Imagine you’re a car. The engine is your brain where your education, training and experience are stored. The anti-lock brakes, power windows, backup camera and air conditioning are your skills. How it all comes together to get your passengers to their destination safely and comfortably is your competency.
Job Competency Definition
It’s not a perfect metaphor but it gives you an idea of how job competency works. You might think of it as the “how”. It’s how all of your great qualities come together to make you an excellent employee.
Job competency is the whole package. It enables you to absorb, process and perform. It also evolves and improves as your jobs change and become more challenging. The job competencies you have as a 34-year-old middle manager are far more sophisticated than the job competencies you had as a 17-year-old fast-food server.
By the time you retire as CEO, your job competencies will be light-years ahead of what they were as you climbed that corporate ladder. In fact, the vast discrepancy between competencies and what retirement demands of us (very little), is one reason why retirement can be so difficult for some people.
Difference Between Skills and Competencies
It’s pretty easy to pin down the difference between education and competency. It’s captured perfectly in the wide-eyed look of the MBA graduate walking into their new office for the first time. That hard-won degree doesn’t tell you how to deal with having an assistant for the first time in your life. Or what’s expected of you as you head to your first department meeting.
But what's the difference between skills and competencies? This one is a little harder to pin down because we often equate skill with competence. Back to our 17-year-old fast-food server: He started in the back flipping burgers, you know. He set a record for the number of burgers that went from grill to bun in five minutes. That’s a skill. The manager noticed his high energy, upbeat demeanor and decided to promote him to a front line position. Competency got him that promotion.
Components of Competency
The above example brings up an important point about competency. It has a personal component. In addition to how your education, training, skills, knowledge, experience and abilities come together, competency is personal. It’s what you bring to the table.
Of course, we’re all made up of both positive and negative characteristics. Since we’re focusing on job competencies here, we’re focusing on our positive traits. It’s assumed that we’ve got the negative ones under control, particularly when we’re at work.
A competency is both observable and measurable. It’s a synergy of your knowledge, skills and experience with your personal attributes. Altogether it’s what makes you able to perform your job well.
Types of Competencies with Examples
Many companies define their own job competencies based on their mission statement and strategic plan. However, here’s a list of core competencies with examples that apply to nearly every job. They are:
You can express yourself effectively whether you’re conveying information, your opinion or a set of facts. You communicate appropriately with people who report to you, your peers and your superiors. You have good listening skills and are open to others’ opinions and ideas.
Example: You’re presenting a new project at a meeting with your direct reports. You outline how you expect the project to proceed and list deadlines for interim steps as well as the final deadline. You ask for your team’s input.
You listen, converse and ask questions about what your employees are telling you. You may make changes to the project and its deadlines based on what you hear from your team. Or, if you don’t, you explain why.
You interact with customers appropriately and meet and anticipate their needs. You’re dedicated to high-quality customer service.
Example: You provide service with a smile. (Even if you’re interacting with customers by phone or email, the tone of your voice and written communication changes when you’re smiling.) When you provide a rush order for a regular customer, you thank him for the opportunity to meet his needs.
You’re responsible for your own decisions and actions. You behave ethically and work efficiently. (No web surfing on company time.)
Example: At its most basic, accountability is showing up on time, getting your job done and making decisions that are right for the company. At the management level, let’s say you decide to close early and let employees go home when a big snowstorm is approaching. You take responsibility for your decision and explain it to the owner when the snowstorm turns out to be much lighter than expected.
You’re proficient in all of the areas you said you were on your resume, and need to be for your job. This includes being open to self-improvement when opportunities arise to expand what you know about equipment, technology, processes, etc.
Example: You’re able to churn out accurate, complex spreadsheets to provide the data needed to set next year’s sales goals. But you proactively keep an eye out for classes you can take to bring your spreadsheets to the next level, like a Microsoft Access course.
You can adapt quickly and confidently when your work plan or deadline changes. You can think critically to sort out competing demands and prioritize work appropriately.
Example: On your already-full plate, your boss drops a big blob of chaos. In addition to all of the projects your currently juggling, his brother-in-law must have a huge load of product and he needs it yesterday. You meet with your employees to find out who can put in some overtime. You contact a temp agency and plug in a couple of contract workers to get 'er done.
This is the all-important “works well with others” job competency. It’s not about bossing people around or allowing yourself to be bossed around by more aggressive peers on the team. It’s about being an enthusiastic, balanced, contributing member of the team.
Example: One team member treats your meetings like social gatherings and another constantly gripes about how stupid the project is. You don’t lose your cool. You just continue with a positive attitude and forge on toward the deadline, using appropriate humor and thanking the social butterfly for the constant supply of cupcakes.
You treat people respectfully regardless of their purpose and position.
