How to incorporate competencies in your startup’s recruitment process

Competencies are employee behaviours, skills or attributes that research has shown to directly affect performance. In a knowledge-based world, where many startups operate, it’s not just about “what you do,” but rather “how you do it” that impacts both corporate and personal performance. The more complex the job, the higher the impact competencies have on performance.

Expensive, competency-based management has long been the luxury of large multinational players, but many believe hat in a startup environment, competencies are even more critical. This is because in a startup, operations are more fluid, requirements are ever-changing, jobs are loosely structured and everyone has a direct impact on company results.

Incorporating competencies into your startup’s recruitment process

Incorporating competencies into your startup’s recruitment process does not have to be complicated. In fact, you may already be doing it. If you look for attributes such as those below, you’re already using competencies at their most basic level:

  • Being flexible
  • Being a team player
  • Demonstrating an entrepreneurial spirit
  • Using a collaborative approach
  • Having a customer focus
  • Being able to “get things done”
  • Being innovative
  • Being an analytical or conceptual thinker
  • Possessing strong business acumen
  • Having advanced negotiating skills

You might even have some of these built right into your company values or mission statements, which are key drivers of your corporate culture.

Define key competencies clearly

A problem with generic competencies, such as those above, is that the assessment of how they are shown is extremely subjective and will vary depending on the job.

For example, two job postings may call for “strong communications skills”—one posting for the VP of sales and the other for the receptionist position. While the statement is true for both jobs, the expectation is completely different.

Using clarifiers that clearly set the expectations of how the skill would be demonstrated will help you recruit the right skills and manage performance more effectively. For instance, candidates and employees would better understand the expectations of these communication skills if the generic competency was replaced with:

  1. VP Sales: “Strong communication skills to influence executive-level stakeholders and negotiate complex, global contracts”
  2. Receptionist: “Strong communication skills to make visitors feel welcome, listen and understand requests for information, respond clearly and concisely, and keep staff updated on changes to the event schedule”

Recruit carefully: Some competencies are innate and hard to teach

Some skills are more deeply embedded in who we are and thus much more difficult to develop or train. One can teach a person who has analytic skills to review a list of calculations—but it is much more difficult (and sometimes impossible) to teach someone to be analytical.

As well, many behavioural competencies are correlated. By focusing on a few key ones, others are more likely to occur naturally. For example, those who demonstrate a high degree of customer focus are also likely to be highly flexible.

In your startup’s position descriptions and job postings, define key attributes based on how they’ll be applied. This will help you set the bar within your startup and improve your bottom line.

Spencer, L.M. & Spencer, S.M. (1993). Competence at Work: Models for Superior Performance. United States: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.