Most organizations intend to achieve high performance at the overall organizational level. But they are hampered by a poor track record of raising individual performance levels. To assist with selection and development of high performers, some organizations provide a generic, committee-driven, or survey-based competency model that gives few clues to what high performance really looks like. But there is a way to use competencies as a roadmap to achieve high performance at the individual level, and drive organizational performance. Here it is.
I have been part of over 100 customized studies, over 25 years, to identify the competencies that differentiate high performers in jobs or job families. The first key to success is to study actual high performers performing effectively in the organization’s unique context. It may not be necessary to do this for every job family. It is most critical for those jobs that are key to implementing the organizations strategic intent, and also those that are most unique due to the organization’s product, services, or go to market approach. When we study actual high performers there are usually 8-12 competencies that stand out, but they are unique to each job and organization. Defining these give a true roadmap for how to excel in a job in a particular organization. The process for studying high performers and analyzing the results is a topic for another article but it is something that can be trained, learned and put into practice.
There are usually some unexpected findings in each study of high performers. A big ah-ha across multiple studies is that the highest performers are masters of competencies that seem to be opposites of each other. This is the second key to supercharging competencies, unlocking and describing the opposing aspects of performing at the highest levels. For example, in some jobs, the highest performers are very good at thinking long range, and at the same time are masters of paying attention to micro details in real time. What is more, many high performers master and utilize multiple opposites. And they often they think nothing of it: a skill is needed so they master it and use it. Perhaps this shows that “learning agility” is indeed the master competency, but there is more to it.
I am not the first person to notice this opposites phenomenon, but it is rarely discussed. It may be the secret sauce in selecting and developing more high performers. Mastery of opposites is a high bar. But what is the point of defining competencies of average performance? Competencies (or other names for success factors) should explain the hidden reality of the highest performers. For example, some of the very highest performing salespeople are persuasive speakers and they are skilled active listeners, they develop deep relationships and strong technical knowledge, they have patience for the long game and determination to focus and close deals. The AND is the key thing. The mastery of multiple “opposites” shows up in all kinds of jobs, from Partners in a global law firm to high volume credit card call center representatives. In the few times I have had the chance to study average performers we see demonstration of one side of a several competency opposites. Further, when you look at studies of people who derail or fail in their job, it is often because they overuse a strength, or they have a complete blind side to the opposite of their main strength.
Making Competencies Matter
The lack of attention to opposites could be why so many competency models do not really have much impact on organization or individual performance. So why is the opposites aspect of competencies ignored? One reason is that some methods of identifying competencies are based on forced choice between pre-defined competencies creating an Either/Or situation that hide the existence of opposites in the highest performers. Another reason is that some competency lists, are based on opinions of everyone in a job – a top vote getter approach. Another reason could be the desire to allow everyone to migrate to their area of strength, which still might be only half of the opposites needed to perform at the highest level.
Let’s face it, ordinary lists of competencies are pretty boring and often don’t help very much especially if they just describe the basics of the job or average performance. So what can you do to use competencies to improve performance?
Consider an abbreviated model of typical competencies below. These competency labels would also have definitions and behavioral indicators.
But even with the added detail of behavioral indicators, only the worst employees would not have at least a moderate level of these skills. A simple list of competencies does not raise the bar and help people know how to be great performers. The concept of opposites can refresh and raise the bar on most competency models.
This same list of competencies can be shown as opposites that would be more reflective of high performance, be a better roadmap for success, and a more accurate basis for selection and promotion. For example
Team Player and Individual Accountability
Detail Orientation and Long term Planning
Functional Expertise and Broad Business Understanding
Customer Focused and Efficiency Focused
Communication Absorption and Communication Transfer
You should not make up opposites. Instead, the highest performers should be studied, and senior leaders should review and make sure that profile reflects what the organization will need in the future. But using the example above, you can probably see how opposites are a better reflection of high performance and a more useful as a basis for people management.
There is no all-purpose set of opposites that can be applied to all jobs in all organizations. Not only are the opposites different, but how they are demonstrated are quite differently For example, using the opposites described above, long range thinking could be minutes, hours, or up to a day in call center jobs, and for senior business leaders it is more likely years. Detail orientation is also different, for a call center rep is it hearing a small concern from the customer or quickly spotting a service feature that the customer needs. For a senior leader it might be seeing an unexpected or unexplainable number deep in a financial report. This illustrates that it is not enough to just identify the opposites of high performance, but to also define them clearly in the context of the job and organization.
Ask questions, answer honestly, and take action
The reality of high performance usually being a set of opposites that vary by type of job or job family requires that those seeking to improve performance at the individual employee level answer several questions about their organization:
Are the standards of how to perform in jobs implicit or explicit in your organization?
If the standards are implicit (unstated norms, history, hearsay, or individual manager bias) are they driving the effort, focus and behavior needed for the future?
If the standards are explicit (written competency profiles for example) are they a reflection of an average level of performance, or high performance?
If the standards are explicit and reflect high performance, are they used by managers to make important people decisions?
If the answers to these questions indicate that you need to take action to make better standards and get managers to use them, we would be happy to help clarify your path. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.