Competency Model
ATD Blog

The True Value of a Competency Model

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

What’s the value of a competency model and how can you create one in weeks? To answer these questions, consider a CEO starting a new company. The CEO creates a three- to five-year vision of goals to accomplish. The chief operating officer (COO) identifies how to accomplish these goals, one year at a time. The COO must translate this plan to determine which employees must perform what tasks to achieve each goal.

For example, if this were a company that was going to make a flying car, the CEO’s long-term goals might be to establish a flying car as a viable transportation vehicle, achieve sales of 100,000 units in three years, and drive the price down from an introductory early adopter price to an end-purchase price of $50,000. The COO would need to hire a:  

  • research and development (R&D) department to develop it 
  • manufacturing department to build it 
  • distribution department to get the cars to market 
  • sales and marketing department to sell it 
  • service department to service the cars once on the market.

    Everyone would have an intermediary goal that, if accomplished, would lead to the accomplishment of the company goals—and the long-term strategy.

    As the goals get translated lower in the organization, they become more specialized, until they get to a specific person performing a specific role, such as an R&D engineer. To ensure that each R&D engineer can help the company, the company has to define what skills this role must be able to do really well. This is the competency model for this job.

    The Value of a Competency Model

    A competency model paints a picture for what it looks like to be great in a role and provides a road map to get there. Not everything a person does in a role should be part of the competency model; the competency model defines what separates good from great. For example, any engineer must be able to perform engineering design functions, but a great engineer can work with other R&D engineers to troubleshoot design issues before they reach manufacturing.

    That’s the value of a competency model—it identifies what skills each person in the company must be able to do to be great. And if everyone performs at the “great” level, then company strategy is achieved, and the company is likely to have a competitive advantage.


    That’s nothing new. Companies have always needed to create competitive advantage. What’s different is that: 

  • The pace of change has accelerated—and with it, the skills required to be successful continue to change. Those in technology roles are especially affected. 
  • To survive today, companies must continuously innovate, which only increases the new skills required. 
  • People stay in the same job for less time, and therefore need to be able to become great without as much experience as they had in the past. 
  • New workers entering the workforce want to make an impact more quickly—they want to know how to be great right away and are motivated to get there. If you can’t do that, they won’t come work for you, or they won’t stay.

    If you don’t know what skills are required to be great—that is, you don’t have a competency model for each job—how can you innovate, keep up with a changing global environment, maximize your human capital, and motivate employees to stay?

    A competency model defines what success looks like and how to contribute to the organization’s mission. As a result, it drives each person’s intrinsic motivation to mastery. Research shows that the desire for competence makes people want to own their development. You need only show them what it looks like to be competent in their role, and that’s a granular, actionable competency model.


    So you now believe that you need competency models for your jobs. Why do you need to make them rapidly? Why not create competency models the way they have always been done, with interviews and questionnaires and lots of analysis?

    If it takes you six months to create a competency model, by the time you’re done, it’s out of date! The pace of change means we need to take a different approach—an agile approach. Here’s a process that works for me. Start with a four-hour workshop with high performers, during which you gather all the requisite information, including how they learned to do what is most important for success in their roles, and what tools support them today. Next, analyze that information and redistribute it quickly to participants for validation. Then, use what they provided to get to the next level of detail and validate that with participants. Now you’ve got your model.

    If you’re interested in learning about how to build your own competency models rapidly, including making it actionable and driving innovation at your organization, listen to the recording of this webcast How to Build a Competency Model in Record Time

    If you want to see how to run a competency model workshop (through a mock session with conference participants), join us in San Diego at ATD 2018 to experience it yourself!

About the Author

Cheryl Lasse is SkillDirector’s managing partner. Her goal is helping people and companies achieve their potential. Cheryl has extensive experience with competency model development and implementation, and enjoys sharing her knowledge and passion with others. Check out the LinkedIn group Competency Models For Professional Development.

She believes people are intrinsically motivated to excel, if they are given access to a competency model for their role, the opportunity to assess themselves against that model, and personalized learning to help them close gaps and meet aspirational goals. This philosophy has been embodied in the Self-Directed Learning Engine, the engine behind the ATD Skill Tracker.

Cheryl has a strong background in consulting, marketing, and sales, mostly in technology companies, where training has played a chief role throughout her career. She holds bachelor’s degrees from Syracuse University in computer science and HR, and an MBA from the University of South Florida.

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