Why and how your company should set communication competencies

Organizations increasingly are drawing up detailed lists of skillsets to help with hiring, job evaluations, career advancement and earning a voice among the senior leaders.

Workplace core competencies

Amid the scurry to shovel out the daily messaging or whiteboard the long-term planning, communicators often neglect a crucial question:

What are the core competencies needed to do this job?

In a competitive world, organizations must learn to map out the skillsets—”competencies” is the buzzword—that their teams must possess to succeed in a rapidly evolving industry.

“If you don’t have competencies defined, how do you define who’s doing it well?” says Mark Dollins, president of North Star Communications Consulting, who has helped Toyota Motor Corp, Visa Inc., Xerox Corp. and other clients draw up competency models.

Competencies are defined as the mix of skills, knowledge and experience needed to be a high performer, says Liam FitzPatrick, senior consultant at Quiller Consultants, in an interview from London. They can’t just be pulled out of a box, but must be adapted to fit each organization’s unique needs.

Establishing competencies takes the subjectivity out of questions such as what makes a good performance, how career advancement should occur, and what separates entry-level skills from mastery, Dollins says. Competency models also help organizations plan for future hiring needs by revealing gaps on their teams.

“Far too often, communicators are hired based on a broad set of criteria,” says Shel Holtz of Holtz Communication + Technology. “The team then sets out to implement a communications plan that requires team members to use competencies they may not have. If you can’t map the competencies of your team to the plans you’re implementing, you risk second-rate outputs—if not outright failure.”

Every organization is distinct

Multiple models abound. That is, after all, the point: Competency matrixes are individualized for companies and their talent requirements.

Organizations should establish and codify their competencies, because that process stops them from just repeating what they have always done, FitzPatrick says. Competencies open teams up to new possibilities and approaches, making teams much more agile.

“It stops you falling into the trap of just replicating yourself all the time, which has negative consequences in terms of it stifles diversity,” FitzPatrick says. “It also forces you to probably build a team that’s a lot more flexible in the face of rapid change.”

When consulting, Dollins often provides a sample list of technical competencies that North Star has produced. Here are his samples of the broad categories of technical competencies:

  • Writing, editing and positioning
  • Stakeholder engagement
  • Business and financial literacy
  • Social and digital media
  • Storytelling
  • Planning/project management
  • Issues/reputation management
  • Brand marketing
  • Research/analytics/measurement
  • Partner/agency management
  • Talent management
  • Financial management
  • Integrated marketing and communications

Upon setting its own list of competencies, the organization digs deeper, defining the skills needed and what constitutes beginner status, intermediate-level knowledge, and full mastery.

In the digital and social media arena, for example, Holtz, Dollins and Richard Binhammer collaborated to list skills that included blogging, podcasting, writing for social networking platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, storytelling, and video and infographics production.

More broadly, competencies can be sorted into three buckets (with some overlap), says Dollins.

  1. Technical competencies—such as writing and positioning, crisis communications, and stakeholder communications—are skillsets that communicators alone possess within an organization.
  2. Organizationally defined leadership competencies are those that mark the path to leadership.
  3. Behavioral or cultural competencies are softer matters, such as openness to collaboration or leading people to change.

FitzPatrick and Sue Dewhurst researched and polled internal communicators to identify 12 generic competencies that drive high performance in their field. In each area, a communicator is rated basic, intermediate or advanced.

Upon setting competencies, organizations must establish which are relevant to particular positions—and determine what level of skills is needed to do each job, FitzPatrick says.

Companies such as The BP Group and Volvo Group have created sophisticated models for competencies, FitzPatrick says. If you work anywhere in the world for Volvo or its subsidiary Mack Trucks, you will be on a development path that will take you to Volvo’s in-house “university” for training in its competency model, he says.

Promoting good, old Frank

Competency models invariably will change as the industry does. The demands for internal communicators have grown greater in the past two decades, FitzPatrick says. Twenty years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to find people in internal communications “because they were harmless” and they were going to retire in a few years, he says.

(The conversations, FitzPatrick says, tended to run along these lines: “What can we do with old Frank?” “I know, let’s make him head of internal comms.”)

Nowadays, internal communicators are sharp professionals—and executives have set high expectations for them, FitzPatrick says. Communicators often talk about earning a seat at the table, but to do so, they must understand the CEO’s goals, what the organization is trying to achieve, and how you help it achieve that through communications.

Specifically, communicators must be competent with data. “If you turn up at senior meetings without the spreadsheet, you’re just going to look like an idiot,” FitzPatrick says. “So you need to be ready to argue a point, to bring data to bear and to bring insights to bear.”

In 2013 the International Association of Business Communicators formed an international task force to research the core competencies of a communications professional, says Ginger D. Homan, chair of IABC’s International Executive Board. It established six core principles:

  • Ethics: adopting the highest standards of professional behavior in areas such as truthfulness and communicating cultural values.
  • Strategy: understanding and addressing communications challenges both within and outside the organization.
  • Analysis: evaluating how to serve and promote the organization effectively and supporting recommendations with evidence.
  • Context: having the business acumen to know one’s organization fully, from the supply chain to the financials, Homan says.
  • Engagement: identifying and communicating with employees, customers, shareholders, regulators, government agencies and others with an interest in the organization’s activities.
  • Consistency: expressing a single, consistent story for internal and external audiences.

(IABC details each point here.)

The task force also developed a career ladder, telling professionals what they should be able to do at different levels in their field. It is also planning to provide business training for communicators.

“As an employer, I can use that global standard to write job descriptions, to know what I should be looking for at different levels when hiring a communicator,” Homan says. “At the same time as a communicator, I know what I should be doing at different levels of my career.”

IABC has developed a certification exam to enable people to test themselves at one of two levels.

‘I see you think you’re a guru’

Self-testing is at the core of competencies, and it serves as a tool in evaluations, Dollins says. The employee ranks him- or herself, and a manager scores the employee. They then compare notes.

In some cases, Dollins says, the manager might say, ‘Hey, I see you think you’re a guru in writing and editing. I think you’re more mid-career. Let’s talk about why that is and where I need to see greater skill application.” Alternatively, the news might cheer a communicator with low self-esteem: “You’re actually rating yourself lower than I would.”

Either way, a competency model helps employees and leaders view development through a consistent lens. Similarly, it lends consistency to interdepartmental assessments, so that an organization has an established standard for defining the writing skills of an employee seeking to transfer from marketing to PR.

Competencies can also help individuals determine what skills they should master at a given point in their career.

“The communicator of the future is going to have to be far more strategic and deliberate in managing his or her career,” Dollins says.

As new channels and technologies transform communications, the need to develop and update competencies grows more urgent, Holtz says.

“Ultimately, there are only three ways to acquire the competencies you need: hire someone who has them, train someone already on the team, or outsource,” Holtz says. “But just hoping your team has the right competencies is a recipe for disaster.”


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