Last week I suggested that the talent shortage could be eliminated by hiring for results not skills and years of experience. This week I’m suggesting that generic competencies be thrown in the same wastebasket as those skills-infested job descriptions. Here’s why.

At a recent webcast on using the Performance-based Interview, a woman asked whether assessing Emotional Intelligence (EQ) skills was a good technique.

Last month, a VP hiring 10 global health scientists wanted to hire only PhDs with excellent verbal and written communication skills.

A national sales manager launching a new product line demanded reps who had a “can do” attitude.

On a big hiring project 10 years ago one prerequisite for bank tellers was the ability to multi-task. This was also the same requirement for a manager on a huge construction project.

On most job descriptions posted online you’ll discover some combination of these “must have” competencies: leadership, drive, cultural fit, team skills, confidence, ethics, positive attitude and technical competency. The problem is every company has a competency model with some version of the exact same requirements. The bigger problem is that everyone uses their own technique to measure them.

Surprisingly, I cannot find one study that suggests that the use of generic competency models has helped companies hire better people. There’s no question that a structured interview focusing on these competencies will minimize hiring errors due to emotional biases or superficial intuitive judgments. But it’s incorrect on a root cause basis to assign this positive benefit to the use of competency models. The benefits in this case are due to minimizing emotionally-charged decisions. Taking the person on a 30-minute tour of the factory or having a cup of coffee in the cafeteria before the interview started would have had the same impact.

Aside from the lack of proof, here are some other reasons to support my contention that the use of classic competency models has not resulted in better hires:

  1. They’re filled with too much vision and hope, and not enough practicality. Everyone wants to hire top people, and top people all possess the competencies described in some form. But having them doesn’t mean the person will be successful in your company doing the actual work required with the resources available, working for the assigned manager and his/her unique style, and working in your company’s unique culture with all of the associated pressures, systems, procedures and personalities.
  2. They’re too generic. What do cultural fit, leadership and all of the other competencies actually mean on the job? If you don’t define this clearly in relationship to the job, you leave it up to the interviewer’s judgment to make the assessment.
  3. They’re not complete. Success in most positions requires a person to collaborate with others, meet deadlines and budgets, plan and organize work, meet all commitments without making excuses, produce high quality work, operate with the resources available, meet all performance objectives, and train and develop others, to name the most important. I find it surprising that these important performance-based competencies are left out of most standard competency models.
  4. They’re difficult to accurately assess. Conducting an interview is hard work. That’s why most people revert to one of three classic approaches: the intuitive, the technical and the emotional. Each is flawed, and without specific guidance for the interviewer to evaluate the required competency in some way, the competency itself has no practical value.

The simple simple solution: ask the hiring manager how the competency will be used on the job. Here’s how this technique was applied for some of the competencies mentioned above.

  • EQ became “collaborate closely with engineering, operations and product marketing to prepare a product roadmap.”
  • Strong communication skills became “prepare one-page summaries of the ongoing research for presentation to the executive team at the monthly project review meetings.”
  • Leadership became “develop and implement a talent acquisition strategy that directly addresses the worldwide skills gap for our critical positions.”
  • Drive for results became “despite a very tight schedule, complete the project design and testing program within 120 days.”
  • Technical brilliance became “reengineer the injection molding product and tool design to increase capacity by 20% by the end of Q4.”

To determine if the candidate is both competent and motivated to do the work described first ask The Most Important Interview Question of All Time. This involves spending 10-15 minutes digging into the person’s most comparable accomplishment. Then, ask The Second Most Important Question of All Time and explore how he or she would go about achieving the objective. These two questions will give you the information needed to determine if the candidate has the ability to successfully complete the assignment.

Competencies, behaviors and skills are important attributes to consider when hiring for any job, but are terrible predictors of performance without a proper measurement technique. The solution is simple: define how these traits are actually used on the job. This takes slightly more work upfront, but it saves hours every week if you hire the wrong person.


Lou Adler (@LouA) is the CEO of The Adler Group, a consulting and training firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring. He's also a regular columnist for Inc. Magazine and BusinessInsider. His latest book, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013), provides hands-on advice for job-seekers, hiring managers and recruiters on how to find the best job and hire the best people. You can continue the conversation on LinkedIn's Essential Guide for Hiring Discussion Group.