Greg Long and Butler Newman

Authors and Consultants | GP Strategies Corporation

What’s Wrong with Competency Models?

Image courtesy of pakorn at

Image courtesy of pakorn at

For the last several years, competency models have been all the rage in corporate training and development shops. They have promised a more structured approach to equipping the professional workforce. Despite this alluring promise, we think the competency model concept has some significant weaknesses.

First off, what is a competency model? What are competencies? Competencies are generally defined as all of the things required to perform a specific job. A competency model is simply the list of discrete items (usually ten to thirty) that comprise each job. Sounds good, right? So what’s the problem?

First of all, most competency models tend to be so general as to be largely meaningless. What does it mean to have the competency of customer insights and understanding? Or business analysis? Both of those are common competencies specified for many jobs. But what do they mean when applied on the job? Customer insights would mean one thing for a customer-service role and something quite different for a product marketer and yet something else for a brand marketer. Specificity matters!

Second, who are the models’ intended users? Are they developed for the training organization to write courseware or for the human resources talent acquisition team to help select candidates or for the business management side for managing and coaching their teams? We’ve found that no one really benefits as much as they could or should.

Third, and most importantly, what should performers do with the information contained in the models? We believe the key to improving performance should lie with the conversation between the front-line performer and his or her manager. That means any models should be actionable by that performer. Specific information should be provided about expectations in the role, how to meet those expectations, and a path to continue improving in specific ways. That information should also enable supervisors to evaluate performance in measurable ways and to have meaningful conversations to help performers improve.

So are competency models a waste of time? No, not completely. But that’s a subject of another post.


Questions to ponder:

  • Is your organization using a competency model? If so, is it helping? How are you using it to help improve performance?

Seven Ways our Industry Is Moving from Learning to Performance

PerformanceWe wanted to connect today about the wonderful experience we recently had at Elliott Masie’s Learning 2015 conference. Elliott and this conference celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of the conference being held at the Disney properties in Orlando, Florida. The venue certainly fit the upbeat and forward-looking theme of the conference. We found it quite refreshing to reflect on the evolution of the industry over the past twenty-five years. In short, the conference and the industry has moved from a focus on learning—roughly defined as packing more knowledge into participants’ heads—to a focus on performance—the application of reason and skills to successfully accomplish value-added tasks for the organization. Let’s look at seven significant moves in the industry:

  1. Less emphasis is being placed on knowledge. Knowledge has become ubiquitous. Access to answers of common as well as obscure questions is only a Google- or Bing-search away. Information that used to be presented in carefully structured lesson plans and later in e-learning modules has been commoditized and as such has lost much of its value.
  2. Performance support has become a commonly accepted practice. The emphasis has shifted from acceptance of the concept of specific task-based guidance accessed at the time and place of need to the development of new and creative delivery methods for the approach.
  3. Learning activities or events are becoming ever more social. The emphasis has shifted to creating deeper levels of understanding and application through human-to-human conversation either synchronously or asynchronously.
  4. Technology provides power. It is finally able to deliver on the promise that we have all envisioned since the advent of PCs in the workplace. The challenge now is how to focus the power that is at our fingertips.
  5. The shine on gamification has faded. The corporate learner in general is not enamored by the siren song of delivering learning through “games”— though some of the techniques used to create a good game can be successfully applied to elements of the corporate learning journey.
  6. Blended learning carries real weight. The single-event learning episode is dead. Impact in the workplace is best delivered through an orchestrated series of insights, skills, and practice applications held together by intentional scaffolding, all wrapped in the performer’s context.
  7. Work has resurfaced as the true focus. In the corporate world, learning for learning’s sake does not add value to the organization. The intent, nature, and context of the work provides both the framework and the focus required to improve performance in the workplace.

The seventh item has been the focus of our work over the last twenty years. Developing methods and tools to bring out the few things that truly matter when equipping workers to perform at their very best is what drives our study and commitment to understanding how individual roles create value in the organization.

The Value of Observations

Image by stockimages at

Image by stockimages at

Watching over her shoulder as she handled each call, we saw a pattern emerging. As she recited her standard opening lines, “Thank you for calling XYZ corporate—my name is Jane (not her real name). Before we start, I need to ask you some verification questions,” Jane scanned the account overview screen, which showed the appropriate answers to the verification questions, some summary information about the account, and any recent account activity including other communications.