Example: From the woman who fills the soda machine in the breakroom to the CEO of your company, you have a friendly, welcoming demeanor. You’re respectful of their time. You don’t try to corner the CEO with your elevator speech on a day he has a board meeting.
You’re able to make tough decisions even when there isn’t a clear path to what the right answer is. You communicate your decisions clearly and confidently. You know when you’re wrong and you fix it.
For an example, see Accountability above. (Job competencies often overlap.)
You’re able to communicate the company’s mission, vision and strategic plan in ways that guide and motivate those who report to you.
Example: You mentor management behavior by example. You know the strengths, weaknesses, interests and motivations of the people who report to you. You coach and challenge them appropriately.
Entry-Level Job Competencies
Clearly, the above are not entry-level competencies. They’re management competencies. Here are the entry-level job versions of them:
- Communication: You speak clearly and appropriately to your boss, co-workers and customers. There are no spelling or grammatical errors on your application.
- Customer-oriented: You are friendly and upbeat with customers. You are dedicated to meeting their needs quickly and correctly.
- Accountability: You show up on time and call in when you can’t.
- Occupational know-how: You’re proficient in all of the areas you said you were on your application and you’re interested in learning more.
- Flexibility: You embrace changes in policies and procedures without complaining. You take schedule changes in stride with a positive attitude.
- Team Member: You pull your weight and then some if a co-worker calls in sick.
- Inclusivity: You treat everyone well and don’t single anyone out for special or bad treatment.
- Decision-making: You’re able to think on your feet and always make decisions that are in the best interest of the company.
We did not include "leadership” here. Although leadership can arguably be demonstrated at every employment level, it’s a job competency most often sought by companies that are hiring for management-level positions. This touches on the point that competencies should never be static. They should develop and mature as you do and as you gain more education and experience.
Job Competency Questions in Interviews
If you’re a business owner or manager, you may be wondering how to assess applicants’ job competencies before you hire them. The answer is: through carefully crafted interview questions. Here are some examples for a variety of different job levels:
Job Competency Answers in Interviews
As an applicant who wants to convince an interviewer that you’ve got the job competencies they’re looking for, know that it’s impossible to prepare for every job competency question that might be asked. That’s the point.
Interviewers aren’t looking for canned answers. They're looking for honest answers that demonstrate your competencies. If you don’t have the competencies they’re looking for, you won’t be able to give good answers. (They’re also looking for how well you think on your feet and how you articulate your responses.)
Rehearsing answers is of limited help because there’s no way to anticipate what you’ll be asked. It’s best to follow a few pointers like the ones below. Then think of half a dozen short stories you can share, and use a framework for structuring your responses.
Answering Job Competency Questions
Here are a few suggestions for responding to job competency questions during an interview:
- Consider the question carefully. Don’t immediately open your mouth to respond. It’s OK to take a few moments to think. The interviewer will appreciate that you’re taking the question seriously and giving it some thought.
- Don’t drone on and on but don’t be too brief either. Go for a happy medium. If you notice the interviewer’s attention is beginning to wander, wrap it up quickly.
- If possible, tailor your response to fit one of the company’s core competencies. But if don’t overdo it. If it’s too much of a stretch your answer will sound phony.
Framework for Job Competency Answers
One useful way to organize your answers to job competency questions is called STAR. STAR stands for situation, task, action and result. Here’s an example:
Interviewer: Describe a time when you were in a no-win situation and what you did about it.
Job applicant: When I was the manager of a women’s shoe department, I noticed that a particular pair of boots were returned a lot. Customers complained they were uncomfortable after about an hour of wearing them (situation). I decided to take a good look at the boots (task) and I noticed that about two inches of the inside stitching was done with a heavier thread than the rest of the boot. The raised threads were rubbing against wearer’s legs.
I called the boots’ manufacturer and asked if they were aware of the problem and if they would be willing to take the boots back (action). They weren’t and they wouldn’t. So, I found a local shoe repair shop and made an arrangement with them to repair the boots we had left in stock, free of charge. In exchange for the free work, we’d make a coordinated donation of the boots to a local women's’ shelter (result).
Two Final Tips
Now that you know all about job competency. Here are two last tips.
- Don’t overuse the term on your resume or in an interview.
- Know what a company’s core competencies are before applying for a job there. You can find out by researching the company.
Now take all of your great job competencies and go get ‘em!
LeDona Withaar has over 20 years’ experience as a securities industry professional and finance manager. She was an auditor for the National Association of Securities Dealers, a compliance manager for UNX, Inc. and a securities compliance specialist at Capital Group. She has an MBA from Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts and a BA from Mills College in Oakland, California. She has done volunteer work in corporate development for nonprofit organizations such as the Boston Symphony Orchestra. She currently owns and operates her own small business. In addition to writing for PocketSense, she writes for Bizfluent, Budgeting the Nest, Legal Beagle, PocketSense and Zacks.