Category Archives: Competence

Your Brand Promise

“We decided to hire a new marketing firm,” Reggie announced.

“Marketing is important,” I replied. “It’s important for creating new leads, prospective customers and for telling your existing customer about other offerings they may find useful. But, is that enough?”

“What do you mean?” Reggie asked.

“Just because you talk about your competitive advantage doesn’t mean you are any good at it,” I replied. “It’s not enough to make an announcement. You also have to operationalize. Your brand promise is just a promise unless you keep it.”

Fear and Hesitation

“Let’s hear the self-talk,” I said.

Lucy began to describe her vision of the project as it would be completed. Her words were tentative. “When we finish the project, the new territory should be ours. The competitors will think twice about ignoring our expertise. The client should have a new-found respect for us.”

“Not bad, for starters,” I said. “I want you to try something different. Pretend the project is already finished. Close your eyes and visualize that we are one day beyond the project’s completion. Now open your eyes and describe it again.”

It took Lucy a moment for it to sink in. I could see her eyes blink hard as she moved her mind into the future. “We finished the project and the new territory is ours. The competitors cannot ignore our expertise in this marketplace. The client has a new-found respect for us.”

“Lucy, it is more than just confidence. What else is different when you talk like that?”

“When I transport myself into the future, all of the problems that get in the way and slow us down are gone. All of the hurdles have vanished.”

The power of visualization, to a real time in the future, works to conquer more than problems. It conquers the fear and hesitation of moving forward.

People Are More Complicated

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
We are working hard to recruit and retain the best people. We have read that we should only look at A and B players, get rid of the C players. But, some of the people we might assess as C players for some roles, turn out to be A players in other roles.

Response:
I have always chuckled at simplistic recommendations that lump all people together without regard for complicated variables. A, B and C players in relationship to what?

Every role comes with a certain level of work (level of decision making, level of problem solving). The answer to the question, A, B or C is in relationship to the work. Some problems are simple enough that most people can solve them. But, as the level of complexity increases, some of those people will struggle. It does not mean they are bad people, or even that they are C players. It means that if we can match their level of capability with the level of work in the role, there is a foundation for an A player. But, wait, there’s more.

Capability is only one of four distinct variables required for success (perhaps your definition of an A player). Skill, meaning some body of technical knowledge, applied to some level of performance requiring practice. Without the skill, you, as a manager, may never see my capability.

The third variable is interest or passion for the work. We have interest in work on which we place a high value. High value translates into interest or passion. Without passion, there is less enthusiasm for practice, an essential part of skill development. Without interest, there is little reason to stick to the discipline that may be required to solve a problem, the tenacity to doggedly pursue an objective.

Lastly, there are required behaviors, either contracted by agreement (showing up for work on time), a contributory habit or a behavior required by the culture of the organization.

A, B and C may sound nice and easy to understand, but people are more complicated than that.

Who Sits on Your Shoulder?

My mood was upbeat, but this conversation with Nathan was not lifting his spirits. His team was not on a mutiny, but they weren’t paying much attention to him.

“So, you have had a bit of difficulty getting out of the gate with your team. As you think about yourself, as a manager, who comes to mind, from your past? Who is that person sitting on your shoulder, whispering in your ear, giving you advice?”

Nathan looked stunned. “That’s weird,” he said. “As I go through my day, I have this silent conversation in my head with an old boss of mine. Whenever I have a decision to make, he pops into my head. It’s like he is watching me and I still have to do it his way. That was years ago, but he still influences me.”

“Was he a good boss?” I asked.

“No, everybody hated him. That is why it’s so weird. I think he was the worst boss I ever had and I am acting just like he did.”

“So, why do you think he has such an influence on you, today?”

“I don’t know,” Nathan said slowly.

“Would you like to be a different manager than your old boss?”

Finally, Nathan smiled. “Yes, absolutely,” he replied.

“Well, that is where we start.”

The Necessity of Management

“Everything seems to change, every day,” Charlotte whispered. She felt the change, but had never said the words.

“Think about this,” I suggested, “if nothing changed in your company, what would your team members do every day?”

The anticipated blank stare pierced the silence.

“That’s right!” I exclaimed. “If nothing changed, they would never do anything different. They would continue to do the same thing they did the day before. And life would be good.

“But things do change, and that is why you have a job as a manager. Think of change as your job security. As long as there is change, you will have a job to do.

“As your customers change, as specifications change, as technologies change, as we find better ways to do things, your job, your role as a manager is to modify your systems and processes to accommodate those changes.

“The more things change, the more your company needs competent managers. Lecture over, last one through the door, turn out the lights.”

The First Step is Not a Step

How to start? What to do before you start?

The first step is a mental state. How you get there is up to you. Before you start, your mind is wandering, aimlessly, subject to the whims of where you are, the circumstances in which you find yourself. The first step is to break the pattern, break the pattern of your mental state.

Some do it with meditation. Some do it with a mental exercise. Some do it with a physical sensation, as simple as rubbing two fingers together. Basic Assumption Mental State is a phrase coined by Wilfred Bion, made understandable by Pat Murray (BAMS).

