This blog is the first in a three-part series on how managers add value will focus on building competence. Competence is often used interchangeably with ability and is operationally defined as follows:

The knowledge, experience and skill demonstrated in the performance of a particular task.

So, as it applies to your efforts to help others build competence, here are a couple points to keep in mind:

1.       Potential is not Competence

By definition, potential represents a future state. It is something that may or may not be realized.  Conversely, competence is a function of the here and now. It is something you can point to, verify, tangibly assess and document.

Leaders that confuse potential with competence assume that because someone was verifiably good at doing something they will undoubtedly be able to do other things as well. This pattern of thinking frequently leads to what we will refer to as “premature delegation.” The consequences of this potential mismatch are both predictable and expensive (e.g. less-than-desirable results, decreased levels of engagement, potential turnover, etc.)

Leaders need to exercise task-specific diagnostic discipline with experienced employees taking on new responsibilities and treat them where they are, not where they have the potential to be.

2.       Developing Competence Takes Time

For example, consider the question leaders have been asked by well-meaning bosses, “How long do you think it is going to take to get the learner up to speed?” The short answer, of course, is that it depends. And primarily it depends upon two key variables:

  • The task (a.k.a. whatever the learner needs to get up to speed on)
  • The learner

The more complicated the task, the longer the cycle of development. As you consider the graphic below, the journey from low to high competence for a routine task may well take hours instead of days, weeks, or months.

In addition to the task itself, the leader needs to critically assess the learner. Even though the learner may not have demonstrated performance history with the task in question, he/she may well possess what has come to be referred to as transferable skills. Transferable skills are skills that can be effectively allocated across a range of tasks or activities. For example, if the learner has strong platform skills, the ability to leverage that experience to some degree no matter what content we ask the learner to present will be evident.

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As such, helping others develop competence translates to a predictable and methodical evolutionary process that flows from alignment through enhancement to mastery.

  • Alignment – With lower levels of competence the leader needs to provide the learner with the benefit of their experience. It can be thought of as an “orientation” for the task in question. During this phase, the learner will be provided with specific guidance and receive feedback from the leader as she takes action on the specific direction.
  • Enhancement – With a properly established foundation the learner adds both depth and perspective. Typically, feedback provided from the leader is translated into increased accuracy and efficiency. The exchanges between leader and learner are gradually characterized by increasing amounts of discussion
  • Mastery – At high levels of competence the learner becomes the leader. Performance of the task becomes a matter of routine execution. Discussion between the leader and the learner is characterized by the learner providing insight to the leader on best practices that merit consideration.

There are practical guidelines leaders can follow to accelerate the development of task-related competence and ability. Our next blog in the “How Managers Add Value” series will focus upon developing willingness (i.e. task-specific confidence, commitment and motivation).