Competency Modeling

Background and Options

There are many ways to determine the core competencies for a particular job or position. Competency modeling must first be distinguished from a job analysis. A job analysis integrates information about a job from a wide range of perspectives. Job analysis information may include data about the:

Information for job analysis can be compiled from inpu from incumbents, supervisors, peers and/or customers. Information can be gathered by performing the job, observing those doing it, or conducting interviews. Products of a job analysis include job descriptions (outlining the job's content, scope, key behaviors, and duties) and job specifications (describing the skills, knowledge and abilities necessary to perform the job).

A core competency model, on the other hand, measures the core skills and traits which distinguish outstanding performers from their “average” colleagues. There are different methods for creating a competency model:

1. Internally create a theory-based normative model which is used to measure the desired skills and traits of existing managers which are then correlated with actual performance,

2. Purchase a pre-packaged competency model upon which existing managers are assessed which is, again, correlated with actual performance measures,

3. Create a company-specific Core Competency Model based on critical incident interviews of incumbents.

The first two options share the disadvantage of being imposed upon the staff. Among the problems with these approaches, one of the most dangerous aspects is the potential for the staff not to “buy-in” to a model which they feel does not accurately reflect their reality.  The process of being involved in creating the competency model creates far more face validity in the resulting model. It engages the staff in the quest for organizational excellence and increases their receptivity to the completed model.

Given its many advantages, a company-specific core competency model is the most powerful method of aligning the staff around the elements of excellence that create competitive advantage.

Advantages of Creating a Company-Specific Core Competency Model

The phenomenon of “Not Invented Here” - the unwillingness to accept an idea or program which did not develop organically within an organization - is extremely common. One of the greatest obstacles to organizational change is a lack of ownership in the development of the solution. Conducting a Competency Modeling project clearly addresses this issue of ownership since the outcome is based on input received from current employees.

Secondly, a Competency Model has the added significant benefit of capturing specific examples of the desired core skills and traits. This provides real-life case study information which can be used very effectively in training and selecting international managers.

Finally, the process of talking to people throughout the organization about the issue of excellence sends a very powerful message about the priority of this issue.  Raising the staff’s awareness of the commitment of the leadership to creating an environment of excellence will have clear positive benefits in and of itself.

Goals of a Competency Model

The primary goal of a core competency project is to create a predictive model which describes the reasons why excellent incumbents behave the ways they do. By identifying the underlying traits, motivations, or skills which predict excellent behavior, a company can better select and train outstanding employees. Potential outcomes of a competency modeling project could include a training protocol which focuses on developing the necessary skills and competencies or an interview guide to help select new employees.


A typical competency modeling project consists of four phases: Identifying the Sample; Conducting Critical Incident Interviews; Data Analysis; Feedback of Results.

Phase One: Identifying the Sample

During the first phase, superior (“stand-outs”) and average (satisfactory, but not outstanding) job incumbents are identified. It is typically desirable and possible to identify ten percent of the population as being superior performers. With a population of thirty incumbents, for example, a sample of three outstanding performers would therefore be identified. A matching sample of three “average” performers would likewise be identified.

To the extent to which it is available, objective data should be used to help identify the superior performers. Consistently excellent performance evaluations, for example, would be one form of objective data.  However, subjective data is typically heavily relied upon in the absence of good objective data.

Superior incumbents are subjectively identified by conducting short telephone interviews with the supervisors, peers, and direct reports of the total incumbent pool. The goal of these interviews is to find outstanding performers about whom there is 100% agreement from supervisors, peers, and direct reports. At the same time, these interviews identify a matching number of managers who are adequate at their jobs - average managers who do their jobs well enough, but not spectacularly.

These telephone interviews could be conducted by an internal employee or by a consultant. Aside from cost, there are several advantages and disadvantages to an external consultant conducting these telephone interviews. One potential advantage of a consultant conducting the calls is that the participants might be somewhat more honest, open, or unbiased in responding to questions about their peers from an outside consultant. Furthermore, there is a certain level of skill necessary in conducting the interviews which an internal employee might not possess. Obviously, there is also a time commitment necessary, as well as a question of available internal resources. In any case, the best situation is one in which the person conducting the critical incident interviews in Phase Two does not know ahead of time which of the incumbents are the outstanding performers and which are the average performers. Optimally, two different consultants/interviewers conduct Phase One and Phase Two interviews.

Phase Two: Conducting Critical Incident Interviews

During the second phase, the interviewer conducts critical incident interviews with the total sample of outstanding and average incumbents. The goal of the interviews is to identify the underlying feelings, thoughts, and motivations as well as behaviors exhibited during particularly successful incidents as well as incidents which did not go well. Optimally these interviews take place in the offices of the incumbent employees to allow the interviewer to also observe ambient information. Each interview typically lasts from one to one and a half hours. Immediately following each interview, the extensive notes are transcribed in preparation for the data analysis phase.

Phase Three: Data Analysis

In the third phase of the project,  a thematic (content) analysis of the qualitative data is conducted. Optimally, it is only at this phase that the analyst finds out which of the incumbents interviewed are outstanding or average performers. Typically, many issues emerge which the outstanding and average incumbents share in common, as well as themes which differentiate the two groups. A critical aspect of the data analysis phase is the ability to look behind the behaviors and feelings described in the interviews in order to understand the underlying motivations and skills. These motivations and skills are then conceptualized and described in a competency model.

Phase Four: Feedback of Results

The newly created competency model is presented in draft form in order to get feedback and test the face validity of the model. After these initial discussions, the final draft of the Competency Model along with analysis about the implications for training and selection can be completed.