distinguishing few.
What are the three to five most important things the interviews
showed successful people do to demonstrate each competency?
Our research concentrated specifically on what these few most
important distinguishing behaviors are. For example, Figure
15 shows the 5
most highly leveraged behaviors we found successful people
demonstrate in performing the Communication and Influence
Figure 15. COMMUNICATION AND INFLUENCE
We define these as observable behaviors because
each describes a specific action or behavior you can perform
- and you can readily observe whether you yourself and others
are really performing them. These are not mysterious psychological
traits. These are simple actions anyone can consciously choose
to perform or not perform. If you rate yourself - or others
rate you - as low on some of these behaviors that doesn't
mean you're defective. It simply means you are not remembering
or choosing to do them. The simple solution is to start doing
them. You always have that option if you want to improve things.
Practice can bring significantly increased skill in exercising
each of the behaviors.
On the surface, many of these behaviors may
seem obvious. When they are spelled out this clearly, most
people would agree these are things we should be doing. When
I first read one of Steve's competency models my immediate
reaction was "so what's new?" After years of working
with competency models myself - and seeing the positive results
others have gained from working with them - I now realize
that what's new is having the most important competencies
spelled out clearly and succinctly, and having a readily available
checklist to remind me to do them. What's also new is knowing
what few of the hundreds of good things I might do are most
likely to have the highest impact.
When less successful people read through the
key behaviors for the competencies they
usually agree these behaviors are important, but typically
they don't really do them and their excuse is they don't have
time. Successful people acknowledge the importance of the
behaviors and agree it's difficult to find time to do them.
Typically, however, successful people tell us they force themselves
to take the time because they've learned that doing these
things saves much more time in the long run. It eliminates
much wheel spinning and repetitive false starts which less
successful people waste time on because they won't take time
to rise above day-to-day fire fighting and find a way to prevent
the fires from starting.
Learning by Observation
Successful people interviewed in the research said they learned
the critical competency behaviors by:
Observing other successful people and copying what they
did (i.e., productive behaviors)
Observing and learning from the mistakes (i.e., critical
behavior omissions and counter productive behaviors) of
Few of us are intuitive observers. We watch others' behavior
but in the daily rush it isn't so easy to isolate what specific
actions are making others successful - or unsuccessful - in
For instance, if I had the opportunity to observe a world
class surgeon perform a complicated operation, when it was
over I'd have a hard time saying what he or she specifically
did or did not do that made the operation successful. On the
other hand, if a medical student with a written checklist
of key surgical behaviors for that operation watched, he or
she could continually compare the surgeon's actions with the
checklist and learn a great deal about what the surgeon was
and was not doing to succeed.
Most of us could benefit from a similar checklist of core
competencies - something we can carry around in our day planners
and glance at to diagnose what's happening when we see others
performing successfully or unsuccessfully. The checklist can
help us learn in real time what works and doesn't work. It
can also be a valuable self-assessment tool. When we succeed
or fail at a leadership or communications attempt, we can
later sit quietly at our desk and pinpoint what we specifically
did or failed to do that influenced the outcome.
Core Competency Self-Assessment Form
Figure 16 illustrates the format we use for a competency
assessment form designed to help you observe your own and
others' behaviors. Here you see just one sample item from
the three page Core Competency Self-Assessment Form we use
in our workshops. The workbook has a complete copy of the
full form for your personal use later when you do the workbook
Our workshop participants use the full form
to assess themselves against the core competencies. Then they
focus even further and identify the top three observable behaviors
they consider to be their greatest current weaknesses. These
are those they most want to strengthen and develop further,
either because they're weak (i.e., got low scores) or because
they believe they're especially critical for immediate growth
on the career paths they've chosen. The following meditation
can give you a quick idea what that's like.
Read through the 5 critical behaviors listed in Figure
16 under the Continuous Learning competency. Which one
of these behaviors are you performing best today? Which
one or two do you perform least well today? Can you
benefit from improving your performance on these?
