This particular top performer perspective is somewhat murkier than many of the others. It’s murky not because we don’t recognize and value it, but because it is so dependent upon the context of the role of the top performer.
We’re reminded of a presentation given by a senior executive some years ago. He talked about how, in his role, he was expected to be fluent in corporate finance, law, mergers and acquisitions, human resources, and a few other fields. What he said was a bit surprising but has been borne out by top performers in many roles. He said he knows enough about each field to know when to call someone who knows more. He also told us that the point at which he called in someone else varied from field to field but that there was no field in which he never needed help.
Too many times, we overemphasize the acquisition of expertise above all else. But perhaps a deeper principle applies. For any given role in any given field, an appropriate level of competence should be the target. Certainly a lawyer should know the law. But ask a criminal attorney about tax law and the best you should hope for is a good referral. Similarly, ask an engineer about structural integrity and, if the engineer is a mechanical engineer with a specialization in structures who is current on the earthquake building codes in California, then—well, you get the picture.
We should strive not to maximize but to optimize our technical expertise. In other words, we should seek to be technically competent.
Question to ponder:
- Do you strive for ultimate expertise or demonstrated competence?
Recently several of us were discussing the question of whether outcomes and competencies can coexist. If you’ve followed our blog for long, you’ll remember that we’ve written about how competencies are too general to help improve the performance and productivity of people in specific roles. But the question still comes up frequently, so here is our answer.
Yes, they can coexist. This happens when we acknowledge that the two approaches are completely different and can help organizations meet different challenges. For managers who are striving to improve their hiring processes by recruiting better, stronger candidates that fit a desired set of characteristics, competencies can be very helpful. A well-designed set of competencies can provide a model for the type of employee an organization is seeking. A significant but rarely considered nuance in that process is the notion that hiring can be either internal or external. The implications are that competencies can also help when creating career-development models for people as they define their journey through the various roles in the organization.
However, once employees land in a role, the competency model will not help them perform in that role. Many organizations make the mistake of attempting to use a general competency model to help people become excellent in their roles. Only an outcomes model can do that.
Question to ponder:
- Is your organization clear on the difference between competencies and outcomes-based competence?