Why I’m Obsessed with Competency Matrices (or, How Competency Matrices Help Your Employees to Learn and Your Company to Scale)

“I’m not growing here professionally.”

“I don’t know what I need to do to grow in my role.”

“I don’t understand why that person got promoted and I didn’t.”

“The feedback my manager gives me isn’t actionable.”

Ever hear any of the above from employees at your company?  Most start-up leaders (and non-start-up leaders, quite frankly) hear these refrains on a regular basis, and when you are in a People function, these voices are what keep you up at night.

I’d like to propose a solution that will dramatically cut down these concerns, or – at the very least – equip you with a response that is thoughtful and will be appreciated by your employees.  It’s a rather old, unsexy HR tool:  the competency matrix.  And I believe that it should form the foundation of your talent development strategy.

First, what is a competency matrix?

It’s a set of guidelines that a) identify key skill and behavior categories that are important for success on the job, and b) describe the expectations for good and great performance.  It is several steps beyond a simple job description – ideally, it gets down to the level of skills exhibited, outcomes achieved, influence exerted.  And a good one is written in a way that precludes a ‘check-the-boxy’ reading of the guidelines.  (Very hard to do in reality.)

I was first exposed to a competency matrix at the management consulting firm where I spent the majority of my career, and later developed them for a few companies.  Interestingly — whether your job is a management consultant; a software developer; a customer support specialist; a product manager; or even a people operations specialist – the broad categories of skills and behaviors that matter end up being very similar:

  • Problem-Solving Ability, including Functional Knowledge
  • Collaboration and Communication
  • Project Delivery
  • Influence and People Management

(As a leader of a company, you can add other categories that you care about – e.g., adherence to company values, contributions to company.)

While the specific details by role or by function vary, there are common threads across Collaboration/Communication and Influence/People Management.  Which makes sense – those are traits that we would expect to run cross-functionally and shouldn’t be unique to a few teams.

Why is a competency matrix so valuable?

Here is an example* of a competency matrix for a mid-level software developer (please consider this an example, not an exemplar):

screen-shot-2016-11-09-at-7-48-11-pm

*This is an amalgamation of many companies’ inputs, most notably the Rent-the-Runway Engineering Ladder.

This looks pretty basic.  But here’s what it can do:

  1. It tells your developer that Technical Expertise is just one of several important competencies to be a successful developer. In my experience, I found that some developers were surprised that their Communication Skills, for example, were required to develop and grow in their role.
  2. When the mid-level software developer says, “I don’t know what the expectations are for my job,” this provides some detail about the behaviors, outcomes, and traits expected from a well-performing developer.
  3. This tool can support a manager when giving feedback, by clearly showing the areas where this developer is performing well or could improve.

When placed side-by-side against versions of the above for different tenures of software developers, this can become even more powerful.  See below.

screen-shot-2016-11-09-at-7-50-32-pmscreen-shot-2016-11-09-at-7-51-31-pm

As you can imagine, this:

  1. Gives employees insight into what skill development looks like over time at your company. (In this case, there are several intermediary steps between junior, mid-level, and senior developer, but I removed them to maintain simplicity.)
  2. Enables managers to offer forward-looking guidance that is consistent across team members (and across managers). This is particularly important for early managers who themselves are fairly new to the working world and may not have had enough experience to be calibrated on expectations.  (A-hem, remind you of anyone at your company?)
  3. Helps frame promotions and evaluations against objective, transparent, and calibrated outcomes. This creates a sense of fairness and minimizes the impact of unconscious bias.

Another valuable side effect of codifying expectations is that it immediately generates a dialogue between the manager and the employee.  Likely, there will be a lot of disagreement – the employee may believe that they are hitting all of the marks and should be promoted, etc.  While this might be uncomfortable to address, it enables the manager to explain in more detail what they need to see, and to give examples.  It gets everyone on the same page, which can preclude future misunderstandings.

How do you build on a competency matrix to round out a talent development strategy?

As I said upfront, a good competency matrix should be the foundation of your talent development strategy.  I’ve written a lot already, so let the diagram below show you what I mean:

screen-shot-2016-11-09-at-7-59-16-pm

If this is so great, how come some companies don’t adopt them?

