Competency models or experiences models?

by 13 Apr 2010

Which is a better model to use when hiring high performers? David Creelman investigates

In HR we pay attention to skills, knowledge and competencies. However, we may undervalue a much vaguer attribute: someone’s experiences. The word “experiences” connotes something different than the word “experience.” When we ask about someone’s experience we expect an answer like “They have five years experience in marketing.” When we ask about experiences we expect an answer like “They’ve been in a turnaround situation” or “They’ve lived overseas.” Experiences are important, maybe even more important than skills, knowledge and competencies.

Competencies, Experience and Experiences

It is worth remembering that one of the reasons competencies were invented was that experience is not a useful criterion for finding high performers. The research on competencies showed that a competency like Analytical Thinking can be predictive of high performance, so we should use that as a hiring criterion rather than looking at how many years of experience someone has in a particular job. Experience may be useful as an initial screening tool to get a shortlist of candidates, but that’s about all. The trouble with experience is that it’s a very blunt concept. Two people, each of whom have five years experience in marketing, may have had radically different experiences. It is the specific experiences that provide some real insight into a person.

Now, it is probably true that when hiring people into relatively junior roles, competencies are the most important attribute for distinguishing average performers from high performers. However, in more senior jobs competencies may not be such a big part of the answer. If you are hiring a sales representative you may be quite happy to hire a person with high potential who will grow into the job. However, if you are hiring a VP of sales to lead the company into challenging new markets you want someone with proven capability to do precisely that job. For senior jobs you often cannot afford to have someone who will, due to lack of the right experiences, botch a major project. They may have loads of competencies, but if they have never done what you need them to do before then what are the chances they will get it right on the first try?

Experiences Models

We are all familiar with competency models, but perhaps what we need for more senior jobs are experiences models. We need to be very clear about what kind of experiences the person needs to have had to be a high performer in the role. Just as there are hundreds of possible competencies there will be hundreds of possible experiences, but some typical ones for managers might include:

• Has experience in managing through a serious downturn

• Has experience in a start-up

• Has lived and worked in a foreign country

• Has managed an important strategic alliance

The experiences model can be just as valuable a tool for guiding hiring and development as a competency model.

But aren’t experiences just ways of developing competencies? Can’t we stick with the one view, the competency model? I don’t think so. Experiences are rich, deep and complex. There are a thousand things you learn working in a start-up and they don’t boil down into a few simple competencies or skills or pieces of knowledge. If you are running a start-up there is no substitute for hiring a senior team where at least a few of the people have had experiences in start-ups.

Broader Implications

When thinking about hiring or succession planning we probably want to have a specific experiences model and use that to guide selection and development. But there is a more general way of thinking about this. Maybe the most important thing in any person’s development is the experiences they have. Experiences need to be varied and challenging; and people should be given a chance to reflect on and learn from those experiences.

Training professionals tend to value knowledge and skills over experiences because they can’t deliver experiences in a classroom. The same is true of formal education. If we were to reform the education process we would do well to think more about how to expose youth to the right kind of experiences not just classroom training. In organisations, managers should be constantly thinking about the experiences they are allowing their employees to have. If they have varied and challenging experiences they will become much more capable individuals. A manager owes that to their employees.

David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research, providing writing, research and commentary on human-capital management. He can be reached at