Once the caller gave the correct answers to the verification questions, Jane would then ask how she could help. But as soon as she asked that question, and before the caller could answer, Jane often navigated from the overview screen to some of the more detailed screens in her system. At first, it seemed as if she was randomly clicking around the screens while talking to the caller, but then the real pattern emerged. Jane wasn’t randomly clicking around at all. More often than not, she ended up on the screen that contained the specific information the caller wanted before the question had even been asked. But how?

Let’s pause here for a minute in the telling of this story to frame the question we are answering: is it really necessary to do observations when developing a TOPS profile? The answer is a resounding yes whenever possible. And the story of our call center representative is a perfect illustration of why.

As we watched, it seemed that Jane was clairvoyant—able to accurately predict what callers would ask, even sometimes when they didn’t fully understand their own questions. So we asked Jane to stop taking calls so we could better understand what was happening.

When asked how she was able to predict the questions, at first Jane said that she didn’t predict them, she was just using the active listening skills the company had taught her. But when we challenged her about the last call, Jane stopped and thought for a minute. Then she showed us some particular data on the overview screen. “See,” she said, “when an account has this bit of information here, it’s pretty common for people to call and ask what she asked.”

“Really? Are there other common questions you can figure out from the overview screen?” That question led to a lengthy conversation that led to the drafting of a simple set of heuristics. When tested and refined with other top performing call-center representatives, those simple heuristics helped them accurately predict over sixty percent of the questions received.

Being able to accurately predict the question enabled the representatives to focus more of their attention on the two other outcomes that set the top performers apart from the rest: (1) empathetic synching with the caller—striving for a real connection, and (2) helping a caller understand the complex answers to the question—translating from system-speak to human terms. By reducing the amount of time needed to find the answer, the top reps were able to spend more time on the things that really mattered.

Would we have learned that lesson in a conference room? Or over the phone? No chance. Only by sitting with the performer, experiencing the work as it presented itself, and being alert for patterns were we able to identify the secret sauce of the top performers.


Clear Secrets to Successful Teams

Image by ddpavumba at

Image by ddpavumba at

Butler recently had the great pleasure of going to an athletic reunion at the small high school he attended in Norlina, North Carolina. The invitation simply stated, “Open to all who participated in athletics from 1915 when the school opened through existing freshmen in 1981 when the school closed.” Over 300 people, showed up and many old relationships were rekindled. Top athletes from every decade reminisced about championship teams and standout coaches and players.

Though Butler had heard of the last speaker of the night and knew he was from his county, not until he was introduced did Butler realize that the speaker was a junior at Norlina High when it closed. David Henderson had been a basketball superstar at Norlina for three years and then at Warren County High School during his senior year. He went on to play for Duke University, serving as a cocaptain his senior year as the Blue Devils made it all the way to the final four.

David’s message was excellent. Let’s paraphrase the key points:

  • The best teams have clearly defined roles and match players to those roles
  • Some coaches only coach—the great ones also teach
  • He remembers where he’s from and takes his community with him as he travels the world
  • All of us should reach out and help raise up those in our community who may be disenfranchised

All four key points are powerful and relevant. Given our work with the TOPS model, the first two bullets were especially germane for us. As we have reflected on them, their applicability to the business world couldn’t be more pertinent.

The first point, the fact that best teams have clearly defined roles, speaks exactly to what Aimee discovers from her brother in our book. Role clarity provides great insight on every aspect of performance. It points to whom to recruit to fill the role and what skills to focus development efforts on, and, most importantly, it defines the specific outcomes the role must successfully produce for the team to win.

Defined roles lose much of their power, however, if they are not followed up with the subtle distinctions David points out about coaches and coaching. Some coaches focus solely on the game plan and the tactics required to carry it out. They are good tacticians. The best coaches also focus on teaching individuals how to be great in their specific roles. The teaching transforms a collection of individuals from a group of talented athletes into a high performing, winning team.

Butler is very proud to have grown up in the small rural town of Norlina, and, like David, he takes the community with him wherever he goes. Butler found it uplifting to hear David’s message and refreshing to witness the humility with which he delivered it.