It’s just a shift
How do you shift the mental state of a group? Focus each member on a common question. It could be as simple as a common experience, an understanding of purpose (Why are we here?), thoughts about mission (When we are finished, what does life look like?) or even just some Good News (tell us something positive that happened in the last two weeks).

Create a positive mental state. Now, you are ready to proceed to the first (next) step.

New Behaviors and Habits

Muriel took a measured breath. “I have an uneasy feeling, and I don’t know why,” she explained. “Things are going okay, but, as we ramp back up, I think things are going to change. And I am not sure I am prepared to adapt quick enough.”

“Things are going well, now?” I asked.

“Going okay, not great, but okay, kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

“When did things start to go okay?”

Muriel laughed. “You are right, it’s been a tough few weeks. I don’t know if I just got used to it, or if I got better.”

“So, things got easier. New unknown problems became familiar, you knew what to do and how to do it.” I said.

Muriel nodded affirmative.

“And, we know things will change, again, because they always do. Change in your company, on your team and with yourself. And when things change, you are faced with your own incompetence.”

Muriel winced. Close to home, perhaps. I continued. “But you do adapt and you do change. But tell me, when you successfully perform something new, for the first time, does that make you competent?”

“No,” she responded. “Competence requires practice, doing it well over and over, until it becomes a habit.”

“So competence is not simply acquiring an occasional new skill, but acquiring a new habit.”

Assessing Capability

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
It was a pleasure working with you last summer. I’ve been introducing the concept of Time Span to my colleagues and its been helping us lead tough HR conversations. Some were wondering if you had an assessment to help determine someone’s time span capacity.

Response:
This is a very popular question.  The answer is completely counter-intuitive.  Elliott’s caution was clear. Don’t go around judging people.  Do NOT play amateur psychologist.  You didn’t go to school for it, you don’t have a degree in it, your chances of being wrong are about 50/50, same as flipping a coin.

HOWEVER, most hiring managers are expert at the work.  Most hiring managers understand effective behavior and ineffective behavior.  Stick where you are an expert.  It’s all about the work.  I do not judge people, but, boy, do I judge the work.  By careful examination of the problem-solving and decision-making in a role, most hiring managers can easily pinpoint the level of work in the role.  If we can understand the level of work in the role, then the selection decision is easy.  “Is this person effective in the task assignments at this level of work, or not?”

Don’t play amateur psychologist, stick where you are an expert.  It’s all about the work.

Four Factors of Competence

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
You talk about competence as a primary driver of performance. If the underperformance is a matter of competence, what do I look for? It is too easy to say, “Oh, that person is just incompetent.”

Response:
Competence is made up of four things –

  • Capability
  • Skill
  • Interest or passion for the work
  • Required behaviors

These four factors can be used to trouble-shoot any underperformance, even mis-behavior.

Capability
Capability is an elusive concept to articulate, but we understand it intuitively through analogies. Some call it horsepower, mental acuity, light bulbs in the box, a few cards light in the deck. Most would agree that some problems are simple, some more complex. And, that some people can solve simple problems, but struggle when the level of problem solving becomes more complex. This is not just grasping all the facts to make a decision, but making a decision in the absence of facts, where there is ambiguity and uncertainty.

Skill
Where capability is more difficult to articulate, skill is easy. Competence related to skill is observable. There is evidence of output. A skill is anything that can be learned, anything that can be taught. Two pieces to every skill, one is technical knowledge, the other is practiced performance.

Interest or passion for the work
Without interest or passion, it is unlikely the person will put in the time to practice the skill. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, talks about 10,000 hours of practice required to master (become competent) a skill. A person who has no interest will not put in the time.

Required behaviors
There are three strings connected to required behaviors, contracted behaviors, habits and culture. There are some behaviors we simply contract for, like showing up on time for work. Competence can also be observed in habits. We are competent in those behaviors that are repeated (practiced), routine, grooved. As an organization (or team, or group) we enforce some required behaviors through culture.

So when I look for competence in performance, these are the four things I look for.

Discretionary Behavior

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
You indicate the reason people do what they do is because they can. How does if-they-can relate to competence? And, if someone can-do, has the competence to-do, then how do we get them to do it? I am always looking for discretionary behavior.

Response:
Lot’s of questions embedded here. The first cause of underperformance is the lack of competence to perform. The accountability for this goes to the manager. It is the manager that determines the capability and skills required for the role. The manager is accountable for selecting the team member for the role based on their possession of that capability and skills. If the team member does not possess the requisite capability and skills, then that is poor selection on the part of the manager. This has nothing to do with discretionary behavior, this has only to do with competence.

If someone has the competence to perform, the only way for a manager to influence effective behavior is to make it necessary. The reason we don’t get the performance we want, and need, is because we do not make it necessary. If a person has the requisite skills and capability (competence) and the performance has been made necessary, then the only reason for underperformance is a matter of discretion. We can only assume underperformance occurs, is because underperformance was chosen.

The conditions for performance require –

  • Competence
  • Necessity

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For a more thorough discussion, please read Leadership: Thinking, Being, Doing by Lee Thayer