ATD Blog

Developing Beyond Competence to Excellence

Monday, March 3, 2014

There is an argument that the objective of training and development is unconscious competence, moving people from unconscious incompetence through conscious incompetence and conscious competence along the way. Mary Kennedy Thompson, president of plumbing company Mr. Rooter, is a living example of how to move beyond competence to new levels of excellence. 

Before joining Mr. Rooter as president, Thompson served eight years in the marines, rising from basic training to captain. Then, she spent 10 years learning the ins and outs of cookie making, rising from opening one Cookies by Design franchise to president of the franchisor organization. 


Thompson was hired for her leadership strengths, not her plumbing expertise. Over time, she became comfortable with the organization, and the organization and franchisees became comfortable with her. 

But, as Thompson told me, “Getting too comfortable is the path to discomfort.” She was not satisfied leading just the strategic and organizational aspects of the business; she wanted to be “technically and tactically proficient” so she could impact operations as well. 


Thompson believes leaders have to “set the example” because “all eyes are on them.” So she went “all in,” passing the Journeyman Exam, which is the standard test to earn an international plumbing license. What some of you training and development superstars may know is that this required an investment of six years and 12,000 hours of study, training, and work to pass the exam—120 times more than what is required to become an emergency medical technician and deal with human plumbing. 

New level of credibility 


Now, when Thompson says, “It’s not about the plumbing. It’s about the customer experience,” and “plumbers protect the health of the nation,” her colleagues listen to her with the respect that’s due to one of their own—a licensed plumber who knows what she’s talking about and not as a bureaucrat from the corporate ivory tower. 

She earned a whole new level of credibility as a way of moving the entire organization to a whole new level of excellence, pushing the organization to get back to basics around good recruiting, good business, good plumbing, and good customer care. 

What does it take to move beyond competence to excellence? As Thompson shows us, the answer is hard work—and a lot of it. 

How about you and your organizations? Are you comfortable in your competence? Are you willing to invest the time and effort to move beyond competence to excellence? It’s almost certain that at least some of your competitors are. Here are some steps to get you started: 

  • Define a new level of excellence for yourself and your organization.
  • Identify the new knowledge and skills required to get there.
  • Be the example, training and developing yourself before trying to train and
About the Author

George Bradt has a unique perspective on transformational leadership based on his experience as a business leader, consultant, and journalist. He progressed through sales, marketing, and general management roles around the world at companies including Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, and J.D. Power’s Power Information Network spin-off as chief executive. Now he is a principal of CEO Connection and managing director of the executive onboarding group PrimeGenesis.

George is a graduate of Harvard and Wharton (MBA), co-author of four books on onboarding, including The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan, and co-author of a weekly column on, The New Leader’s Playbook.

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