The Career Strategies Workbook contains the complete self-assessment
form you can use to complete your own self-assessment against
all 12 core competencies when you do the workbook exercises
Focus and Multiple Uses
Reading through the competencies in the profile can be informative
in that it gives you a quick overview and probably some new
insight. However, just reading through the competencies is
unlikely to have much lasting impact on your personal growth.
If you're like me, by the time you get to the last competency
in just reading a list like this you may not remember much
of what you've read.
The competencies only come alive when we assess ourselves
against them. You can use the self-assessment profile to identify
the few behaviors you want to focus on first. Then you can
take action to improve your performance in those areas. We
can't learn all the behaviors simultaneously.
Again, the key word - and the antidote to being completely
overloaded with busyness - is focus. We suggest you carry
a copy of the profile in your brief case. You can use it on
a day-to-day basis to help identify and maintain focus on
precisely where you want to concentrate your personal improvement
efforts. The profile has multiple uses that can help you maximize
the limited time you have available for self -development
by directing your energy to more highly leveraged areas with
the greatest potential payoff. For example:
Observing Successful Performers
Like the medical student, you can use the profile to sharpen
your real-time observations of various successful performers
in action. In meetings, for instance, you can occasionally
glance at the profile in your briefcase to help pinpoint what
these performers are doing - or avoiding doing - that is making
them effective. As we said earlier, this type of observation
is how people we interviewed told us they learned from many
mentors who never knew they were their mentors. Having a tool
can help those of us who are not always intuitive observers
do the same thing.
Diagnosing Problems - When you observe unsuccessful
performers failing you can glance at the profile to diagnose
what's causing the problems in real time - or you can go
over it later to identify what happened.
Self-Diagnosis - You can better analyze what went
wrong in your own performance failures. After a specific
incident where you have not been effective, you can sit
quietly in your office or at home and use this tool to take
a few minutes and identify what you can do better - or avoid
doing- to be more effective next time.
Getting and Giving Focused Performance Feedback -
The profile provides a tool to solicit feedback from others
about your own performance, or to give more objective feedback
to others who solicit it.
Identifying Personal Development Needs - With limited
time and resources available for personal learning, you
can use the profile to determine your most critical competency
gaps and seek out and negotiate appropriate training and
on-the-job development experiences to fill the gaps.
Organizations we have worked with often use a tool like
this to focus their performance appraisal programs on more
relevant and actionable feedback. They also use the profile
to help people in their training programs pinpoint their most
important improvement needs.
Many do what has come to be known as a 360-degree feedback.
Individuals give copies of the profile to a sampling of their
managers, peers, customers, and subordinates (if they have
any). These people rate them anonymously on the behaviors
and fax an answer sheet to our office. Then the individual
being rated gets a confidential (i.e., no one else in his/her
organization sees it) computerized profile showing the averages
of how various groups (e.g., customers or peers) evaluated
each behavior. The feedback report also highlights participants'
top ten behavioral strengths and weaknesses, and identifies
those areas where their own self-assessment differs most from
the averages of how others rated them.
Most people say this is the most objective, relevant and
useful feedback they have ever received. They particularly
like the profile's emphasis on specific behaviors they can
choose to perform or not perform, as opposed to other more
fuzzy or personality trait oriented feedback they've found
to be less useful in the past.
The research showed that individuals who aspired to and succeeded
in positions requiring leadership of other people moved through
a series of progressive leadership roles as they took on increasingly
higher levels of leadership responsibility. There are four
generic roles that leaders passed through as they moved from
team member (i.e., individual contributor) positions to increasingly
more demanding levels of ad hoc leadership and/or administrative
managerial responsibilities. These are:
Team Member - (Individual Contributor)
Team Leader - (Coach)
Mid-Level Manager - (Multiple Team Integrator)
Executive - (Strategist)
The Workbook contains a Role Determination Form. When you
do the workbook exercises later you can use this form to determine
which role best fits your current responsibilities and which
(if any) additional roles you might aspire to. If you aspire
to one or more of the leadership roles the workbook also contains
a Leadership Competency Self-Assessment Form, you can use
to assess yourself against those few additional competencies
required for each role.