Questions to ponder:

  • Are roles clear on your team?
  • Are coaches as teachers prevalent in your organization?


Barriers to Top Performance

Image by Ladyheart at

Image by Ladyheart at

Before we dig into the process of equipping people to produce top results, we thought it would be worthwhile to discuss one key bit of the process. Fortunately—or unfortunately—depending on your point of view, a TOPS analysis often uncovers barriers unintentionally erected by the organization that prevent people from excelling. Those barriers are frequently the unintended consequences of otherwise well-meaning decisions. Let’s use an example to explain.

We were asked to analyze the performance of TOP operators in an oil refinery with the goal of developing a training program to improve the performance of both the operators and the refinery. Oil refineries are inherently dangerous places that can be made safe by the dedicated hard work of management and operators working in cooperation. A key objective of the refinery was to find and eliminate gas leaks throughout the plant. Besides being dangerous, leaks are costly. Management requested the new training program include information to help operators identify and report leaks. This request was based on the fact that, while there were clearly leaks to be found, very few were routinely reported.

To meet the safety requirements of conducting observations in a refinery, we wore the usual protective equipment, including fire-retardant suits, safety shoes, hardhats, and detectors designed to reveal any exposure to potentially harmful gases. During the course of the TOPS analysis, we were following, helping, and observing one of the best performers. On our list of particular things to observe was what the operator did if he encountered a leak: specifically what steps he would take to identify and report it.

It didn’t take long to find out. We quickly developed a rapport with the operator as he walked us around while he conducted his daily inspection. As we approached one piece of equipment, he asked us to take off our gas detectors, place them in our pockets, and hold our breath for just a few seconds while he took a quick pressure reading. With some trepidation, we did. As soon as he recorded the reading from the gauge and walked quickly away from that spot, we asked about the strange request. He explained there was a minor leak in that piece of equipment but that it wasn’t bad enough to go through the hassle of reporting it. As we dug into the reporting process, we understood the issue.

Management took the leak reporting so seriously that they had instituted a very formal and rigorous tracking system. This system used a complex computer program that could only be accessed through a terminal in the main refinery operations building—about a half mile from the actual equipment. The combined effect of a long walk and having to use an unfamiliar and unfriendly computer program was so discouraging that operators simply ignored leaks until they reached a severity that demanded attention. There was no training issue, just an unintentional barrier that made it difficult and unappealing to do the right thing.

Once found, barriers of that sort are easy to eliminate.

We’ve found that almost all organizations have these types of hidden barriers working against excellence. Finding and eliminating them is a necessary step in driving excellence.


Question to ponder:

What barriers to top performance might be lurking in your organization?

What Do You Do with Outcomes?

Image by Stuart Miles at

Image by Stuart Miles at

You’ve followed the TOPS approach outlined in our book, The New Game Changers: Driving Performance by Focusing on What Matters. Now you have a list of four to seven critical outcomes top performers focus on to help them succeed. Now what? Do you simply publish the list and make it available to the entire population performing the role? Or can you take prescriptive steps to maximize the impact that outcomes thinking can bring?

In this blog post, we’ll discuss some initial ways outcomes can and should be leveraged.

When considering how to use the list of identified outcomes, it’s helpful to think of the workforce as three different groups:

  • Incumbent performers as a group
  • Each performer as an individual
  • New hires, whether new to the organization or just the role

Lets look at each of these distinct groups.

For the incumbent performers, the key is to communicate what excellence in the role looks like as modeled through the aggregate outcomes of top performers and what actions can be taken to begin to meet that standard. We’ve had excellent success driving immediate business impact by conducting an Excellence in Role workshop, which is one to three days of discussion-based learning. This war-story format draws the participants into highly relevant conversations based on context-rich examples. It’s interesting to watch. Some participants immediately adopt the mindset of top performers while others challenge what they are hearing and resist the idea of change. But through the challenge and the resulting discussions, the participants develop a new and deeper understanding of what is required to be successful in the role. The workshop wraps up by having each performer develop a personal action plan for improving his or her individual results.

Our experience has shown that once the basic framework is established of how to measure and produce each of the outcomes, a follow-up must be provided by a deliberate and focused coaching program to drive impact on an individual level. The coaching program that works combines the specificity and context of the outcomes documented through the TOPS analysis with proven methods for conducting meaningful conversations with both peers and subordinates. This program can be deployed immediately for incumbents and early in the work experience for new hires.

