Optimize Your Competencies for More Effective Feedback

What should Feedback focus on?

Feedback should focus on the behaviors that drive success for the individual and the company. This sounds a bit obvious and trivial but it’s the first place people often mess up when trying to provide feedback.

The key to doing this right is making sure you define what employee actions drive success. Most successful companies know and understand what employee behaviors lead to success. In an ideal world, the drivers of success are summarized in what HR Managers call a Competency Model. The term alone is dry enough to put most people to sleep, but stick with us here — there’s something useful buried in the nomenclature.

Competency models are standard in larger companies, but for smaller companies, including the amazing early stage startups First Round invests in, taking the time to thoughtfully construct a competency model is rare. For the sake of simplicity though, let’s just think of a competency model as a collection of all the drivers — the core things you do — that make you successful in your job. If your company does not have a competency model, no worries, we will explain how to work around this in a practical manner.

So let’s say you’re an awesome tech startup that’s growing fast. Here is an example of a Competency Model for the role of a First Level Manager who oversees a team of software developers:

1. Delegating Tasks: Empowering direct reports to execute well defined tasks and projects

2. Creating a Performance Environment: Setting clear and actionable goals for the team and measuring team success

3. Coaching: Helping direct reports to acquire important skills and use them on the job

4. Planning and Project Management: Planning and managing complex projects and tasks

5. Helping to Embrace Change: Helping others in the organization to cope with changing processes and requirements

6. Providing Feedback: Providing useful feedback to direct reports

7. Driving for Results: Being productive at work and completing work in a timely manner

8. Taking Charge: Proactively addressing and solving problems

This is just an example. Competency models can vary greatly from role to role and company to company, but this should give you an idea of what one might look like for the typical first level manager role. Usually a competency model exists for all job roles and levels.

Aiming feedback at the competencies

So now that we have a model, we know where our feedback should be focused.

Yes, there will be times where feedback is involved outside the model — it is great for any person to hear that your effort saved the day, but it is even more critical to understand how one is doing regarding the everyday critical behaviors — the behaviors described in the competency model. These are the behaviors that don’t stick out and that may go unnoticed but they’re the things that over time truly drive success. However, if we get our competency model right, these behaviors do not go unnoticed because now feedback providers know what they need to look for and are more attentive to what matters.

Once a company knows what behaviors drive success and has codified it in a model they have a blueprint of what behaviors to reinforce, develop, and provide feedback on.

Aiming Feedback at the right level

Imagine someone asks you to be more extroverted. It is hard to change that. In contrast, imagine someone gives you feedback that you often don’t inform the team about a change that affects them. This feedback aims at behavior and can be controlled through our actions.

Using competencies for feedback is a great start, but it doesn’t do the whole job. You also have to ensure that you give feedback at the right level.

A competency model is basically structured like a pyramid. At the bottom are intelligence, personality, towards the top are skills, knowledge, and behaviors. At the bottom of the pyramid are increasingly immutable characteristics. This is what you hire for because it either cannot be changed or takes intense prolonged effort to change. At the top are the skills that companies can develop and improve through feedback for example.

A good competency in a competency model should have 3–5 observable behaviors. For example, Coaching is made up of setting expectations, modeling the desired behavior, offering support, and so forth. This is key — focusing on competencies means focusing on actions. And this is where all feedback should focused. Feedback that focuses on personality or intelligence is hard to act upon.

Imagine someone asks you to be more extroverted. It is hard to change that. In contrast, imagine someone gives you feedback that you often don’t inform the team about a change that affects them. This feedback aims at behavior and can be controlled through our actions.

Finding the right competencies for a job

Competency models have many advantages. Virtually every talent management activity benefits from them. Competency models can be used as a template for new hires (what to look for), training and development (what skills to train) and succession management (what behaviors are expected in a senior role).

For the purpose of feedback, Competency models allow users to focus their feedback at the relevant performance areas. After all, competencies are collections of behaviors that are relevant for success.

We believe a sound competency model is the keystone that holds all talent management activity together. Building a competency model can be time consuming and for some companies it is a very political process. Defining what drives success is not always a straightforward conversation.

What if you don’t have a competency model? What if Talent Managers in your organization are busy with other things at the moment? We believe managers can create a partial or functional competency model for their direct reports. While it is ideal to create a competency model with the help of Talent Managers or external consultant, a “home-made”, feedback-focused competency model is better than nothing.

Creating your own feedback-focused competency model

This brings us back to the folks that don’t have a competency model. Don’t sweat, even without a formal model you can take advantage of this structure with a relatively simple exercise:

Start with the by asking yourself the key question: What behaviors, as in the observable things people do, drive success for our team? If your answer is for example “communication” or “focusing on the customer”, try to break it down further into observable behaviors. For communication, it could be: “The employee explains complex issue in a way that lay-people can explain”. For customer orientation if could be: “The employee asks questions to fully understand a problem raised by customer”. Force yourself to describe the success factors in observable terms. A bad example is: “The employee plans complex projects well”. Better: “The employee breaks a complex project into manageable elements”.

Getting started

Once you have a feedback-focused competency model in place, share it with your direct reports. It expresses your expectations and often direct reports can make meaningful additions. At the very least it should open the discussion regarding what is important for success. It’s also worth mentioning that it doesn’t have to be called a competency model! You can label it as your team’s core values or commitments .