Despite all of the benefits I’ve raised in this blogpost, there is often still pushback to rolling out competency matrices, specifically:

  • They are overly structured, prescriptive, and bureaucratic.
  • They require a ton of time and effort, which is in short supply at start-ups.
  • They lead to difficult conversations.

Let’s take each of these issues in turn:

Are overly structured, prescriptive, bureaucratic.

Start-up leaders often cite the “B” word – “bureaucratic” – whenever I mention codifying or standardizing things.  Nobody likes to be called that, especially when working at a start-up!  But I understand their concern:  they don’t want to lose the flexibility and freedom that are hallmarks of a start-up culture.  Which is why it’s critical that these competency matrices be open to change and evolution as the expectations of the employees change (which will happen as the needs of the business change).

Another way to avoid these from becoming bureaucratic is by allowing managers to have discretion in how they apply them. If you are too rigid in enforcement, you’ll end up stamping out the dialogue among employees, managers, and leaders about which traits are valued at the company.

 Require time & effort.

It’s true, these do take time and effort, but – depending on your size and complexity – you can take a more simplified approach.

  • Interview company leaders about the skills and behaviors they expect from their teams, what ‘great’ looks like, and how that changes with tenure. If they struggle to articulate specifics, it can be helpful for them to focus on the traits of a few high performers.  Within 20-30 minutes, you should be able to get a good sense of what matters and can pull together a high-level set of guidelines.  And you can replicate this approach from team-to-team, to create both company-wide and team-specific versions.
  • You can also crowd-source competency matrices and skills rubrics from People peers at other companies. One of the biggest benefits of working in the start-up space, in my opinion, is that we People professionals are all learning and growing together, and therefore are supportive of and helpful to each other on these types of questions.

 Lead to difficult conversations.

This is also true.  But these kinds of difficult conversations are one of the reasons we have managers – to set clear expectations, frame advancement opportunities, and guide employees when they are unsure.  And I know it’s hard, especially when speaking to an employee who is in a role that doesn’t have near-term growth opportunities, yet serves a critical function.  In these situations, managers should consult their managers (who presumably have more experience and a broader view of opportunities) or their People team for assistance.

But don’t shy away from these difficult conversations, because it’s through having these discussions that both the manager and the employee grow in their understanding of each other and what’s possible for them at the company.

What’s the impact of having competency matrices?

At the management consulting firm I worked at, it wasn’t unusual for 25 year-olds to effectively run complex project teams that included peers, MBAs, and seasoned experts, and for 29 year-olds to become partners of the firm (a significant milestone).

When I joined a start-up made up predominantly of 20-somethings, I assumed that I’d see the same pace of growth and development.  While there were 25 year-olds in leadership positions, they didn’t consistently exhibit the fundamental management practices for running a team, such as workplanning, motivating, and giving actionable feedback. This led to team members expressing the frustrations that kicked off this blogpost.

In speaking with employees, it became clear to me that they were grasping for more structure that would guide them along a growth path.  They were struggling with “the blind leading the blind”.  And as I reflected on my past experience, I realized that having a development-focused infrastructure, 360-degree reinforcement from managers, peers, and team members alike, and role models who were known to be the best people developers were key ingredients to unlocking the potential of …well…pretty much anyone, and especially those who are early in their careers.

So if that’s something that’s important to you – and I believe it is a goal for all of us — then I would advocate for building competency matrices at your company.  It takes work, yes, but hopefully I’ve convinced at least a few of you that it’s well worth the trouble.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Thach Nguyen says:

    Sue this is really fantastic, one of my favorite pieces on your blog. You did a great job of illustrating the value of these models, even in startup environments that are a bit hesitant to this type of structure.

    I have one question for you though: in my experience, one of the biggest challenges with competency matrices is that companies have limited promotional budget and new open roles. So a manager and be working really hard to achieve these developmental goals with a direct report, but only to find out from upper management: “Sorry, we can only promote 20% of the team this year and we’ve hit our max” or “The organization doesn’t have a need for another Senior-level Engineer at the moment.” This leads managers to feel crippled by “bureaucracy,” as you so eloquently state. They’ve invested a lot of work to mentor and develop their team, but they are not empowered to make the ultimate promotional decision due to organizational constraints. How do you suggest solving for that?

    Like

    1. suziechoe says:

      Hi, Tak! I’ll respond to you directly via email….

      Like

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