For new hires, a more intentional program to orient and equip them to produce the outcomes is typically warranted. That equipping program will usually include a series of learning events, job aids and structured on-the-job activities to guide the new employees and build the confidence necessary to successfully produce each of the identified outcomes.

In subsequent posts, we’ll look at each of these groups in more detail.


Question to ponder:

How do you think outcomes can be leveraged to drive performance?


Image courtesy of Ambro at

Image courtesy of Ambro at

As we prepare to begin a TOPS engagement, one of our first requests is to interview the stakeholders for the particular role we are about to study. Quite often that request is met with a simple reply, “Why do you need to talk to the stakeholders?”

It’s a reasonable question. Our response, one that rises out of lessons learned from project experience, has three facets.

  1. Define Value. Often we get involved in a TOPS engagement because the business is undergoing a change in response to external or internal pressures. One or more of the stakeholders are typically the driving force behind the needed changes. To this end, they are often developing a renewed view of the critical role in question. Though they don’t have the language yet, they usually have new or dramatically changed outcomes in mind that are necessarily produced by the top performers. Our team must understand their viewpoint, not only to help align the selection criteria for the top performers but also to ultimately influence the determination of what constitutes value for the organization.
  2. Sponsor Our Request for Time. Those who fill critical roles in any organization are busy people, and top performers always seem to be especially busy. The instinctual tendency of middle management is to protect the time of top performers. Permission or sponsorship of the TOPS initiative legitimizes the request for interviews or observation sessions with top performers. Without this sponsorship, even though the project may be a primary initiative of the organization, execution languishes as supervisors or others in the management chain wrestle with conflicting messages and priorities.
  3. Create Change Advocates. The outcomes produced from a TOPS analysis are powerful. Often the clarity provided for the critical roles and the organization causes the stakeholders to put forward organizational or policy changes that are better aligned to producing the identified outcomes. Successful implementation of these changes requires explicit support from the affected stakeholders. Stakeholder interviews at the beginning of the TOPS process establish a baseline understanding of the project, the method, and the notion of outcomes. This baseline understanding is necessary to set in motion the change advocacy needed to initiate success.

We have on occasion agreed to proceed with an engagement without conducting stakeholder interviews. In every case the initiative failed to realize its full impact, as there was a lack of alignment throughout the effort.

Questions to ponder:

  • How important is sponsorship to your organization?
  • What is the best way to engage sponsors throughout an initiative?

More Than Meets the Eye

Image by Pong at

Image by Pong at

One of our favorite illustrations of how top performers think and act differently comes from, of all places, an auditor. Auditors audit. In this case, that means auditing the controls and safeguards in place for a financial institution to guard against financial crime.

No one should be surprised that financial institutions are frequent targets of financial crimes such as money laundering. New companies have sprung up to help this industry implement the requirements of Dodd-Frank and other regulations put into effect in the last few years. Saying employees and institutions have to be very cautious would be a gross understatement. Threats come from multiple sources: not just criminals, but also well-meaning customers trying to maximize the gain of their financial portfolios. Many financial institutions have implemented a multilayered approach to preventing and detecting losses and then taking appropriate action in the face of these threats.

In that environment, the auditor’s role is a critical one. Auditors have to assess the state of various processes, determine if people are trained to manage those processes, and probe for any weaknesses that could be exploited.

A team of auditors typically puts significant effort into conducting an audit of a particular business function. After gathering all the pertinent data, the auditors analyze the data and present their findings and recommendations in a report to the business leaders. At least, that’s what average auditors do.

The top auditors, however, view their jobs as more than merely assessing and finding weaknesses, more even than framing recommendations to plug up those weaknesses. The top auditors view a key outcome of their work as assisting the business leaders in developing a deep understanding of the issues they find. The top performers spend the time required to align the business leaders to the issues documented in the report. Top auditors plan from the beginning of the audit to sit down with each business leader and explain the data, the findings, and the implications so the business leaders can move forward with meaningful risk-mitigation strategies.

The key outcome of the average auditors is an accurate audit report. But the key outcome of a top auditor is an aligned business leader who understands the report and how best to address its findings.

