Nesnah Ventures is a family-owned private equity firm that provides financial, administrative and strategic support to all of its operating companies. The organization owns six companies in the agriculture and/or service sectors: Burrachos Fresh Mexican Grill, Venture Fuels, Coda Bow, Unifide CST Scale Systems, Star Blends and Nesnah Properties. Since each company is unlike the next, the talent pool is diverse with a range of roles and specialties, from a caterer to an in-office employee and technician. Lisa Paulson, the learning and development (L&D) manager at Nesnah Ventures, oversees training and development for the entire firm.

Paulson is the sole L&D practitioner in the human resources (HR) department, which consists of seven HR professionals each tasked with different responsibilities in talent management. As the L&D leader of Nesnah, Paulson is tasked with aligning training to business strategy, ensuring the workforce has the skills needed to contribute toward achieving sustainable success. This is how she recognized the organization’s need to determine and define the specific skills and proficiencies needed to fulfill new roles and move internally within the company. In this case study, we’ll review a real-life example of how Nesnah Ventures built a competency model from scratch to provide clear career pathways within the company, promoting leadership development, higher employee retention and increased engagement for the business.

A Case Study of Nesnah Ventures

Competency models are frameworks that identify and define the skills and knowledge expected within a particular role. For an employee to move up the ladder, they must be proficient in these expected behaviors and skills. And many times, they are expected to go above and beyond. This was the case for some of the high-potential contributors at Nesnah Ventures. These employees were interested in being promoted and felt as if their performance aligned with their job description and the company’s expectations. However, this wasn’t the case.

They were completing the tasks and functions based on what they were assigned, however, despite these efforts, they weren’t able to move up a level. This misalignment in expectations caused a lot of confusion and frustration for both employees and their managers. This was especially the case during one on ones when conducting performance discussions. The lack of defined competencies also created confusion in C-suite. Leadership had different opinions on how many and what type of skills were relevant to certain roles, causing inconsistencies of expectations across the organization.

There also wasn’t an established method for identifying high-potential employees for succession planning. As a result, employees were beginning to leave the company to find growth and career development opportunities elsewhere. Nesnah Ventures hadn’t clearly defined what specific skills employees needed to fulfill more challenging roles. These expectations for career growth weren’t officially determined or documented, so for some employees, having a long-term future with Nesnah seemed unattainable.

The Solution: Building a Competency Model

Paulson recognized this dip in the talent pool, and that it was the same employees who were turned down for a promotion. As the solution, Paulson decided to build a competency model for her organization. The framework was called “expectations model” since the skills and behaviors listed in the model were company expectations of how to perform in each role. Within the model, there’d be “role cards,” which listed the specific skills required for that particular job role. The role cards would be accessible via Nesnah Ventures’s human resources information system (HRIS) self-serve portal, which employees would also be able to access via a mobile app.

Paulson’s objective for creating the model was to give employees and managers a tool to conduct better performance conversations, clarify role expectations and identify high-potential employees who could fulfill a leadership role with proper training and development. That way, employees could have a clear roadmap to moving up in the company, and leaders have a better way of explaining the steps to reaching those career goals.

Methodology and Implementation

When starting the process of building the role cards for the expectations model, Paulson says they didn’t officially define what success would look like because they weren’t sure where they were going with the project. It was the first time the company had created a competency model, so they were agile in their approach. However, the main indicator that Paulson was looking for were more candid and open conversations about performance. This impact could be seen through higher employee performance rates as well as a decrease in employee attrition as entry-level employees aspiring to move up receive a clear pathway to their career goals.

After evaluating the organization’s management levels, Paulson determined that the company had three different job levels. The first level included managers/supervisors, the second level included mid-level managers and executives fell into the third level. This categorization of managerial levels helped Nesnah Ventures determine competencies that should be consistent for each manager level across the organization.

Here’s an example of a role card that shows the job level, title and associated competencies:

Here are the steps Paulson took to develop their organization’s competency model:

  1. Planning: They researched existing competency models from other companies and adapted elements from existing frameworks to support the creation of their own unique model, tailored for their organization’s needs. A lot of meetings were held with executive level leaders and management to gain multiple viewpoints. They met with employee groups, too, to gather data on what they’d like to see and what would help them in having performance discussions and knowing what these role expectations are. This process helped create organization-wide expectations.
  2. Defining: “Leading self and others in the organization” is an established term for the company, meaning that everyone is a leader, it just depends on which kind at that moment. Paulson used this terminology to hone in on how the company identified and defined “leading self and others” and what that looks like. This was to unify everyone’s separate definition and perspective of what those words meant, connecting it to the business’s expectations. Paulson mentions that the process of defining was the longest step because it was foundational and set the tone for the program.
  3. Creating: From there they met with each leader of a functional area of business and talked about every single role and what the expectations were. The first couple of meetings weren’t as successful as Paulson hoped since leaders weren’t necessarily sure where to begin with describing each specific role. As a solution, Paulson did some pre-work by creating possible expectations to give leaders a starting point. This turned out to be very helpful, enabling them to clarify and articulate what these competencies and behaviors look like. During this process, there was a lot of debate between the word skills and competencies. Since a lot of these expectations could be either behavioral, skills or knowledge-based, they found it more appropriate to consider them as expectations. Employees were also hesitant to the term “competency model.” However, when they heard “role card” and “expectations” they felt much more at ease.
  4. Implementing: The project took approximately a year to complete, with six months dedicated to meeting with managers and executives to go through different iterations. Besides the collective perspectives sought from leadership, Paulson was the only one working on the project, so that also had a factor with completion time.
  5. Evaluation: To ensure program success, Paulson set up one-on-one meetings and group meetings with leadership to solicit feedback. In-person meetings are preferable to company managers, so they tend to avoid surveys for gathering data.

Challenges and Encounters

The vision for the role cards changed a few times after deployment after having conversations with different groups of stakeholders. The model had to be modified a few times, which was a challenge since it required constant pivoting to incorporate new information. Another issue was creating different definitions for the same competencies based on that particular team, role and industry. For example, the expectations for digital skills may look different for a team of accountants versus a sales team, and as a result, will need to be worded and defined accordingly.

Lastly, the library of competencies was becoming too long. As a solution, Paulson revisited the role card with leaders to see which competencies could be made into one. To ensure buy in throughout the process, Paulson kept leadership closely involved and informed, giving them a hand in the revisions. A maximum number of six competencies per card was also established to prevent leaders from going overboard.

Business Results and Outcomes

Thanks to the role cards, employees are more empowered to conduct performance discussions with their supervisors. They are also more confident in their future with the company with a clear road to success. Every role card is made accessible to Nesnah Ventures’s people, providing all employees with the opportunity to fulfill any of the roles within the firm, promoting continuous internal mobility and career development.