Some management fads sound so reasonable, it's hard to believe they don't actually work. Take, for example, the increasingly popular addiction to "competencies." Presumably, competencies are a way to evaluate a sales representative's performance, which then helps management design a road map to develop that person's potential. Admittedly, most of us would rather be thought of as competent than incompetent. But when competencies are applied to sales professionals, this developmental approach is more likely to erode performance than to improve it.

How can that be? After all, the very notion of being competent sounds so appealing.

First, let's consider how competencies are intended to work. Supposedly, even complex roles like leadership, management, or selling can be broken down to a finite series of individual tasks or skill sets. For sales, the skill sets might include things like meeting new customers, discovering customer needs, analyzing their buying habits, asking for the order, following up, and letter writing.

In many organizations, these lists of competencies are generated by senior executives who sit around a conference table and throw out their ideas, or through focus groups with top performers. If you've participated in one of these sessions, you know firsthand that these lists can get very long very fast; it's not uncommon to end up with anywhere from 50 to 150 items. The irony is that although each top performer only does one or two things well, everyone is expected to perform all 50 items excellently.

Once they have the list in hand, sales managers are supposed to evaluate a rep on these numerous items and create a development plan based on that individual's "needs" (read: weaknesses). In practice, a manager determines what parts of the job the sales rep performs well and what parts she performs poorly, then focuses the rep's attention on getting better at those tasks she performs poorly. Once the salesperson has mastered the selected competency, she moves on to the next area until she has become skilled in every competency and ends up a complete salesperson. Or so the theory goes.

Flawed assumptions
We find little evidence that supports competencies. If competencies really worked, we should see numerous examples of increased productivity and profitability as any given sales force becomes more and more competent. But so far, we haven't seen that happen with any companies we know of that have embraced competencies.

Why not?

It's because the competency model has several fundamentally flawed assumptions. The first misconception is that the best salespeople have actually mastered all those intricate competencies on the list. But when we examined the best performing sales reps as part of our research for Discover Your Sales Strengths, we found little evidence of this perfectly competent salesperson. Rather, we observed that the very best salespeople often used very different sales approaches--and often had relatively glaring weaknesses.

The second flawed assumption is that managers can improve performance by telling salespeople how to do their jobs instead of defining what outcomes they must achieve. The best managers we interviewed were careful to manage with an eye toward results, not methods. These great sales managers found that talented salespeople were often motivated by more autonomy--not less--especially in how they approached their jobs.

Here's a big irony: Most great salespeople went into sales so they wouldn't have to put up with the kind of micromanagement that is at the very heart of the competency model.

The third problem is that most competency models tend to treat different areas of behavior as if they all contributed equally to sales success. Submitting a timely expense report might be deemed as important as exceeding the sales budget. Too often, performance reviews focus on trivial issues instead of providing adequate recognition for real successes. If you were managing a race car driver, would you want him to think that not scratching the car was just as important as winning the race?

Additionally, too many competency models don't incorporate objective measurement. Consequently, a manager often has to use highly subjective means to determine whether a sales rep has "formed close relationships with key customers," or whatever the competency happens to be. Realistically, no manager can evaluate someone on 50 individual items with any real accuracy. As a result, the salesperson frequently disagrees with the manager's rating, even though she may feign agreement. This ends up eroding the relationship between a manager and a salesperson rather than enhancing it.

Finally, many kinds of work (e.g., sales, management, and leadership) are driven more by an individual's innate talents than by skills that can be acquired. That's not to say skills aren't helpful; of course they are. But lacking the appropriate talents, people aren't likely to improve their performance by focusing on skills. We often found that one of the biggest issues in unproductive sales organizations is related to talent deficiency. Even in the best sales forces, we found that 35 percent of the sales reps didn't have the talents required to be successful on a day-to-day basis. No amount of competency training will help these salespeople improve. Imagine taking people with limited artistic talent and putting them through program after program, teaching them to paint by the numbers. Your efforts won't produce a team of world-class artists.

Failed development efforts
When a manager rates an employee poorly on a given competency then spends time working with that person, the manager frequently rates that competency higher on the next evaluation. Managers are reluctant to admit that their own development efforts have failed, so they simply give that competency a higher rating. However, we don't find any linkages from these improved rankings to improved performance in key outcome measures.

We can tell you with absolute certainty from our research that improving business outcomes is directly linked to developing people's talents into strengths. Too often, competency programs focus on weaknesses. In that regard, such programs should be more appropriately called "incompetence" programs, although we agree that's not a very catchy program title.

One outstanding example highlighting the differences between the competency approach and the strengths-based approach was reported to us while we were researching Discover Your Sales Strengths. A sales manager recounted to us the first time he worked with one of the best reps in his company:

"Tom had a reputation for producing exceptional results year after year," said the manager, "so I was really looking forward to working with him. However, when we made our first sales call, I thought I was being set up for some kind of practical joke. I had never heard anyone give such a clumsy presentation. It was so bad, I was tempted to grab the product out of Tom's hand and continue the presentation myself. Much to my surprise, as Tom concluded his rambling explanation, the customer just shook her head and agreed to bring in a trial order. On the second sales call, I saw more of the same. Over the next few days, I realized this was no practical joke. Tom gave substandard presentations."

Had this manager been forced to use a competency model, he would have sent Tom packing to sales school to polish his presentations. But this manager was more inclined to try to understand what Tom's talents and strengths were and see if he could build on them.

He quickly realized that Tom's customers didn't really mind his clumsy presentations at all. Why? Because Tom was able to develop an important relationship with his customers--one based on trust. He was always careful when looking at a new account to make sure he started with a product that would be exactly right for the customer. Once Tom made an initial sale, he was frequently able to expand the business because of that trust, not because of stellar presentations.

The manager suggested to Tom that his current customers might be more than willing to help him find new accounts, and as it turned out, some were very willing to help him. Because they trusted Tom, they were happy to give him referrals, and Tom's results improved even more. By contrast, getting Tom to follow the "perfect script" for his presentations would have come across as unnatural, and more than likely, would have diminished his customers' trust.

Putting our data and experiences aside for a moment, ask yourself a few simple questions: Would you rather work for a manager who consistently helps you improve your strongest areas of talent or one who constantly focuses on your areas of least talent? Which manager would you go through a brick wall for? Which manager would get the best productivity from you? It shouldn't be a surprise to you that most highly productive salespeople will answer these simple questions the same way.

Yes, every one of those highly productive salespeople has some areas of lesser talent--areas in which they may be incompetent. Just don't make the mistake of making a big deal about it.

About the Authors
Benson Smith is a consultant, speaker, and author for The Gallup Organization and an expert in the area of sales force effectiveness. Tony Rutigliano is a senior managing consultant, speaker, and author for The Gallup Organization and an expert in the areas of sales force effectiveness, organizational effectiveness, and talent assessment. Smith and Rutigliano are coauthors of Discover Your Sales Strengths: How the World's Greatest Salespeople Develop Winning Careers (Warner Books, February 2003).

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