January 5, 2015
Managing the Movement Part I: Building Competence

There were a number of highly practical Situational Leadership® “sound bites” that Dr. Paul Hersey coined over the years, and we would argue none have withstood the test of time better than this one:

  • “…things are either getting better, or they are getting worse, nothing stays the same.”
He typically used that line to introduce the concepts of Development and Regression. And as we know:
  • Development” is characterized by the growth and incremental improvement an individual demonstrates when they are learning how to perform a new task
  • Regression” is characterized by the decreasing motivation an individual has to continue performing a task for which they have demonstrated at least some level of mastery

In that regard, we would suggest that leaders in organizations today add value by effectively “Managing the Movement” of the people on their teams or in their departments. Stated in terms of the definitions provided, they act as catalysts for growth and development and, if need be, road blocks for regression.

This blog is the first in a three-part series on “Managing the Movement” and will focus upon building competence. To that point, let’s get another definition out of the way:

  • Competence/Ability is the knowledge, experience and skill that an individual or group demonstrates in a particular task or activity

Now, it’s probably human nature to read a definition with three components and infer that each should receive proportionate emphasis. For the record, allow us to ensure you that is not the case. Think of this definition in the context of making a hiring decision. Most resumes are developed to provide prospective employers with a compelling overview of a job candidate’s qualifications. Where that individual was educated certainly counts for something. Same goes for where they have worked and what they have accomplished while doing so over time. But typically the demonstrable skill a candidate “brings to the party” is the distinguishing factor in his or her selection. Much the same with our definition (i.e. Demonstrated skill trumps task-related knowledge or experience every time).

So, as it applies to your efforts as a leader to build the competence of those you are attempting to influence, we ask that you keep these critical points in mind:

  1. Potential is not Competence
    • Potential and competence are related, but they are by no means synonymous. Potential represents a future state. It is something that may or may not be realized. Conversely, competence is a function of the here and now. It is something you can point to, verify, tangibly assess and document

Leaders who confuse potential with competence assume that because someone was so verifiably good at doing that, they will undoubtedly be able to do this, as well. Further, because they were, in all likelihood, experiencing a hands-off, empowering approach while they were doing that, they wouldn’t respond well to anything remotely resembling structure when it comes to doing this.

This pattern of thinking frequently leads to what we will refer to as “premature delegation.” The consequences of this potential mismatch are both predictable and expensive (i.e. less than desirable results; decreased levels of engagement; potential turnover; etc.).

Leaders need to exercise task-specific diagnostic discipline with experienced employees taking on new responsibilities and treat them where they are … not where they have the potential to be!

  1. Developing Competence Takes Time
    • Consider the question leaders have been asked since the beginning of time (we think) by well-meaning bosses: “How long do you think it’s going to take to get Jerry up to speed?” The short answer (of course) is that it depends. And primarily it depends upon two key variables:
      1. The task (a.k.a. whatever Jerry needs to get up to speed on)
      2. Jerry

The more complicated the task the longer the cycle of development (this may hit you as a blinding flash of the obvious, but it bears mentioning). As you consider the graphic below, the journey from low to high competence for a routine task may well take hours instead of days, weeks or, in some cases, months.

In addition to the task itself the leader needs to critically assess Jerry. Even though Jerry may not have demonstrated performance history with the task in question he may well possess what have come to be referred to as transferable skills. 

Transferable skills are skills that can be effectively allocated across a range of tasks or activities. In effect they provide a useful head start in the process of developing competence.

For instance, if Jerry has acute levels of hand-eye coordination, it stands to reason he will learn how to play ping pong faster (and better) than most of the rest of us. Or if Jerry has facilitated 100 Situational Leadership® programs around the world over the last three years with rave reviews, chances are he can leverage the platform skills he has developed in the process when he is asked to learn how to facilitate a workshop on Change or Conflict Resolution.

With those thoughts in mind we would suggest developing competence is a predictable and methodical evolutionary process that flows from Alignment through Enhancement to Mastery with practical implications for leaders along the way.

  • Alignment – With lower levels of competence it is important for the leader to provide the learner with the benefit of their experience and align expectations for development. It can be thought of as an “orientation” or “on-boarding” for the task in question. During this phase, Jerry will begin to assemble the building blocks for skill demonstration. Typically that entails observing, practicing, receiving and understanding feedback provided by the leader on incremental progress
  • Enhancement – With a properly established foundation the learner adds depth (more building blocks) and perspective. Typically, feedback provided from the leader is translated into increased accuracy and efficiency (i.e. better results in less time). The exchanges between leader and learner during this phase are gradually characterized by increasing amounts of discussion (i.e. why the task is important; how the task fits into the bigger picture; suggestions from the learner on improvements; etc.)
  • Mastery – At high levels of competence (lots of blocks), the learner becomes the leader. Performance of the task becomes a matter of routine execution with comparatively limited prep time. Discussion between the leader and the learner is characterized by the learner providing insight to the leader on best practices that merit consideration

BOTTOM LINE: There are practical guidelines leaders can follow to accelerate the development of task-related competence or ability. Our next blog in the “Managing the Movement” series will focus upon Developing Willingness (task-specific confidence, commitment and motivation).

We Are The Center for Leadership Studies – We Build Leaders™!


Consider an employee that currently reports to you (i.e. Jerry). Now focus in on a task that individual is in the process of mastering:
  1. Are you currently leading this person in a manner that accurately reflects where they are as compared to where they have the potential to be?
  2. Assess this individual’s task-specific competence using the graphic above (Alignment? Enhancement? Mastery?). Identify one thing you could start doing, stop doing or do more of to help this individual “build more blocks.”