Of course, there are additional outcomes produced by the top-performing auditor, but that’s a subject for later.


Question to ponder:

For one of your critical roles, what are the surprising differences in how top performers think about their work?


Follow the Formula?

Image by Stuart Miles at

Image by Stuart Miles at

For a large retail organization with stores across the United States, ensuring the right goods are shipped to the right store just in time to meet anticipated customer demand is critical. Ship too few of a particular item and sales are lost. Too many and they will sit unsold, taking up valuable shelf space and requiring expensive reshipment or markdown. Add the reality of variable demand between stores, and there is a strong likelihood that items can be sold out in one store while sitting unsold on the shelves of another store in a different part of the country. Demand can be so fickle!

The number of variables to be considered when matching the right inventory to the right stores is daunting. Think about seasonal variations in weather, annual clothing style changes, inventory levels in warehouses and stores, past customer demand, local events, store events such as sales, and even weather variations that influence customer behavior. It’s truly a multifaceted, complex calculation, but one that must be solved every week for thousands of line items. If solved correctly, both the customers and the stores profit. If not, both fall short. That complicated situation, of course, sits squarely on the shoulders of a group of performers with odd-sounding titles like allocation specialists or inventory managers or even shipping analysts.

In one organization, new employees spent the better part of a week simply learning the mathematical formula developed to solve this challenge. The variables to be inputted, how to determine the proper values for those variables, and how to wrestle with the unknowns in the equation to make the best predictions possible were all part of the training process.

So when we studied this critical role, imagine our surprise at what we did not see: top performers actually using the mathematical equation they had spent so much time learning. Oh, they used the principles behind the equation, but not the actual plug-and-chug part of the equation. Instead they combined an understanding of the underlying principles with an entirely unexpected set of additional factors to help them make even more accurate predictions than the formula alone would produce.

Observing the top performers in action and documenting both their mental models and the specific tasks they performed paid considerable dividends for the company. Significantly reduced training time, faster ramp-up time, and higher performance by both new hires and existing employees all combined to reduce costs and, more importantly, improve the employees’ ability to satisfy customer demand and maximize sales results. All because the top performers had a different and more effective model for how to perform the job.

Question to ponder:

What are your organization’s key business results, and what are the critical roles most responsible to produce them?

Lessons from the Call Center—Part 2


Image by Ambro at

Image by Ambro at

Last week we talked about the idea of top performer secret sauce, a special insight that seems to be a hallmark of many top performers. We looked at the example of Mark, a customer service representative (CSR) in an insurance-industry call center. Mark had figured out how to anticipate the question most likely to be asked on each call, and those predictions made it possible for him to provide superior customer service (see last week’s blog post for more details).

Our question this week is “So what?” Uncovering Mark’s special insight was great for understanding why Mark was one of the top performers, but how does understanding what makes Mark great help others become better?

Once we realized that Mark was making his predictions based on customer account summary data, we spent some time with him to understand exactly what data he evaluated and what decisions he made subconsciously as a result. We started by simply displaying random customer accounts and asking Mark to predict what those customers might ask if they called. After he looked at each account and made his prediction (he was right about 65 percent of the time), we asked him to walk us through his reasoning to help us understand why he made that particular prediction. Mark, as a result of his experience and intuition, was able to quickly make predictions that took much longer to explain and even longer to document. But with enough repetition, we were slowly able to make sense of what came naturally to Mark. It turns out that his subconscious intuition could be captured as a simple five-step decision algorithm.

After some testing and refining with other top-performing CSRs, we were able to turn that algorithm into a simple job aid that other CSRs could use to improve their own ability to provide great customer service.

As we discuss in our book, The New Game Changers, the goal is to help good people produce great results. The starting point for doing that is to identify the critical outcomes being produced by the top performers and then to equip others to produce those same outcomes. In this case, the outcome was an accurate prediction of caller question or issue. The means of equipping good performers to produce that outcome was a simple job aid with a decision table they could use on each call. The result was exactly what the organization wanted: improved call handling leading to better customer satisfaction and, ultimately, improved customer retention.

Question to ponder:

  • What tools do you use to transfer special insights, skills, or knowledge from your top performers to others?
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