Are top performers made or born? How can I get more of them? The answers to these questions hold the key to every leader’s success. The more top performers a leader can select and/or develop, the greater the success of his or her organization.
Competencies are clusters of KSAPs (knowledge, skills, abilities and personal characteristics) that enable a person to be successful in a particular job. There are two basic types of competencies. The foundation competencies are built into the system for the most part. These are the innate abilities and the enduring behavioral patterns we get through the luck of the draw from the gene pool and our early learning and background experiences. This is the raw material we have to work with. The surface competencies are the result of later training and experience in schools, early jobs and other learning experiences. People can develop a wide range of surface competencies depending on the types of foundation competencies they possess.
Performance is dependent upon a person’s natural abilities and characteristics (the foundation competencies), the knowledge and skill the person possesses (the surface competencies), the ability of the organization to facilitate success and the ability of the leader to keep his or her people motivated and focused on the goal. The successful leader selects people with the necessary foundation competencies, helps them develop the necessary surface competencies and facilitates their success by keeping them focused on the right objectives. At the most basic level, high performance depends on four foundation competencies — the I-competencies:
The Intellectual Competency. This is more than just how well a person can perform on a standardized test although it does include the aptitudes that predict success in an academic environment. However, it also encompasses common sense, mental agility, quickness and creativity, among others. It is a combination of how well the person uses his/her abilities and the unique mix of abilities. People who make smart decisions and who use their talents effectively are more successful over time than those who make bad decisions and/or squander their intellectual resources. The data are quite clear and unambiguous. There are always exceptions to the rule (there are very bright people who never amount to anything and there are people of very average ability who work hard and achieve at very high levels) but overall correlations between the components of this competency and performance over time are clear and consistent in a very broad range of jobs and organizations.
The Interpersonal Competency. People who have good social skills and who get along with other people are much more successful as a group than those who don’t have as many talents in this area. The interpersonal competency includes general social and persuasive skills, social insight and intuition, likeability and persuasiveness among others. The intellectual competency enables a person to solve a problem. The interpersonal competency enables him or her to convince other people that the solution is the right one.
The Integrity Competency. This is somewhat broader than the basic honesty-dishonesty dimension although it is an important part of this competency. This also includes general conscientiousness, discipline and follow-through. The person with high integrity will meet his or her commitments in the time frames agreed upon and to the standards at or above those which are expected. If not, he or she will let everyone know in plenty of time so that they won’t be surprised. Part of this competency includes the ability to focus and to use one’s talents and aptitudes with appropriate discipline. This is the factor that holds things together and facilitates trust and consistency of performance.
The Intensity Competency. This includes energy, stamina, drive and the person’s ability to get fully engaged. People with high intensity are active, not passive. They are driven by a need to get things done and to see results. With the proper control and focus, people with high intensity will achieve at higher levels than those with only average levels of stamina and energy. This is the gasoline that drives the engine.
As with any gift, there are potential downsides with each of the I-competencies. Very bright people may sometimes become overly academic, theoretical and philosophical. They may pursue ideas merely for intellectual challenge and fail to accomplish things in the practical realm. They can also inadvertently intimidate other people because of their strength of intellect. People with high interpersonal competency can sometimes get so wrapped up in the relationship aspects of the job that they lose sight of the tasks and goals at hand. The high discipline and conscientiousness which comes with the integrity competency can lead people to rigidity, perfectionism and stubbornness. The high energy and drive which comes with intensity can lead to errors of impatience, excessive ambition, impulsivity, an inability to relax and stress-proneness.
In spite of potential problems, the I-competencies tend to counterbalance and facilitate one another. For instance, the drive and energy of intensity helps to ensure that the very bright person does not waste time in overly academic pursuits when practical results are demanded. Also, the conscientiousness of integrity can counterbalance the highly extraverted person when he or she is tempted to focus on relationships more than on task performance.
Various surface competencies (e.g. financial acumen, collaborative problem solving, handling heavy workloads, sales ability) are dependent upon the foundation I-competencies at the base. If the person possesses the necessary foundation competencies and consequently has been able to develop the appropriate surface competencies, the stage is set for high performance. This is where leadership comes in. Merely having good people on one’s team does not guarantee performance. Their efforts must be focused and mobilized and they must be encouraged and rewarded for using their abilities in a collaborative manner.
How to Succeed as a Leader
Select for foundation competencies. If a person doesn’t have them, no amount of effort will enable him or her to develop the surface competencies necessary for top performance. The foundation competencies are wired into the system, whether by nature or nurture. At this point you cannot develop them through training or experience. Many dollars are wasted on people who don’t have the capacity to benefit from organizational training efforts.
Focus on surface competencies for training. A leader may be lucky enough to have people with fully developed surface competencies necessary for success on the job but most people will need some sort of training and experience to get up to speed. Financial skills, specific engineering problem solving techniques, in-depth knowledge of the company’s services and products and specific sales techniques are among the surface competencies necessary for success in various jobs. For the most part these can be learned through academic or on-the-job training, coaching and general experience. These are the areas for training and developmental dollars.
Attend to the basics. Not everyone has a charismatic leadership personality. However, most people can learn to get work done through others by focusing on the right basics: be sure the goal is clear and exciting (people need to know what is expected and they need to feel it’s worth doing); help them get the resources they need; Remove barriers; monitor progress, provide corrective feedback, and use collaborative problem solving when things get off track; reinforce good performance after the goal has been accomplished.
This is the task cycle by which all work gets accomplished in an organization. Leaders who operate effectively in all phases of the task cycle pull for exceptional performance from their team. However, if the team hasn’t been selected carefully for the appropriate foundation competencies and trained to develop the necessary surface competencies, not much will happen.
In summary, all it takes to be successful as a leader is to get good people, be sure they have the tools for success, give them clear and worthwhile targets, provide supportive feedback and critique…then stay out of their way until you’re needed. It’s that simple…and that complex.