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Consult Your Competencies to Tell Your Tale

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison explains how to understand competencies and articulate experiences.

Chances are, you’ve probably been asked at some point in your career what motivates you. It’s a popular question that can help people understand your personality traits and drivers. But what you may not have been asked is what makes you successful. The question seems straightforward, and yet most people can’t answer it. They fumble around, describing what they’ve done. But they have no idea that they should be providing insight into their core competencies and highlighting some of their experiences.

These two assessment areas aren’t who you are. Rather, they comprise the core of what you do—the skills and abilities that are essential to your success, and the story you tell based on what you’ve accomplished.

Unlike personality traits, competencies can be intentionally developed over time.

Competencies are a combination of natural talent and functional and technical skills. For example, if you’re in finance, then having strong financial acumen is a big part of your competency. Unlike personality traits, which often are “hard-wired” parts of us, competencies can be intentionally developed over time and built up as part of a particular job assignment. Some are harder to develop, but with the right motivation and support, nearly everyone can make progress on core competencies.

It’s a tricky concept. So here are some examples of competencies, grouped by category according to how they can help you achieve results and realize success:

Thought competencies

These include being able to anticipate and balance the needs of multiple stakeholders, cultivate innovation, and have strategic vision—seeing ahead to future possibilities and translating them into breakthrough strategies.

Results competencies

These competencies comprise how you drive results. Maybe you’re competent at planning and prioritizing work to meet commitments aligned with organizational goals, or you’re extremely accountable.

People competencies

In every organization, these are the individuals who develop talent, create a climate in which people are motivated to do their best, or manage conflict extremely well. Or maybe they’re masters of persuasion, using compelling arguments to gain the support and commitment of others.

Self competencies

These competencies sometimes overlap with personality traits: possessing the courage to step up and address difficult situations, being nimble to continue to learn, or having the ability to manage ambiguity—or operate effectively even when the way forward isn’t clear.

Once you’ve identified your competencies, it’s time to articulate them through your experiences. While there’s no surprise about what you’ve done—the roles you’ve held, the assignments you’ve tackled—most people don’t fully appreciate what experiences are meant to do.

Simply put, experiences transcend job titles. Whether someone is a front-line manager or a senior vice president is less relevant than what he or she has accomplished. Too many times, people try to tick off experiences like a grocery list of what they’ve done, instead of summarizing their progression. Remember: your experiences should tell a story about you and your career path—not a play-by-play of it.

I once had a client named Bert, who had amazing leadership experiences in the military and the business world. But when I asked him to tell me about himself, it became a long, one-sided conversation. He launched into a discussion of his experiences in great detail—a long litany of everything he had done. For 36 minutes (yes, I timed it) Bert talked at me. Not to me. This was not a meaningful discussion of experiences; it was a filibuster.

Amassing experiences is akin to strength training at the gym: the weight and repetitions both matter. Heavyweight jobs are those that include high visibility, a risk of failure, ambiguity, and a broad scope of responsibility. The more difficult and perspective-broadening the experience, the faster it bulks up your leadership competencies. But depth of experience matters as well.

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